Filed under: Ron Edwards
This is the final segment of a three-part interview with Ron Edwards.
Have there been any other new avenues of promotion or marketing that you have pursued with Spione?
I should explain the original plan and audience for the entire project. Here are the steps I planned to follow.
1. Promote the book to bookstores in Berlin, specifically those associated with Cold War issues in the city such as the Wall Memorial, the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, the Stasi HQ Museum, and others. One important factor was to publish it simultaneously in English and German, in two different versions.
2. Generate a small community at the website to get the basic functions under way.
3. Publish the two versions of the book through Books on Demand, which is a POD publisher in Europe. The key feature is that, unlike the situation with American POD companies, being listed with BOD automatically makes the book available for distribution to retail.
4. Continue European promotion through activities at those locations and generally become a regular visitor in Berlin; if any public or media interest develops, work with that too. (I’ve found that the views expressed in Spione are quite a draw, actually; “this crazy American” is at the very least interesting.)
5. Continue activities and discussions at the website, in hopes that people who’d purchased the book might show up there out of enthusiasm or at least curiosity. Also, expand promotions to other European bookstores if the sales at the initial locations are good.
6. Open the whole thing up to the gaming community (the Forge, et cetera) for those who’d be interested, who I assume aren’t that big a proportion.
Reality struck my plan a rather hard blow when I discovered that the initial translators’ work was inadequate. I’d done quite well with #1-2 by the end of 2006, but #3 was basically harpooned in the middle. I should point out that #1 was stunningly successful, including commercial chain bookstores in Berlin that I’d never expected to penetrate at the outset. However, at every store, the people who ordered books stressed to me that having it in both languages was an absolute necessity.
So where am I now, in early 2008? Well, the English version has been available at BOD for a year, and I made a version more easily available to Americans through Lulu. The good news is that another group of translators did an amazing job, and that text is in layout right now. I hope to have the German version available at BOD within a month or two. Other good news is that the small community at the site is fun, and although I’m way behind in posting videos of real games, at least that’s under way.
Therefore the current 60% success situation arises from steps #4-6 being thrown completely out of whack. I have achieved #1-2, half of #3, and was forced to skip to #6, basically so as not to screw over the small community that had been involved so far. I went ahead and opened up the dialogue about the game to more interested role-players, which is only fair now that the book is available. But the larger context of the physical presence in the stores (quite realistic, given the response to promotion) remains unfulfilled. You can bet that the second the German version is available, I will be burning up the phone lines to all those stores in Berlin, and planning my next trip immediately.
Do you handle the layout yourself? What kind of software is employed?
I don’t know layout procedures from your Aunt Jane. I have always relied on professional help. I do have a very strong sense of what aesthetics and reading experiences should go with a given book, and so the layout person and I often proceed through multiple drafts using a single chapter, until we arrive at what works best. In many cases, the professional’s expertise leads to something other than my first ideas, but which expresses their purpose better. It’s extremely synergistic.
You cited a number of stores in Berlin that are interested in carrying the book. Are you targeting similiar shops across Europe, or do you have a different target in mind?
I’m definitely a one-step-at-a-time strategist. For now, it’s just a matter of getting into the Berlin stores. If that happens, and if sales are good, then I’ll learn more about wider markets.
One thing I’ve always considered about book sales, though, is to be open to existing networking processes rather than to try to use aggressive promotion. In other words, if social and professional mechanisms are already in place which alert other stores to successes at the initial ones, then showing up with a glitzy promotion package and no reference to those mechanisms is actually counter-productive.
I figured that was the case, in miniature, for role-playing games, and I was right. That’s one of the reasons that I don’t bother hyping my games with magazine advertising or similar stuff. I’ll do better with Spione, in the long run, if I learn about and respect how the informal processes work, starting with, I hope, a strong success from a modest presence.
Did you study le Carré’s work when you started working on Spione, or were you familiar with it before you began writing the book?
As I mentioned before, I had read his most famous early work, and as it happens, I’d also read a couple of his earliest books –in particular, Call for the Dead, which I think is brilliant and ruthless. However, as far as his blockbuster novels or the whole subculture of similar authors were concerned, I was pretty ignorant. I hadn’t seen any of the movies or TV shows.
