“Colonel Buchan’s novel Greenmantle has more than a flavor of truth …”

— T.E. Lawrence, to Robert Graves

In Britain, the first rank of spy novelists has long included writers from the ranks of actual intelligence agencies: John Buchan (British Army Intelligence Corps), Somerset Maugham (MI6), Graham Greene (MI6), Dennis Wheatley (London Controlling Section of the War Cabinet), Anthony Burgess (British Army Intelligence Corps), Kenneth Benton (MI6), and of course David Cornwell, a.k.a. John Le Carré (both MI5 and MI6). (The finest, and almost the first, American example is Charles McCarry, who publishes his first novel The Miernik Dossier six years after leaving the CIA, in 1973.) But the best example of the overlap (if not the best novelist or the best spy) is Ian Fleming, the former British Naval Intelligence planner who created James Bond in Casino Royale (1958) to little or no acclaim. In 1961, President Kennedy lists From Russia With Love as one of his top ten books, putting Fleming on top of the US mystery and crime charts and leading MGM to greenlight the first Bond film Dr. No (1962). The movies send Fleming’s sales into the millions before he dies in 1964.

No relation to Randolph.

Meanwhile in America, spy fiction came out of the pulps and melded with the hard-boiled detective genre, most notably with Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm series (27 novels, 1960-1993) and more prolifically with Edward S. Aarons’ Assignment series (42 novels, 1955-1976) starring CIA agent Sam Durell. Bond’s success inspires paperback original publisher Award Books to revive the pulp detective Nick Carter as superspy Nick Carter: Killmaster in 1964. Various authors (in the 1960s primarily Michael Avallone, Valerie Moolman, and Manning Lee Stokes) using the “Nick Carter” house name (the novels are in the first person) churn out 261 Killmaster novels on an approximately bimonthly schedule.

The writers of these series are mostly professional authors, without any espionage background. The partial exception is James Atlee Phillips, who as “Philip Atlee” writes a series about CIA contractor Joe Gall (22 novels, 1963-1976), rebranded as the “Nullifier” series after 1966. After a career with the OSS, Phillips ran the CIA front Amphibian Airways in Burma from 1947 to 1954. But his brother, David Atlee Phillips, runs the CIA’s Western Hemisphere operations in 1973-1975, the culmination of a 25-year Agency career that includes planning the Bay of Pigs operation and helping to overthrow Allende. During the Fall of DELTA GREEN era, David Atlee Phillips takes part in the anti-Castro Operation MONGOOSE (1961-1964) as chief of covert operations in Mexico, and serves as station chief in the Dominican Republic (1965-1969) and Brazil (1969-1970). James and David have a tempestuous relationship illustrated by Joe Gall’s tendency to ridicule the Bay of Pigs planners and CIA station chiefs.

By the 1970s, the Killmaster spawns his own lines of imitators, notably Remo Williams, the Destroyer (150+ novels, 1971-present) by Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir, and Mack Bolan, the Executioner (600+ novels, 1969-present) by Don Pendleton. Pendleton writes four novels a year about non-spy super-killer Bolan until 1980, when the Executioner becomes a multi-author franchise like the Killmaster. (Bolan fights Cthulhu cultists in Executioner #264: Iron Fist (2000) and Cthulhu spawn in Executioner #276: Leviathan (2001), both by Gerald Montgomery.) Joseph Rosenberger’s Death Merchant series featuring hit man Richard Camellion (70 books, 1971-1988) takes on not just the Mafia, neo-Nazis, and Red China but secret societies, Soviet psychotronics, clone armies, and the hidden city of Shambhala.

Camellion isn’t alone on the fringe. British spy novelist W. Howard Baker uses the pseudonym “Peter Saxon,” the credited author of the Guardians series (6 novels, 1968-1970) about a team of occult investigators. Baker sharecrops the “Peter Saxon” name to other writers; who exactly wrote which Guardians novel remains (appropriately) a mystery. The Mind Masters series (5 books, 1974-1976) by John F. Rossman stars Britt St. Vincent, a psychic race car driver who investigates occult conspiracies for the clandestine Mero Institute. And then there’s CIA agent Peter Ward, the “American James Bond,” who stars in nine novels (1965-1971) by David St. John. In his last two adventures, The Sorcerers (1969) and Diabolus (1971), Ward battles an alliance of Satanists, voodooists, and Communists straight out of Dennis Wheatley, featuring MK-ULTRA-style mind-control drugs deployed by heroes and villains alike.

