Thursday, July 20, 2006

Mortal Coil: From Concept to Product

This is quite long, but may be of some interest to anyone doing publishing. It's mostly about timing and process.

The story of Mortal Coil begins quite some time ago, back before I had published The Legend of Yore. In those days, we were playing a lot of Vampire, and my group had grown quite sick of the system, especially my friend Glenn. One day, he threw down his dice in frustration after a soaked damage roll and declared he would never play Vampire again (our group's very own 'System Does Matter' moment). I started work on a supernatural game based on The Legend of Yore percentile mechanic, and in a few months we converted our Vampire characters and were playing this new game. For the next ten years or so I worked on it off and on, and by about 2003 it was still a percentile system, very combat heavy with simple skill rolls and big, big lists of various types of creatures and powers. Then I discovered the Forge.

I was polishing off Bulldogs! at around that time, and once that was done I turned my attention to the various innovative mechanics I was reading in the indie games I found associated with the Forge. I decided to go a fairly radical direction with Mortal Coil, and jettisoned pretty much all of the work I had done on it to date and reimagined the system entirely. Creature lists, power lists, disad lists, and ultimately, skill lists all got the axe. When I was done and had started on the new framework, it was not the same game. The lesson I take from this is that you should never be afraid to throw something out, no matter how long you have been working on it.

I had a rough version done last year and ran a few sessions with some local friends. It was very clunky and had a lot of problems. Then, I drove out to Origins with Thor Olavsrud, and on the long drive we talked about the game a great deal. He gave me lots of excellent advice. After Origins, I started to think about what my next project should be now that I was pretty much done dealing with Bulldogs!. I had three or four game concepts on my plate, all in various stages of development. I always work this way, actually, because if I work to intensively on one project I start to get bored and burned out. I then turn my attention to a new game and refresh myself before delving back into the original project. When I looked at all of the projects I had cooking, I decided to finish Mortal Coil because it was the one that was closest to being done.

Once I had settled on that, I thought about the coming year. Given the state of the rules, I thought I could get it all done for the 2006 convention season, and launch it by Origins, or GenCon at the latest if there were problems. Once I had my final release date in place, I started planning backwards to set deadlines for myself. I figured in about a month for the printing, which meant submission of files by June 1 if I was to make Origins. Back from there, I factored two months for layout and proofing, and a month before that for editing. Using this schedule, I knew I had to have a final draft of the rules by the beginning of March.

At this point I also started planning for the layout. I had an idea of how I wanted the book to look, and I had decided to try to get Jennifer Rodgers to do the art. I wanted all of the art to come from a single artist, and having worked with her on Bulldogs!, I knew Jenn was fast and reliable, and I also knew her color work looked great. She was busy during the fall, but I didn't plan on being finished with the writing until the winter anyway, and she put this project on her schedule for February. After discussing what I wanted, she estimated that the project would take roughly a month for her to complete.

I started working hard on finishing the rules and getting them ready for publication. I wanted to start playtesting by November. I didn't make that deadline, but I had a playtest version finished by December, and ran it with my own group. During the playtest process I was continually editing the game. In January, I ran it again at NerdNYC's Recess game-day. I had two sessions and a full table both times. During these sessions, I identified some really problematic issues with the rules as written, and corrected these before I ran the game again at the Dreamation convention. The Dreamation playtest went very well, and included Nathan Paoletta, Alexander Newman, Thor Olavsrud, Keith Senkowski, and Mayuran Tiruchelvam, all of whom had extremely useful feedback after the game.

I began the final, hard edit of the game. I was pretty ruthless at this stage. There were a lot if things in the game that were not strictly necessary, and I threw them all out. If something seemed redundant or I felt it was an extension of the rules meant to deal with some minor exception or other, I axed it. I have never been so severe in an edit before. I cut whole pages out of the book. When I was done, I felt like I had stripped the rules right down to where they needed to be. It wasn't an entirely comfortable experience, but the rules came out much better because of it. I was also getting very close to my deadline, as it was now February.

At this point, I began to work with Jennifer for the artwork. I am a pretty light hand when it comes to art direction. I gave her the basic feel I wanted for the work, basically an Art Nouveau style, which Jennifer enthusiastically agreed to. I gave her a list of about a dozen ideas for art pieces, and she agreed to do six interior color plates, the cover, and several small black-and-white decorative pieces for the layout. We negotiated timing and fees, and I agreed to pay her in three installments over the next three months. She had originally estimated a month of work, but it ended up taking nearly three times that long. I also made some fairly major changes when doing the art direction, but Jennifer was always very good with the suggestions. In the past, I have not been entirely comfortable with something in the art but not said anything. It's definitely better to speak up, that way you get exactly what you want rather than ending up unsatisfied with the work you've just paid for.

While this was happening in February, Mayuran had taken the playtest draft and ran a game for his group. This outside playtest was invaluable. The issues they were unclear on were ones I obviously needed to explain better in the text, and I made changes based on this feedback. He also had several very excellent suggestions about theme creation that made the whole thing really click. He suggested adding in Situation and Villains to the theme document building section, which suddenly makes the theme extremely relevant, and moving from these steps directly into character passions ties the whole game together. It had been good before, but Mayuran's suggestions made the game move up to the next level.