I did understand and seek out Cold War issues in my readings and general interest in pop culture, but not espionage specifically. I saw No Way Out shortly after it was released, but thought it was merely a fun thriller with an imaginary premise, not realizing it was as close to reality as unofficial censorship would allow.
It’s interesting, however, that a lot of my readings overlapped with espionage material without me really understanding at the time, or at least how specifically. One example comes from two novels by one of my favorite authors, Anthony Burgess: Honey for the Bears and Tremor of Intent. I enjoyed them as a younger reader, and certainly saw the presence of Cold War issues in them, but did not realize how much direct, pointed commentary about the British Secret Service they included. Other examples from science fiction include All My Sins Remembered by Joe Haldeman, and a number of stories by Cordwainer Smith, all of which represent extremely serious and specific commentary on the CIA’s covert operations. I’d only understood them in my initial readings as being generally about espionage and intervention, but that was naïve.
The Spione Wiki is obviously a large component of the core experience — is this a new approach for you?
Yes, and I wish I’d been using wikis before this. I’d been under the impression that they were wide-open, anything-goes, anyone-edit devices, and was pleased to learn that the edit feature can be customized and monitored. The Spione wiki is actually pretty open in this regard, but it does have a few restrictions. I’m not surprised that Wikipedia is effectively moderated at this point, actually, counter to its reputation.
Anyway, as you’ve probably noticed, all of my game publications have included a very strong relationship to some body of text. I think it’s a little different from the two usual ways found in RPGs, (a) direct license of specific material or (b) a very strong influence that informs a pastiche, game-specific setting. Neither of these appeals to me very much. I prefer to introduce the reader to the actual body of text to let them be inspired from it in parallel to the way I was inspired. The most successful book I’ve written, in this sense, is Sorcerer & Sword, and I deliberately wrote Spione in exactly the same way. Not only is the genre introduced, but its unique and fascinating features are brought forward, and I continually demonstrate through the book how the source material is being referenced.
The strange and unique feature for spy material is this: fiction has often been utilized by dissenting insiders as a means of disclosure and judgment –literally, subversive work –and non-fiction has often been utilized by true-believer insiders as a means of reassurance or loyalty-building –literally, propaganda. Many books “inside the CIA” or similar are actually puff-jobs built to support the agency through trying political circumstances, whereas many spy novels featuring the CIA are highly critical, written by agents or journalists who would otherwise be muzzled. There are reverse efforts in both directions as well, but those trends are strongest.
What that means is that through stepping back and looking at authors (with and without pen names), spy history including specific people, historical events such as court cases, and characters in fiction, one can very quickly see “who is who” across the whole Cold War, in a kind of shadow war of ideas represented by books. It also helps a great deal in judging claims and counter-claims, when for instance, some particular description or event gets repeated a great deal and often presented as multiply-validated fact –but from this perspective, one can see that it only has one source and only derivative repetitions, not corroborations.
Has it been as productive as you’d hoped?
Well, its most important feature is arriving at connections among titles, people, authors, agencies, and events. At this point, some of the most interesting patterns are coming together, and I modestly think that the summary of CIA and KGB material, as organized by cross-linking and topics pages, is about the very best available. (Of course, that is cheating a bit, since it also includes links to the excellent material at the Intelligence Library.) When the SIS and German agencies get beefed up in terms of those cross-links, I think the wiki could become a major resource for anyone doing serious work on the issues.
The second most important feature is the Reflections concept, and that’s been great when implemented, but not implemented as much as I’d like. That’s not too surprising. I’m asking for something that people don’t have models for: stating what the book or film meant for you at the time, and never mind reviewing it or summarizing it. Although if certain plot or subject points, or judgments, are necessary to stating how it struck you, then that’s OK. It’s hard to get into that head-space, and even some of my Reflections end up looking more like reviews. But overall, I really like seeing them appear slowly and steadily, and I look forward to more people contributing. It’s exciting and interesting to see a string of personal, revealing commentary on some of the more well-known titles.
You’ve published several games; was there anything different about the publication process for Spione?
The vision of audience and venue was different, as I described earlier. Also, it’s the first time I actually took language courses as part of writing and publishing anything, much less traveled repeatedly to another country, or became invested in its issues and history. I established a Berlin branch for Adept Press, actually, so my little company is literally international now. I’d say it’s actually a quantum leap for me, both in technical publishing terms and in terms of transforming aspects of my own life.