Which intrigues not least because “David St. John” is one of many pen names for active, on-duty CIA agent E. Howard Hunt. (According to fellow CIA agent and spy novelist William F. Buckley Jr., Hunt wrote too prolifically for the CIA to review his manuscripts.) Hunt began his clandestine career with the OSS in China, and with David Atlee Phillips planned the overthrow of Arbenz in Guatemala and the Bay of Pigs. He then serves as chief of covert action for the CIA’s (borderline illegal) Domestic Operations Division (1962-1964), in Madrid for two years on a shadowy mission that included “write spy novels”, and as covert action chief for Western Europe (based in Washington, however) from 1968-1969. He resigns from the Agency in 1970 and works for various security-state front groups and the White House until his 1972 indictment for the Watergate burglary he helped mastermind.

A Dirty Story of a Dirty Man: Operation TRAVEN

“All this was flagrant trashiness, and my friend Manton was not slow to insist on that fact. Then I told him what I had found …”

–H.P. Lovecraft, “The Unnamable”

The X-Files episode “Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man” by Glen Morgan plays with the career of Hunt and Phillips, portraying the titular “Cancer Man” as JFK’s assassin (both Hunt and Phillips may have met – or recruited – Lee Harvey Oswald in Mexico) and as frustrated spy novelist “Raul Bloodworth,” creator of the Jack Colquitt adventures based on his own career. Inspired by Morgan’s riff (and perhaps by these lovely covers by Loz Bearfield), can we posit a series of men’s adventure paperbacks that correlates a few too many of DELTA GREEN’s proprietary contents?

Superspy Dalton Verdant, codenamed the Outsider, works for a secret nameless “Division” vaguely attached to the Navy. Reporting only to Admiral Joseph Cooke, he beds beautiful women and battles international Communism and weirder foes in a series of lurid paperback novels from Pagan Books:

  • The Stalin Sanction (May 1966): Verdant crosses Siberia in disguise – to prevent SMERSH mad scientists from re-animating Joseph Stalin! Verdant fights “charnel dog-men” in KGB uniforms. (Cf. Operation SIC SEMPER TYRANNIS; FoDG, p. 163)
  • The Shanghai Sanction (Oct 1966): Verdant is ordered to assassinate Stephen Alban, “Red China’s top Satanist in Asia,” and does so by blowing up Alban’s airplane. (Cf. Operation PARIAH; FoDG, p. 180)
  • The South Pole Sanction (Feb 1967): Verdant tracks Karthek, leader of a neo-Nazi cult, to “Hitler’s frozen bolt-hole” in Antarctica powered by “living brains from Atlantis.” The brains explode into blob-monsters and destroy the base. (Cf. Operation SOUTHERN HOSPITALITY; FoDG, p. 286)
  • The Simba Sanction (Jun 1967): Verdant fights “Cuban voodooists” in the Congo, and faces the “Mongolian Death Worm” they have awakened in a jungle city of white apes. (Cf. Operation KURTZ; FoDG, p. 180)
  • The Saucer Sanction (Nov 1967): Verdant rescues a beautiful, amnesiac NASA test pilot from a flying saucer crash site in Nicaragua, battling a hit squad seemingly sent by the U.S. government to kill her – and him! Mind control gave her amnesia; the hit squad uses a serum derived from alien fish-men. (Cf. Project GARNET; FoDG, p. 163)

The credited author of all five books is “Ward Phillips.” This pseudonym might refer to (Agency (CIA)) Hunt’s spy character and Atlee’s middle name, or (Occult) to the Rhode Island ghost-story writer (colleague and friend of author-mystic Randolph Carter) Ward Phillips (1880-1937?). The Saucer Sanction’s plot strongly resembles the script of the Matt Helm movie The Ambushers, released in December 1967 – could “Phillips” have Hollywood connections? “Phillips” might be a DELTA GREEN agent left in the cold after a breakdown, or the sibling (or spouse, or child) of such an agent. He (or she) might be a psychic in contact with a former agent, or a fragment of an agent’s personality detached by Yithian or Xin magic and now trying to write its way back into existence by possessing amphetamine addicts.

Hunting “Phillips” through a network of weird loner tough-guy writers, skeevy publishers, and predatory Hollywood small-timers takes all the HUMINT the Agents can muster. None of the operations “Phillips” uses as source material postdate 1964, giving a possible date for their retirement. Once MAJESTIC notices the connections in The Saucer Sanction, the Agents have a rival team hunting “Phillips,” and killing witnesses: the Seattle offices of Pagan Books go up in a mysterious fire on New Year’s Day 1968, detonating five cases of ammunition illegally stored in the building’s basement. Is there a connection to the Two Lanterns or another occult radical group?