Jenn had done one piece by the end of February, and I had a final draft ready to send to my editor, Charlie Hogan, by mid-March, a bit behind deadline. I sent him the file and he began to go through it. Like Ron, I pretty much take all edits at this stage. I rarely ignore one of Charlie's suggestions, and it has to be something that I feel quite strongly about saving. A couple of Mayuran's suggestions got added in after this stage, but all of the post-edit changes were pretty minor. Charlie is a very detail-oriented man, and he did a great job with Mortal Coil by pointing out where important details were buried in the middle of a paragraph. Many of his edits were to pull out and emphasize some important rule. Charlie had never played the game, nor has he ever played any new school indie game. He was pretty amazed at some of the rules, and was constantly telling me he had never seen an RPG do some of the things the Mortal Coil rules did (I knew better, of course, since I had used just about every indie game idea I ever liked). Actually, the fact that he was completely new not just to the game, but to this type of game, helped a lot. His edits made the rules far more clear and readable than they would have been otherwise.

While Charlie was editing, more art was rolling in. I began to play around with my preliminary layout in InDesign, using the intro chapter to set the page parameters and play with margins and the like. As I did this, I gave Jenn direction on the layout art, since I had a pretty good idea at this point what I was going to need. Jenn put the finishing touches on the art in mid-May, and the final edit came in and I made all the changes in the Word file of the game book. I loaded the game up in InDesign, and began to lay it out. I had all but two images now, and I had Jennifer do the token movement diagrams for me at this time. I built all of those images myself in Photoshop using Jennifer's character sheet, a token graphic, and an arrow graphic that she had prepared for me.

I gave myself a whole weekend to do the final layout of the book, and I was done in about three days with all the final art in. Luckily, Mortal Coil isn't very long, and it was pretty easy to do. The last two steps were the table of contents and the index. I indexed the book by hand on paper at first, going through the book page by page and noting terms and page numbers. I then typed in and sorted the terms in Excel. I then imported the list into InDesign and layed out the index. The book was ready for printing, and I wrote a back cover blurb and loaded it in over Jennifer's image in Photoshop. Time was short, it was the last week of May, and I had arranged to get the files over to RPI that week.

Just before I sent them, I realized I had used the wrong page size in my layout. I changed the page size parameters (which included the margins), and then had to go through and re-lay out the book with the new settings. This only took a day, luckily (man, InDesign is so much easier to work with than PageMaker, which I used to lay out Bulldogs!), and I sent in the files, right on schedule, at the end of May.

The printer had some trouble with the cover image, and Jennifer had to resize it. After this change went in, RPI printed me a proof and sent it out. I got this in the first week of June. I noticed a couple of things I didn't like in the table of contents (things had gotten squished when I changed the page size at the last minute), and I decided I didn't like my original back cover blurb. I submitted these changes, and RPI ripped another proof. Rather than wait for it to be shipped to me, I went over the changes with my rep at RPI, and approved over the phone. This is a bit risky, but I have dealt with RPI enough that I trust them, and my old rep was very competent and detail-oriented. She is no longer with RPI, sadly, and I haven't worked with her replacement enough to know if he is the same sort of person.

Anyway, printing approved, they ran the job, with the completion taking place the Friday before Origins. Once the job was submitted, I started taking pre-orders on IPR. I knew that they weren't going to get the boxes to me in time for Origins, so I arranged for a fast shipment of 30 books to the hotel at Origins, to arrive Wednesday. These came in good order, and I sold out at the convention. The remaining books were supposed to be shipped that same Monday and arrive while I was away at the convention, but my new RPI rep messed up the shipping, and they went out on Friday instead. This did throw a little wrench in my plans, as I had scheduled a July 4 signing with Jennifer, and the books weren't there in time. We signed them at DexCon last weekend instead.

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8 Comments:

At 3:59 PM, Blogger Thor Olavsrud said...

Thanks for sharing this, Brennan! It's fascinating to see someone else's process.

Mortal Coil is a beautiful artifact (I had a chance to glance at Alexander's copy). I'm looking forward to going through my own and seeing how it's evolved since I saw it last!

 
At 5:15 PM, Blogger Nathan P. said...

Nice post.

You and your "deadlines." You're way too organized to be a hippie game designer like the rest of us.

 
At 10:13 PM, Blogger xenopulse said...

Yeah, thanks for writing this all up. It was very insightful.

 
At 12:02 AM, Blogger Alexander said...

Great run-down, Brennan.

For the record, Keith Senkowski also played in the Dreamation test. Who's the god of war, now, bitch? Ptui!

 
At 9:50 AM, Blogger Brennan Taylor said...

Thor: Thanks! Actually, having the final product be a beautiful artifact was one of my design goals. I'm glad I met it.

Nathan: Hippies just sit on their asses and talk about publishing games all day instead of actually publishing them. :P (I know, I've been a hippie before.)

Isk: Thanks for the reminder! I will update the post to add Keith in.

 
At 6:28 PM, Anonymous mayuran said...

awesome to hear about the process. glad that our feedback was helpful too.

i've been reading over the book this week, and i think putting yourself through the ringer really paid off!

(all the credit given to me really goes to my playtest gang of jon, jason, thor, and dro since i was just the chronicler of their complaining).

 
At 7:15 PM, Blogger MDK said...

Valuable, valuable stuff. I enjoy peering into other's work processes to gain insight on my own.

Brennan, I have to confess I bought MC based on the strength of the art. "Theme" alone sold me.

 
At 8:46 PM, Blogger Brennan Taylor said...

Come for the art, stay for the game!

 

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