The downside, unfortunately, is that the quantum concept also applies to expense. Travel, translations, various fees, promotional pre-publication copies, and other such things aren’t cheap. Before now, Adept Press never sank money into something without a very strong basis for expecting return, whereas Spione is definitely a risk. It’s not an unrecoverable risk in terms of my life and livelihood, but the “dip” in the process is not trivial. That’s a concrete reason to stay committed to the primary goal of getting it into the physical stores of Berlin, and making it available to stores across Europe.
Is this your first title published via Lulu?
Yes. The main reason I haven’t done so before is that none of my books’ physical format quite matches their options, and even if I were to alter that format, the cost would not be competitive. That’s a function of being ahead of the curve, you see –at this point, reprinting Sorcerer supplements with the same company I’ve worked with since 2001 is pretty cost-saving, as they have the necessary materials and I’ve gained good will over the years that saves me money on certain secondary costs. So switching to Lulu wouldn’t be effective for me now, although if I were just starting out with those books, it would be. I might switch over for the next print run of Elfs, though.
Now, none of that actually has anything to do with Spione and Lulu, though. That was more of a desperation move when I found I had a small American audience and needed to make something available for them. It’s a good deal, though, and I’m quite happy with the result even though the European printing yields a slightly sharper, punchier result for the cover. I may actually stick with it for the long term, for sales on this continent. Or, if BOD turns out to have a good deal available for American fulfillment, I may switch over.
What’s the single most important piece of publishing-related advice that you’d give to an aspiring game developer?
Vision comes first. The vision must certainly be grounded in the reality of play experiences. You must temper it with brutal, accurate critique, which includes resisting the more common unthinking critique. You will have to apply it in the reality of existing economics and logistics. Still, your personal vision matters most — if you lose that, then everything else is posturing.
Thanks for the interview, Ron, and congratulations on the success of Spione!
Filed under: Ron Edwards
This is the second segment of a three-part interview with Ron Edwards.
How did you arrive at the term ‘Story Now’?
As you know, I think that role-playing is a medium and that the medium can serve differing agendas at a very large, pervasive scale. Originally I used and adapted some terms that were already in the existing debates about “why” to play. That was in 1999, when the very idea of talking about differing agendas was taboo in the subculture. Over time, as this idea became more palatable (such that today it is called “obvious”), the issue became, not what was happening, but how to talk about what was happening. So the rather clunky terms needed to become teaching terms.
If we focus on the agenda and “genuinely” create a story together, then the term has to distinguish the activity from “role-playing with story involved somehow,” which is too general and not very useful. To achieve that focus, I distinguished among the following three things. I’d like to stress that all of them are functional, but they are not, and cannot be, the same.
Story Before = preparing a sequence of events with revelations, confrontations, and in many cases pre-set outcomes, in order for others to experience it and brush it up a bit with descriptions as we go along. Alternately, using a certain amount of improvisation about those things, but limiting authority over that improvisation to one person who has pre-set how things will turn out.
Story After = playing without much focus on story-type issues (revelations, confrontations, consequential decisions), but interpreting the events of play as having been like that, and preparing for the next session as if such a story had occurred.
Story Now = playing with full attention to generating revelations, confrontations, and consequential decisions as inspired events during play itself, and as the actual point of play. This way, no one knows beforehand how things will turn out nor even what they will mean in the most visceral, casual sense of “meaning” something.
In other story-based media (prose fiction, theater, film), the actual creation of the key parts is invisible to the audience. The most visible parts are the finished story itself and, to a lesser extent, the effort that went into its presentation. The group dialogue that has developed within the larger sphere of role-playing is very different — that moment, or moments, of creation are the actual experience. In Story Now play, whatever split-second occurred in William Shakespeare’s head when he, or whoever, decided that “Macbeth’s wife urges him to murder Duncan,” is now attenuated and experienced at a group, social level.
So is this something like collaborative fiction? Group storytelling?
I think that group creation of stories in this way has been generally unsuccessful — writers’ groups and similar. In fact, I think such efforts have almost always been wretched. The difference in what we now have, via role-playing hobby, is that processes and routines — rules — keep the process from devolving into competition and power-trips over the story-in-progress, partly by having things happen and moving on.