Finally, if you want to play a session (or a whole campaign!) in the world of Dalton Verdant and the Division, use Night’s Black Agents; ideally the “airport thriller” drift rules (Dracula Dossier Director’s Handbook, p. 320). Go ahead and add monsters and magic from Fall of DELTA GREEN or Trail of Cthulhu on an ad hoc basis. Dalton Verdant has vanished on the trail of a British ex-superspy traitor and sex magician named Hamish Rhodes, and Admiral Cooke recruits your team to follow him …


The Fall of DELTA GREEN adapts DELTA GREEN: THE ROLE-PLAYING GAME to the GUMSHOE investigative roleplaying system, opening the files on a lost decade of anti-Mythos operations: the 1960s. Players take on the role of DELTA GREEN operatives, assets, and friendlies. Hunt Deep Ones beneath the Atlantic, shut down dangerous artists in San Francisco, and delve into the heart of Vietnam’s darkness. Purchase The Fall of DELTA GREEN in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Click here for part I of the “Fear of Structure”

Last time we looked at the paradox inherent in running investigative scenarios, whether in GUMSHOE games like The Esoterrorists, or with other systems: structure is essential to the mystery genre, but players have learned to fear it, equating it with railroading or so-called “bread crumb trail” plotting.

What’s important is not whether the players really are following a set of scenes in a predefined order, but whether they feel like they have freedom of choice and are important participants in determining the direction and outcome of the narrative. They can feel straightjacketed when you improvise wildly, or think that they’re steering the narrative when you’re in fact running scenes in a flat-out linear order.

The simplest structure for a mystery scenario is, indeed, linear. All of the scenes occur in a predetermined order; at each scene, the PCs find a clue leading them to the next scene. During the climactic scene, they acquire the final clues. These allow them to piece together the solution to the mystery, resolving it. Diagrammed out, a purely linear scene structure might look like this:


More complex structures allow the PCs greater choice regarding the order in which they assemble the clues and move through the scenes. One scene might offer several clues, each leading to a different scene. The players decide where to investigate next.


Here, by creating multiple lead-outs from various scenes into others, we see that the same events can can occur in at least six different orders. Especially clever player choices may confer advantages; it may be, for example, that it’s easier to withstand the awful revelations of the Bag Of Hands sequence if the characters are prepared for it by what they learn of Mr. Pike’s Dilemma. Riskier choices may result in more hair-raising but faster play, as the investigators leapfrog over particular scenes. Maybe it’s smart to avoid the hazards of the Wood Chipper; on the other hand, maybe it provides an essential opportunity to regain precious mental stability.

There are as many possible structures as mathematical permutations of scenes. The more you rely on improvisation and rough notes, the easier it is to generate new connections between scenes on the fly. This is much easier to do as you go than to notate for someone else who’ll be running the adventure. Not only are alternate sequences of events difficult to convey clearly to the reader of a published adventure, but they chew up limited word count like crazy.

You could arrange your lead-outs so that the climactic confrontation could occur during any one of three scenes:

 

Here the climax can occur during the Wood Chipper, Fear Club or Ghost River scenes, whichever the PCs happen upon last. This also gives you the option to skip one of the three end scenes either for pacing purposes, or to reward the team for clever clue interpretation.

Players may create their own routes through your map of possible scenes, rather like Billy from those horrible Family Circus cartoons where you see his circuitous route through the neighborhood. They might return to a previous scene to scour it for clues they didn’t look for the first time around. You may deliberately introduce callbacks-for example, Mr. Pike may be only partially forthcoming the first time around, revealing a final bit of information only when confronted with evidence found near the Wood Chipper:

Although I’ve used a linear structure in the above diagram for clarity’s sake, callbacks can just as easily be done in a branching structure.

However robust your branching structure, there is still the matter of player perception to contend with. No matter how many possible sequences of events your scenario offers, the players wind up with only one. Like I said last time, scenarios may or may not be linear, but all remotely narrative RPG adventures are linear as played. To repeat a diagram, the possible structure may look like this:


But your story as played will look like this:

Or this:

Or this:

Or whatever.

In other words, one of your tasks as GM of an investigative game is to make the adventure feel like it presents a multiplicity of choice and a complex structure-which is not the same as ensuring that it actually possesses those qualities.

Do this by salting your scenario with disruptive events unrelated to the collection of clues. The Esoterrorists ensures that PCs get the clues they need to interpret the mystery, but offers no similar guarantee that they won’t be dismembered by ichor-dripping beasties from the Outer Dark. Disruptive events can include action sequences, including fights, chases, evasions, and infiltrations. These can be instigated by the players, or by antagonists reacting to their investigation. In a more low-key but possibly more memorable mode, disruptive events can also include scenes of drama or character development that evoke an emotional response in players. Maybe they confront a moral dilemma, having to sacrifice one good to attain another, before moving on to the next investigative scene.

