Tag Archives: advice

You Don’t Always Need An NDA

Many creative professionals, like myself, are familiar with the concept of a non-disclosure agreement (or NDA). It’s a legal document that employees and contractors sign with companies to protect their products while they are in development. You see them all the time, and I’ve certainly signed my fair share.

Recently, however, I’ve seen a few companies that are pushing against the need for NDAs on every project they do. The most visible is Evil Hat’s “Disclosure Pledge,” but I’ve seen other creative professionals (usually indies) argue that exposure is more important than protecting information. Which brings up the question “When do you need to ask people to sign an NDA?”

I’m not a lawyer, this is not legal advice, etc. etc., but I did listen to an IGDA webcast about intellectual property last week, which answered a few interesting points for me. In it, I learned that NDAs are primarily used for one area of IP rights: trade secrets. In the U.S., a trade secret is basically defined as any information which derives independent economic value from not being publicly known.

What does that mean? As an example, let’s say you’re working on a new paper and dice roleplaying game, and you have some new mechanics. If one of your freelancers took that information to another company, would you lose potential sales as a result? Conversely, if your freelancer took that information to the Internet, would you lose sales? Or would you gain sales from buzz and hype?

There isn’t any easy answer to this — each company and individual will draw that line a little differently. People who feel they have sincerely novel material should always consult a lawyer. But at a higher, strategic level, it is worth consideration. It’s possible that your project may be hindered, not protected, by heavy NDA use.

5 Worst Ways To Ask A Professional For Help

I like helping people out. I really do. I often eek out time between projects here and there to check a friend’s game mechanics or read over someone’s manuscript. For my friends, I’m willing to do a lot.

The downside is that I don’t have a lot of time left over to help relative strangers. I try to post advice and suggestions to this blog and on my social media, with the idea that I can help a lot of people more generally. However, I still get requests for free business advice, uncontracted design suggestions, informal manuscript comments, and unpaid consultations. And for a while, I tried being a nice guy and help out, but this year I committed to cut down and say “no” more often, because it was becoming a huge drain on my time, energy, and ability to stay civil.

I firmly believe that everyone involved isn’t trying to be irritating. They’re just confused, excited, and a little unsure of themselves. I get that. But I’ve talked with friends of mine who are also creative professionals, and they struggle with this as well. Many of them have stopped fielding such requests altogether (and I’ve come damned close a few times). And usually it’s because there are some really big problems in how folks ask for favors. Here are five ways to quickly frustrate the person you’re asking for help.

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It’s okay to like things that I hate

I am continually surprised that I have to defend things I don’t like to people that do, or vice versa.

Here’s an example. A lot of my friends are really interested in the Dystopia Rising LARP. I’m sure it’s really awesome, but for a variety of reasons, I’m just not interested in it. I want people to enjoy their enthusiasm of new things, even if I occasionally need to mute email threads or posts on my social media feeds just so it stops popping up. And yet, once in a while I’ll get someone new who doesn’t realize I’m not interested, and I have to politely inform them.

This is where it gets awkward, because sometimes, people want to know why. And conceptually, I understand it — perhaps if there’s some misunderstanding I hold as to why I don’t like the game, it can be addressed. People want to share something they enjoy with people they like, and really enthusiastic fans want to remove barriers from people who could be fans. I understand all of these motivations, and I respect them, but sometimes it feels like I need to justify why I dislike something. I end up needing to articulate exactly why I hate it, and if that reason is not somehow sufficient, I am not “giving it a fair chance.”

Let’s try a different example. Something that will shock no one is that I like Elementary, but once in a while I’ll run into a rabid fan of BBC Sherlock who feels the need to explain in vitriolic terms why they hate the show. Again, aside from the irritating tendency to thread crap, if people want to hate something, feel free. But once in a while, I get put on the spot to justify liking the show, implying that somehow I cannot possibly like Sherlock if I like Elementary. (And let’s face it: I like Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century. If liking bad Holmes media is a crime, consider me guilty.)

For a while, I chalked a lot of this up to misplaced enthusiasm. It’s natural to share things we like and find people who hate the things we hate, and the simple mantra of “we don’t have to like the same things” seemed sufficient. But over the years, my stance on this has gotten muddier. Let’s take, for example, Orson Scott Card. He is an influential science-fiction writer who has “highly polarizing viewpoints” (which is a nice way of saying he’s a bigot). Without getting into the various debates on Card himself, the result has been a lot of very conflicted people who sincerely liked Ender’s Game but feel uncomfortable supporting Card in any way because of those opinions. The same thing happened when it was discovered that Jack Kirby wasn’t getting anything from The Avengers or that buying Chick-Fil-A made you hate gay people. These days, something you like could send a message you don’t intend, and people end up justifying their position more or not even talking about things they like.

I generally believe that it’s okay to like problematic things. You aren’t required to defend something that you had no hand in creating simply because you like it. Neither are you required to defend hating something that everyone around you loves if it bothers you, upsets you, or simply bores you. Let’s face it — there’s so much cool stuff in the world to experience, and life’s too short to spend arguing about which bits of it are more awesome than other bits of it. Certainly, let’s spend some time talking about problematic bits and how those bits impact larger culture so we can all make it better — popular culture as a spark for social dialog is important and useful. However, let’s stop trying to force people to like something they don’t, or make them feel bad for enjoying something you hate. Because if you don’t like Doctor Who, we can still be friends, and maybe we’ll bond over a mutual love of The Transformers instead.

The Meaning Penumbra

Let me tell you two quick stories.

1) When I posted my findings on what I learned when I went to a shooting range, it was pointed out that the word “gun” does not accurately apply to small arms.