The principles that make this work can be found in other artistic media, specifically music. Musicians can make a song together, but they don’t do it by simply all playing whatever-whenever and negotiating is-this-OK as they go. That’s cacophony. Instead, even the most improvisational musicians accept particular constraints and create the song, not confined by those things, but with them. Another useful analogy comes from standard competitive card or board games, in which things like turn order, roles relative to one another, authority over what happens, ending conditions, and consequences of choices are extremely explicit.
So putting all of this together, I am saying that Story Now is composed of (1) the content dynamics associated with fiction; (2) the social dynamics associated with playing music; and (3) the procedural dynamics of card/board games.
To apply this to Spione in particular, I found that once the principles I described were nailed down, then long-held assumptions about role-playing which are considered definitional (“playing one’s character,” for instance) turn out to be artifacts rather than rock-solid necessities. That’s why Spione is Story Now, but not, or no longer, easily called role-playing.
What is the purpose of this new designation?
It isn’t new, actually. It dates back to 2003 and that Narrativism essay, and was in casual use before that. It’s only new as a label. I started using it on the covers of my books in 2006, with It Was a Mutual Decision, and Spione is the first to feature it as part of the title.
As for purpose, it’s branding, but I also needed to use it for accuracy. The activity of Spione doesn’t use characters, narration, or really any structure that’s like existing RPGs. It has all those “story now” features I describe above without using role-playing, as we currently know it, as a starting point. Therefore it would be quite wrong to call Spione a role-playing game, because that would mislead role-players into buying something they might not want, as well as slot it into a commercial niche that would exclude any number of people who might be interested. It’s a book with a little game or activity included, and that thing is only really describable as Story Now.
Part of your promotion for Spione included an event at the Stasi Headquarters Museum in Berlin. What was that like?
It was probably too ambitious for such an early step in the process. I gained a great deal from it, and in essence, it was the final playtest that led to some key rules changes in the game. Taking the entire trip into account, I had a wonderful time meeting people, exchanging ideas, learning a great deal about the Cold War experience in their eyes, and playing games.
As a Spione promotion event, it was mixed. I was walking into a bit of a mine-field, as the German community of role-players was extremely riled up about any number of my viewpoints, whether real or imagined, and so the game was not really the focus of everyone’s attention. We dealt with a lot of those issues through discussions later, so I wish we’d started with that the evening before. Still, the participants’ good will was real. It was fantastic of them to have traveled to Berlin, and their attention to the game and their comments turned out to be incredibly helpful to me.
I know I could have done a better job of introducing play to them as a group, and there were certain stumbling blocks they encountered which I did not explain well. Teaching Spione is very simple but one must understand what needs to be taught. Now, eighteen months later, it’s much easier for me, but this group of people was unlucky enough to be my means of learning how.
It so happens, by the way, that Europe was in the grip of a horrendous heat wave that summer, and especially that week, and the Stasi HQ Museum is no more air-conditioned than anywhere else in Berlin that’s not tuned to American sensibilities. You might not know that Chicago’s latitude is the same as Rome’s, so Berlin is about the same as the middle of Canada! This is not a culture that does well in stinking, sweaty, brutal, can’t-breathe heat, and the room was pretty much Hell. It was really, really cool to be in the Stasi HQ for this event, but our enjoyment of that fact was limited by discomfort.
Holy mackerel. So, howw was the event structured? What did participants/attendees do?
I organized it to be something like a laboratory class. I introduced the topic briefly, then divided people into small groups and passed out materials. I outlined the initial steps, and everyone did them, then I explained the next step, and moved into play. Then I circulated around answering questions. After a while, we basically went into a feedback and questions session.
I think that was a pretty good model. I can tell you now how I’d do it a lot more effectively today. First, I’d begin with a more general and provocative claim. To a German audience, that might be something like whether East Germans benefited from unification or not, or about the Nazi origins of the BND (the West German espionage agency which still exists today). To an American audience, it might concern calling into question whether Stalin actually was set to invade western Europe in the late 1940s, or I might challenge the notion that the U.S. “defeated communism”. I might put up a big chart of the spy agencies in Berlin and answer any questions, without any lecture to begin.
Then we’d proceed as before, but I’d save the introduction to spying as an issue and dramatic situation for later in the process, right when the relevant characters get generated.