Disruptive events may be triggered by actions undertaken in investigative scenes. Or they can be free floating, to deploy as pacing demands. Since their entire purpose is to add choice and uncertainty to what might otherwise feel like a linear storyline, ensure that player choice reigns supreme in these sequences. Each must allow for a full range of success or failure. If they get to chase an antagonist, they must have a chance (perhaps slim) of catching him. Moral dilemmas should offer no easy cop-outs, and so on. In GUMSHOE, resolutions of disruptive events can confer advantages in investigative sequences, but cannot rule out the collection of core clues.

(In games with traditional clue gathering techniques, where you make ability rolls to gain information essential to investigation, failed rolls have served as faux-disruptive events. They disguise the basic linearity of the mystery genre, but they do it by introducing unnecessary additional scenes in which the GM frantically improvises workarounds to get the PCs the info they should have gleaned the first time around. Ironically, the traditional paradigm in effect uses failure and frustration to create the illusion of infinite choice and possibility. What it really provides is annoying extra padding.)

With the addition of disruptive events, your final branching structure might look something like this:

Hmm. Maybe we should have a contest and award a prize who can tell us who Mr. Pike is, what he has to do with the bag of hands, and what dread fate awaits him at the Fear Club…

The following article originally appeared on DyingEarth.com in June 2006.

Alan Williams and James Mathe look at eBooks in the RPG Industry

A few of you may be old enough to remember the End of Published Music. Suddenly, technology was available that would allow the home audio enthusiast to record music from many different sources and even produce his own play lists or mixes. Even more shocking, you could make copies of your original music and give it to friends. It was a dark time for the RIAA and music artists everywhere.  Indeed, the cassette tape signaled the beginning of the end for music as we knew it. The same thing happened with video tape and the movie industry. Is Netflix killing the movie industry? Last I heard a recent movie could still have 50 million dollar weekends. Is iTunes the end of CD sales? Did Magic The Gathering (CCG’s) kill roleplaying games? Last I looked there were more RPG books then ever these days.

This helps to get us into the mindset of some eBook detractors.  Mainly that this new technology is going to spell the end of All Print as we know it.  That regardless of its utility and value, it’s an Evil Thing to be feared, and is the chief cause for the slump that the hobby is currently in. There are other arguments against eBooks. They aren’t secure, they don’t offer the same experience as traditional print and they tend to kill off normal products, making it harder to get published.  How can we address these concerns?

When I was starting out in the hobby, I didn’t have much money.  A few friends had most of the books we needed to play, so I just borrowed what they had.  We also had quite a few photocopies of more than a couple of books kicking around. Did this mean we never bought more books?  Of course not.  Once we had the money the copied books were tossed in favor of the hardcovers we all craved!  The thing is there is always going to be a way to get around The Man in these situations.  Publishers are worried that their books are going to end up on P2P networks, but the fact is that they’re already there.  Poorly scanned huge .PDF files that look just horrible or poor OCR .txt that misses huge chunks of material; you can find them on most P2P clients.  Has this killed off the traditional print products?  Of course is hasn’t!  It’s been going on for years and yet we keep buying books.

I love books of all shapes and sizes.  I love the feel of the paper. I love the smell of a new book.  I love sitting down with a book and reading it cover to cover.  No matter how good eBooks get, they will never be able to deliver this experience.  eBooks make excellent reference or travel text. It’s great being able to bring a library of gaming books to GenCon with you without breaking your back.  Keeping a library on a laptop or even PDA allows you to do just that. Vacation with your favorite books, all of them, without hauling them all over the airport. Print out a handout for the players. Live somewhere without a FLGS and really want a new book for this weekend’s game?  You can download just what you want in an instant from an eBook vendor.  eBooks are all about convenience.  Convenience of use and convenience of purchase are two things eBooks can deliver in a unique fashion.

As for killing off ‘traditional’ media in our industry, I’d argue just the opposite.  I think that eBooks are saving the industry and making new fans and enthusiasts every day. RPGNow.com alone brings hundreds of new customers to its store each week. Many come for the nostalgia of classic TSR products from their childhood, restarting their gaming interests. Rules that were once difficult to locate or even buy copies of can now be found from your desktop, in no time. Customers are willing to pay for these books if they can be found legally.