I’d also know better how to deal with some pitfalls of play that need correction. For instance, during the procedure called Flashpoint, one can actually dictate how another person’s character reacts to a given situation — but that decision is then back under the primary player’s control once the next round of Maneuvers begins. I messed that up badly trying to explain it in the heat (no kidding) of the moment, and I probably ruined that whole group’s interest in the game…
Next installment: distribution, the Wiki, and Lulu.
Filed under: Ron Edwards
This is the first segment of a three-part interview with Ron Edwards. Ron designed Sorcerer, Sorcerer & Sword, The Sorcerer’s Soul, Sex and Sorcery, Elfs, and Trollbabe. His most recent game is Spione: Story Now in Cold War Berlin.
Hi, Ron. So. What did you hope to accomplish with Spione?
The first goal was simple, to publish a book worth reading about a topic that hadn’t quite been addressed in that way before. I had a basic creative need to say a particular thing, about what I learned later is called Cold War Triumphalism. Spy fiction and non-fiction play into it equally, which I’ll talk about later in the interview.
The second goal is a matter of game design, because I think the shared experience of play is a great medium for delving into that particular thing I wanted to say. Reading someone’s viewpoint is one thing; participating in a creative group dialogue about it is another.
The third goal is the most ambitious: to expand the experience of play and the content (fiction) of play outside the boundaries of a given group of people. Simply put, it means including videos of people’s play experiences on the website. Ideally, this should become the default. A side benefit would be to facilitate others’ learning for how to do the activity.
There’s a lot of that kind of material on the web site.
Right. All of the aforementioned is intended to be integrated into a community and dialogue centered at the website. It includes a Wiki for developing an institutional archive of the source material, and a forum environment for meetings of minds across locations, particularly across former Cold War boundaries. The play experiences are further sources for discussions, and the discussions are further inspirations for play experiences.
I am especially committed to the idea that any entry point will do. If you’re all about playing the game, the site makes it possible to get interested in the content too, and vice versa. Furthermore, any degree of participation will do. If someone enjoys the site for one reason and participates to that extent alone, that’s good too.
So, now that the book is out there — did you hit the mark that you were aiming for?
That’s a difficult question. In terms of the physical product as well as general impact, I have the same, “Damn, that’s about 60%” feeling that I have with any book I’ve published. I’m given to understand that most creators say the same thing (or less), whether for books, films, plays, or comics. On the other hand, creative idealism aside, I think it’s a pretty nifty book, both physically and in its content. One of my goals was that if one never wanted to try the game/activity, it would still be worth the money as a thought-provoking, interesting text.
In terms of the overall project, it’s a work in progress, and I encountered some stumbling blocks along the way which have delayed or cancelled certain steps I planned on. I’ll talk more about that in a bit. I think the best way to put it is that I am proud of how well it’s gone so far, and I’m looking forward to continuing, at whatever pace is possible. I guess I have that same 60% self-critical view about the project as well. The good news is that it gets better all the time.
Was there a specific catalyst that sparked interest in the idea of spies during the Cold War?
There were two, entirely independent things. The first arose from writing my essay Narrativism: Story Now, in 2003. I included a proto-alpha-draft for a game, nothing more than a basic idea and brainstorming really, for each of my three essays on specific Creative Agendas. In the case of the Narrativism essay, I hit upon Cold War spying on no better basis than having enjoyed the book The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. I didn’t even specify Berlin, and I blush to confess that I had only the most rudimentary notion of what the Wall actually was. I was generally clear on the idea that there existed two distinct kinds of spy fiction, but did not yet realize how politically charged and significant that distinction was and is. So choosing that context for Zero at the Bone, my little game-idea to accompany that essay, was extremely fortuitous.
When I thought about developing the idea further, in 2005, my first move was to read a few more of the relevant novels and a couple of non-fiction books. Little did I realize that “a few” and “a couple” would become hundreds of titles, nor that the boundary between fiction and non-fiction was not really a boundary for this material. Everything I read yielded a list of further titles to explore, and that process is still going.