In the traditional publishing model, your book would either have to be purchased or contracted by a larger publishing or game company.  The company would have to commit to thousands of print copies which would then have to be purchased by distributors who would then have to sell the book to the vendors who would then have to sell the book to the customers.  Thus, a publisher would have to take a pretty big risk and price the book at a premium to make its (and thus your) money. You would not be selling books from Monte Cook, RPG Objects, Expeditious Retreat Press, Darkfuries, Louis Porter Jr., Game Mechanics, Ronin Arts (Phil Reed), and many more who basically owe their existence to the eBook model.

eBooks do away with all of that.  What if you could write and format a book yourself, set it up on a distribution network, then instantly have a worldwide audience? eBooks deliver on this promise.  Your book becomes a personal project that you have more control over.  You set your price and your get your product out as quickly as you want.  You don’t have to stick to a 128 page minimum, you write and publish a 7 page prestige class or 10 page adventure and sell it for a buck!  eBooks make it possible for first-time authors and small publishers to tap a market without taking a huge risk on print.  As a result we’re seeing hundreds of new products that never would have seen the light of day otherwise.  Even new categories of products such as tile sets and paper miniatures have been great successes. At RPGNow, we see electronic products that support the sale of traditional media, not kill it off.

Anytime something new comes along in any industry there are always going to be detractors.  However, if we want to see our hobby grow and become a more ‘community’ supported pastime, things like eBooks and other new technologies not only need to be supported, but embraced for what they can and DO deliver to the gaming community as a whole.

It is my opinion that the video games and MMORPGs, that make gaming both accessible and easy to pick up at any hour of the day, have a higher risk of bleeding off the future gamer then eBooks. The lack of kid’s desire to actually read is more of a concern than how the words are presented. When I first opened my brick and mortar game store, we turned away hundreds of kids looking for video games who were shocked that these books were required reading to play a game.

PDFs now account for about 10% of the RPG’s sold (per numbers supplied by Comics & Games Retailer Magazine, RPGNow, and DTRPG).

Revising your writing requires acute concentration. The first draft may be an act of pure creation, but when you start to patch it up, any tool that can assist your weary brain warrants consideration, no matter how mechanical it may seem.

Almost every writer’s first draft includes stylistic bugaboos that need to be hunted down and eliminated.

For example, you may know that you occasionally:

  • confuse “their” and “there”

  • overuse dashes or quotation marks

  • use “affect” when you mean “effect”

Nearly any manuscript can use a scrub for unnecessary uses of the word “that.” Half the time you need it to retain sense or rhythm. The other half, it’s just sitting there, killing the rhythm of your sentence. Scrutinize each appearance.

In roleplaying writing, when describing hypothetical actions of characters or objects in a game session, you can almost always strike the word “will” and then tighten further:

The truck will come barreling out of the alley at the investigators.

Becomes…

The truck barrels out of the alley at the investigators.

To mention another issue I always go on about, you may know that you use too many inactive verbs: “is”, “are”, and “be.”

Either through an editor or with the aid of a word cloud generator, you may have discovered that you over-rely on certain words or phrases. (Which words pass muster and which you ought to trim is a bigger subject, so for the sake of this discussion let’s stipulate that you’ve identified the words and phrases you want to ration.)

Bugaboos of whatever sort easily slip past the eye when revising. You place them in your document unconsciously. They can remain equally invisible to you when reviewing . Force yourself to see them by using the formatting feature of your word processor’s search and replace feature to highlight each instance of the word or phrase you’re looking for. Search and replace in both Word and LibreOffice* allows you not only to find instances of formatting, but also to add it where none exists. So if you’re looking for all instances of “that”, search for “that” (no formatting) and replace with “that” (highlighted.) Before beginning the revision in earnest, repeat the process for each bugaboo you want to spot.

As you comb through your text, your selected errors and problems jump out at you in blazing yellow. This makes it harder to mentally screen out the stuff you’re looking for.

Is this annoying? Yes, and that’s a plus. After a while you’ll have cut or un-highlighted so many instances of your target word or phrase that you might just rewire your brain so you make that mistake less frequently during the initial draft phrase.

Editors love writers who show progress by overcoming their familiar bugaboos. Using a trick to get there doesn’t count as cheating. And even if it did, they’d love you all the same.


*Google Docs, deliberately feature-light, does not provide for this. Yet another reason why nothing you write for professional publication should be composed exclusively on Google Docs. It’s fine for first draft, if you find it convenient, but when readying for submission you need the formatting capabilities of an actual word processor.

Six Tips for Achieving Power Over the Revision Process

I was recently asked how to handle the sense of frustration that comes when a writer feels stalled out during a revision process. My answers were all pretty general, so in the interest of sharing, and of turning my development work for Pelgrane into a web article they’ve already paid for, I share these with you here.

These bits of advice address the momentary feeling of being in the weeds on a project. Chronic writer’s block is a different matter, best addressed elsewhere.

1. Accept the Weeds as a Phase of the Creative Process. Writing is mentally taxing. Revising, doubly so, as it lacks the flow state you can reach during primary creation. Learn to see periods of mental fatigue while improving a manuscript not as signs that something has gone awry, but the result of the effort you’re applying to the task.

Is it hard? Good! Good writing is hard. Good revising is hard. That feeling is a sign that you’re taking the task seriously, sharpening your self-critical faculty, and improving your piece. It can be hard to see while you’re in it, but you’re tired because you’re doing the work.

You may feel lost and bogged down when by any objective measure you are making steady, incremental progress. Self-assessment weakens when you’re tired and/or stressed. You’re doing better than you think.

2. Give Yourself a Break. Let yourself rest, intellectually and emotionally, by taking time to not think about the work. Pursue a relaxing, meditative activity. If weather and health permits, go for a nice long walk. Whatever you do to give yourself downtime, recenter yourself by resting and relaxing, then come back to the work refreshed.

3. Clear the Decks. Other, unrelated minor tasks may be impinging on your concentration by making you feel (again, likely incorrectly) that you’re behind on all manner of obligations. Find a few items on your to-do list you can easily move onto your done list, and knock them off. (Implicit in this is the suggestion that you keep a to-do list to track personal and professional tasks. It helps you see that you don’t have as much stuff weighing on you as you think, and gives you the satisfaction of ticking them off and making them disappear. I use a web/phone app called Toodle-Do.)

4. Get Enough Sleep. Easier said than done, and something I absolutely struggle with myself. But writing and revising are not so much about waiting for inspiration as waiting for a state of mental acuity. Experts disagree on what works, and what works for me may not for you. But one thing is guaranteed to mess you up: not blocking out enough time in your life for full, restful sleep.

5. Refresh Yourself While Working. When mental fog descends during a writing shift, go lie down with your eyes closed and the lights out. I use a sleep mask. Even if you don’t fully nap, a ten to fifteen minute quasi-nap will help regain focus. Also, try the Pomodoro technique, in which you work for twenty minute stretches punctuated by five-minute breaks. I don’t find this useful for primary creation, as it breaks flow, but have had good results with it on revision/development days.

6. Depersonalize the Task. This one’s a tall order, but the most helpful if you can swing it. Seek detachment from the idea of success or failure at the task as a measure of self-worth. Revision is a technical exercise, one that you get better at with time. (But never really defeat—welcome to the writer’s life!) Picture the dullest, least emotionally resonant task you can ably perform: unclogging a sink, cleaning a grill, labeling photo files. That’s revision. Keep judgment out of your rear-view mirror, whether it’s the imagined judgment of your editor or the voice of doubt in your own head. Yes, eventually your work will be evaluated, by yourself and others. However, to avoid rabbit holes during the process you have to seal that thought in a box and put it away. When you’re clarifying ideas and tightening prose you’re just scrubbing the gunk off that grill.

See P. XX

a column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

 

As the field of roleplaying expands its audience, and new platforms appear to provide an ever wider array of ways to get material into the hands of gamers, more folks than ever have jumped in to try their hand at writing. Whether you’re working, as an emerging RPG writer, on supplements, adventures, or games, you can increase the appeal of your work by adopting key techniques to sharpen your prose style.

Most writers, myself included, prefer to focus on style nitty-gritty when revising. Worry about it too much during the first draft and you’ll bog down, losing both your thread of meaning and your will to go on. After a while you’ll absorb techniques like the ones given here and instinctively adopt them into your initial writing phase. When you do revise, you’ll then be working from a stronger starting point.

Many of the tips below elevate any piece of writing, but let’s look at them from an RPG perspective.

Before the tips, a caveat: with rules text in particular, you want clear and stylish prose. When those two values conflict, technical precision outweighs style concerns. You may for example need to repeat the same word multiple times in close succession, which you wouldn’t do even in other, more story-oriented sections of the same game book.

1. Replace Inactive Verbs

Almost every emerging writer over-relies on a few frequently used, dead verbs: is, are, be, have. When you can, reconfigure your sentences to favor more specific, dynamic alternatives. Altering sentences to weed out inactive verbs forces you to tune up a sentences in other ways, finding greater specificity or concision.

Mercutio is a hot-blooded young man, driven by a churning intellect and a presentiment of his own doom.