The second arose from life, not games, and not even fiction, and it’s the main reason that my readings expanded so rapidly, along with my travels, language lessons, and aspects of my life-style. I’d become detached from politics back in 1987, when that son of a bitch Oliver North was pardoned, and 9-11 brought my attention fully back. However, the espionage readings clarified how the events of 9-11 came to occur, as well as many other events that concerned me, and I slowly began to understand something called Cold War Triumphalism which I am convinced is at the core of today’s issues. The kind of spy fiction and non-fiction that I had discovered turned out to have been a kind of literary guerrilla war against Cold War Triumphalism, and its antecedents, for many decades.
This project’s scope is a little bigger than I expected.
True. All that may be a little abstract. More personally and specifically, I am a child of the U.S. culture clash over the Vietnam War. I was born in 1964, and my father was a career Navy officer who would serve two tours in and around Saigon when I was just old enough to remember it, whereas my mother became a civil rights, peace, and women’s activist at the same time. My early life is not easily described.
The relevant point is that in reading about espionage and about Berlin in particular, I was able to understand the sources of the ideologies which had played such a big role in my own experiences. I never bought the standard line of democracy vs. dictatorship, free market vs. communism, freedom vs. subjugation, or any of the other cultish interpretations of the twentieth century. Nor did I think that the resurgence of this outlook after the fall of the Soviet Union boded well for any of us. The big mystery to me was, how in the world did this childish view of reality even get started, much less become so prevalent as to provide the entire landscape for people’s lives, as in my case? Berlin provides the answer, and everyone should know about it.
Are there elements of the book’s physical construction that in some way reflect its subject matter? What about its look and feel?
I wanted Spione to look like a book one might simply pick up and buy in any commercial bookstore, of the appropriate topic, and to keep on one’s shelf with books about that topic. It so happens that a lot of spy non-fiction and fiction books look very much alike, and I aimed for that broad overlap. It is successful insofar as, when you see it, you say, “Oh! A book about spies,” without even really reading the subtitle or the back cover text.
I actually had the idea for the back cover already set very early in the project, with all the shadowy agency initials. As for the front, the photograph is actually of me at the Wall Memorial in Berlin, shot during my visit in December, 2005. It wasn’t intended as anything but a tourist snap, and the fuzziness was merely an artifact, but when I saw it, I knew I’d found the right mix of mysteriousness and menace. I worked out a few ideas about design with my friend Dan Bulf, and Jon Hodgson took these ideas further.
I also wanted the interior text to be usable as a reference as well as a linear reading experience. I decided to employ a tab-bleed system for the chapters, so that one can flip very quickly to a given chapter and find what’s needed without much reading.
Do you consider these elements to be a priority when creating a book?
Always. Every one of my games is intended to be a physical reading experience, and for lack of a better term, ownership experience, which is consistent with the subject matter and general aesthetic basis for play. That applies to the size, dimensions, physical feel, internal layout, paper type, and any other feature. I like to think that a given book I’ve published fits well into a particular place to keep it in one’s house or apartment.
Sorcerer, for instance, was deliberately designed as an arty specialty-publication, like a limited edition of someone’s poetry or a special edition of a heavily-illustrated retelling of a famous myth. I’m not sure whether you know that I never believed it was possible to sell more than 1000 copies of that game, so it’s sort of funny that I’m still pumping out print runs of what was supposed to be a glamorous one-shot. It Was a Mutual Decision was designed as a book you might find in the humor section of a bookstore, particularly those joke-gift or casual-read collections of gender or pet humor. The content is more serious than that, perhaps even a little classically-gothic, but I wanted it to have that pick-it-up off the coffee table, casual read quality. For both books, I pride myself that a reader can look at any page and not only know where they are in the organization of the text, but can also immediately tell which way and how much to flip to get where they want.
Since both of them are simply and straightforwardly games, and since Spione is not, the design of Spione is far more standard in mainstream book terms.
Next installment: Story Now, hot war, and Berlin
Filed under: Information
There’s this process in the video game business called the postmortem. You discuss what went right, and what went wrong. You face your mistakes, you take pride in your successes, and you plan for your next project. The key to a successful postmortem is the development of specific action items which will have a positive impact on your next project.
The optimistic nature of the concept, juxtaposed with the negative connotations of the word postmortem, always got to me. Consequently, I have decided to start calling these ‘postpartums’ instead. After all, we’re not burying a project, we’re giving it life.
This blog contains a series of interviews with independent game developers, with a focus on production, publication, and lessons learned.