Might become:

Mercutio’s hot blood, churning intellect and a presentiment of doom drive him to flights of poetic fancy.

The first describes him in a static state. The second puts him in action. Nipping out the “is” led us to show the GM more directly what Mercutio might do in a scenario.

The renderers are figures of terror throughout the neighborhood.

Becomes:

The renderers spread terror throughout the neighborhood.

Again, this moves us from situation to action.

The agents must be careful to keep up the pretense, or be attacked by the mutons.

Becomes:

The agents must keep up the pretense, or face a muton attack.

This distills the action into a simpler, shorter, punchier sentence.

Don’t expect to altogether avoid inactive verbs. You’ll find yourself testing and rejecting alternates because they confuse your sequence of thoughts, or require many more words than the original, inactive version.

2. Strike Instances of “Will”

RPG writing frequently puts us in the unusual position of describing a hypothetical future action:

The octopus will pick up the phone.

The monster will run at the PCs.

Amy will withhold that information until she’s sure the group can be trusted.

Dropping the “will” excises an unnecessary word, tightens the sentence, and allows the reader to envision the described action:

The octopus picks up the phone.

The monster runs at the PCs.

Amy withholds that information until she’s sure the group can be trusted.

I’ve been writing RPG books for a long time now, and still during my revision pass spot instances of the dreaded “will” begging to be cut.

3. Shorten Your Sentences

In RPG writing we can get caught up in a tumble of creative thought. As we get those thoughts up on the screen, we tumble from one idea to the next. That leads to overlong sentences that try to express too much. Almost any submission draft from a starting writer arrives full of sentences whose commas beg to be turned into periods. Get chopping!

Under the neon bridge the garoons thrash and cry, haunted by memories of their past lives, seldom heeding the worries of Old Chan, who gazes at them with a worried expression and silently rolls and lights another cigarette, because that’s what he’s been reduced to now.

Becomes:

Under the neon bridge the garoons thrash and cry. Memories of their past lives haunt them. Seldom do they heed the worries of Old Chan. He gazes at them and silently rolls and lights another cigarette. Fate has reduced him to this, he thinks.

Periods give the reader time to stop and take in each idea before moving on to the next. Resist the impulse to slap rope together with a kit-bag of conjunctions. The appearance of “and” near the end of a lengthy sentence often marks a trouble spot in your sentence. Look carefully at the final clauses of your sentences. Many times you can cut them entirely. In other cases you’ll see that they bear little relation to the rest of your thought and should break free to become their own sentences.

4. Remove Passive Construction

This standard piece of style advice still bears repeating. Except when used for (usually ironic) effect, cut out sentences that bury their subjects by shunting them to the end of the sentence, or omitting them entirely.

Dogs all around the neighborhood were terrified by ravager activity.

Becomes:

The ravagers terrified neighborhood dogs.

5. Strip Out Introductory Flab

When revising text, take an extra hard squint at passages introducing new subjects. You may see that you eased your way into the topic with a series of broad introductory statements. If you did, you were probably getting your mental gears going as you found your way to what you really wanted to say. See how many initial sentences you can pare away without cutting into the true meat of your piece.

Ever since the dawn of time humankind has feared the dark. Throughout the ages people have whispered of strange doings in the woods. Combining the dark and the woods together creates unique and special fears. The shadowy beings known as woodhaunts stalk the forests of southeastern Poland.

Becomes:

The shadowy beings known as woodhaunts stalk the forests of southeastern Poland.

By Robin D. Laws

Although I’m not a line developer or editor for the GUMSHOE line, the Head Pelgrane occasionally asks me to comment on manuscripts in progress. Over time I’ve been able to see certain issues crop up in the work of multiple authors. This process has improved not only those books, but my own work. It’s easier to see problematic material in someone else’s draft than in your own. Manuscript review has also crystallized my thoughts on how GUMSHOE, and particularly its scenarios, might be refined and better presented. While revising our internal writer’s guidelines to reflect these developing insights, we thought we’d open them up to a general audience by presenting key selections in this and next month’s installment of See P. XX.

Let’s reverse the universe’s usual polarity by moving from the general to the specific—from tips to punch up any piece of writing, to those applicable to roleplaying scenario writing, and finally to the finer points of GUMSHOE.

Punching Up Any Piece of Writing

These rules will stand you in good stead in most fiction or non-fiction writing. Exceptions pertain in particular fields: scientific papers demand the passive voice, for example.

You may groan at the familiarity of certain examples, but they show up repeatedly in the work of skilled professional writers, and so bear repeated hammering.

You’ll note that I advise writers to take these steps during revision. Stopping your first draft to wrestle with sentence structure kills momentum and may plunge you into the chill waters of self-doubt and frustration. Tackle this stuff later, when spotting and fixing errors fosters a sense of accomplishment. Eventually you’ll internalize these tricks and instinctively perform them during the writing phase.

Passive Voice

Avoid the passive voice, in which you obscure the object of an action by turning it into the subject of the sentence.

The sanity of the Congressman was destroyed by mi-go.

By de-emphasizing the person, force, thing or shambling horror, performing the action, you weaken your sentence’s impact.

If you’re writing a business press release or apologizing for a politician, you may omit the real subject of the sentence entirely:

Mistakes were made.

The sanity of the Congressman was destroyed.

Here you’re fudging on purpose, removing culpability and attributing the action to some unnamed force. You mi-go apologist, you!

When revising your manuscript, and you see any variation of the verb “to be” followed by a past participle, reconfigure it.

Mi-go destroyed the Congressman’s sanity.

I made mistakes.

As with any general writing tip, you may find specific reason to violate this dictum. Dialogue justifies all manner of prose sins. Perhaps mi-go always speak in the passive. I wouldn’t put it past them. The overall point remains—only do this when you can justify it.

Weak Verbs

Here’s an issue I used to conflate with passive voice before I started reviewing other people’s manuscripts and got corrected on it. When reviewing your manuscript, look for instances of the verb “to be” and its variations—“is,” “are”, “was” and “am.” Most sentences pair these with an additional verb.

The sheepbots are grazing on the hill.

The vampire was sucking her blood.

Wherever you can do so without weirdly contorting your sentence’s rhythm or syntax, reconfigure to drop the “to be” and rely entirely on the more vivid paired verb.

The sheepbots grazed on the hill.

The vampire sucked her blood.

You may be using “to be” to indicate timing—it suggests an ongoing action, rather than one that has already completed itself. Do this only when absolutely necessary—often the exact sequence of events proves less important than the stronger punch of the single action verb.

Over-reliance on “to be” becomes a special temptation when writing in the abstract mode found in the essay, or in rules text.

The second edition is better organized than the first.

Use of weak verbs is a sign of a beginning writer.

This rule is the key to GUMSHOE.

By replacing instances of “to be” whenever possible, you’ll accumulate a repertoire of stronger, more precise substitute verbs.

We reorganized this edition for superior ease of reference.

Use of weak verbs reveals the hand of the beginning writer.

To understand GUMSHOE, absorb this key rule.

Paring “of the”

Sentences including the word pairing “of the” can often be tightened by replacing them with an apostrophe.

He hires the crew to repatriate the mantle of the king.

Becomes:

He hires the crew to repatriate the king’s mantle.

Consider this issue wherever it appears, but don’t treat it as an iron-clad rule. You may want to leave an “of the” as is:

  •  for rhythm
  •  to maintain formality
  •  when emulating an older style
  •  to preserve thought order by ensuring that a sentence ends on a particular clause.

Sometimes the apostrophe version strikes the reading ear as jarringly direct.

Roleplaying Syntax

The following issues prose issues apply specifically (or at least particularly) to the roleplaying form.

Deprecation of the “will”

Though often mentioned, this issue continues to bedevil scenarios, which are written in a strange conditional future tense. In a sentence describing an action which a PC or GMC may or may not take, you may find yourself reflexively inserting the word “will”:

If the agents reach the safe house, Keletny will burn the car.

Should scavengers get past the drop door, the mutants will scramble for the hidden exit.

You can do yourself, and your editors, no better favor than to train yourself out of this habit. In this construction, “will” is totally unnecessary, and thus deadens the sentence’s impact:

If the agents reach the safe house, Keletny burns the car.

Should scavengers get past the drop door, the mutants scramble for the hidden exit.

Plurals Are Pluralistic

In the future hypothetical voice of roleplaying writing you often find yourself constructing sentences around players and/or their characters whose genders are unknown to you. More inconveniently still,   grammar predates feminism, rendering all attempts at gender inclusivity awkward in one way or another.

GUMSHOE uses the conceit that the hypothetical unknown GM is female and the players male. As a side benefit, this sometimes clarifies sentences featuring multiple pronouns.

Even better, when you can, turn the subject plural to avoiding assuming gender for your hypothetical subject.

The character can leave his pistol at the door, or leave it on the ship.

Becomes:

Characters can leave their pistols at the door, or leave them on the ship.

Next month: We move beyond prose issues to navigate you past scenario design pitfalls, general and GUMSHOE.