2) My wife is a scientist, and scientists have a very specific use for the word “theory.” Tell her that “evolution is just a theory,” and I will open betting on how long it takes her to frenzy and try to kill you.1

In both cases, these are conflicts within a word’s penumbra, or the meaning that people have put on a word that isn’t explicitly covered in it’s technical meaning. In both of these cases, it’s an example of a technical term gaining a vernacular meaning that isn’t the same as (or even at odds with) the original meaning.

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  1. Of course, I’m joking. She’d likely only maim you.

Befriend Your Peers, But Don’t Hire Your Friends

Friends forever!

A while ago, I read an interesting blog post by Monica Valentinelli. It was primarily interesting because it’s something I’ve known instinctually for a while, but I never actually thought about it in specific terms.

In case you’re like-adverse, the basic gist of her post is that Matt Forbeck told her the best way to “build a network” in this industry (or, really, any industry) isn’t to think of it as a business network at all, but a collection of friends. And I think that’s really true. While I certainly have a large number of acquaintances and people that I could theoretically pick out of a lineup as part of my social network, the people that I tend to think of when I do business are those that I could probably sit down with and not talk about business at all. I have been blessed to make a number of friends in the fields of fiction, video game development, and RPG design (and there’s a lot of overlap between the three of them).

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Politics: Throwing Chairs for Fun

Sorry for the delay. After the holiday I got wrapped up in working on Victorian Lost, as well as settling back into working on the World of Darkness MMO. Then I got sick, and didn’t feel like doing much of anything. But now I’ve settled back in, and ready to tackle more of my backlog of blog topics. In fact, bringeroflight over at LiveJournal asked me to talk about “writing political and social systems into an RPG, especially when it may end up in a low NPC LARP.”

Oh man, do I have opinions on this.

Politics in RPGs (and indeed, in fiction as a whole) are not the same as politics in real life. Without getting into a political debate about what is best, I’ll only say that in the real world, it’s often desirable when politicians are calm and productive and work together to accomplish something. In games, the opposite is true. In fact, I have often said that politics in LARPs should be more about throwing chairs than making policy. So, if you’re designing a political system, you need to think less about a functional political system and instead worry about making an interesting one. There are a few things to keep in mind with this.

Avoid Dictators. There’s a reason why the Prince in Masquerade went from the all-powerful elder in First Edition to being a toady largely at the control of a Primogen Council in Revised — dictators are boring on both sides of the equation. Sure, it’s fun for ten minutes to do whatever the hell you want, and there’s some narrative juice you can get from trying to overthrow a heartless bastard to prop up the next idealistic utopia that will ultimately fall to real-world pressures, blah blah blah, but the reality is that playing in that state is binary: you can do nothing or you can do whatever you want. The more people you can spread the power around to, the more interesting your political dynamic will become.

Power Needs To Mean Something. On the other hand, “dictator” has to seem like an attractive option. Playing in a town council that only has the authority to change school names or decide on the color of flower arrangements isn’t as exciting as playing a board of organized crime bosses who have the power of life and death. If political power means something, then people will hold on to it harder and work to get more of it, and so will everyone else. This means that those people will constantly clash against each other, which continues to generate entertaining situations. If you’re designing a game, this power has to matter to the mechanics at some level (which goes back to my thoughts on mechanics and setting — it all applies here as well).

There’s Not Quite Enough To Go Around. Part of that meaning has to revolve around resources, and specifically resources that are a little short of being enough for everyone. If there’s a game where all powers require a gem to use and there’s more than enough gems for everyone, there will be liberal sharing. Make the game where there’s enough gems to give to half of the players, and things get interesting. If you’re playing a group of vampires fighting over land, that land has to be small enough that not everyone can have a slice. (And yes, that land has to have a mechanic behind it.)

Politics are Player Vs. Player. I have run heavy political games both with players taking on all the political roles and with NPCs taking up most (or all) of those roles. In general, when the political choices are in the hands of the players, it’s a political game. When they’re in the hands of NPCs, it’s window dressing to a different game. It is certainly possible to have a strong political game where the players are all a coordinated group working against other factions to do something amazing or whatever, but on a basic level it’s no different than fighting a bunch of monsters. There’s a certain dynamic that comes only from players going all-out to screw each other over. The game Diplomacy is pure player vs. player politics, and I have heard more stories of people who won’t speak to each other after playing that game than in any other openly competitive game.

Decide What Politics Means For Your Game. In the end, you have to decide why politics are important.

For most mission-based or adventure-based games, all that matters is that there’s a guy that gives you orders or that you have to overthrow. In that case, prop up a king under whatever name you choose and point the players at him.

If you want a game where politics offers a flavor or spice to your game but isn’t the main thrust, consider a structure where power is divided between a few people or groups. You can define some groups as “bad” and others as “good” or paint them all with a uniform coat of gray, but in the end the players will likely side with one (or form their own faction). The act of picking and choosing a side feels political, but from there the game becomes a slightly more complicated version of “kill the bastard with the crown” again.

If you want a game where politics are the point of the game, you have to give that power to the players, and that power has to have teeth. There have to be reasons to work together as well as be at odds with each other. The right balance is where compromise is the only attractive option because it stops the fighting.

What political systems in games have you really enjoyed?

Fuck me, fuck this, or fuck you: A writer’s spectrum

Fuck youBefore I dive into this, let me preface: editing and criticism are essential to being a professional writer. I don’t care if you think your words are the best thing since 8-bit graphics, there is nothing that can’t be improved by a critical review.

Let me give you a moment if you think that doesn’t apply to you: there is nothing that can’t be improved by a critical review.

I know it’s hard to have your carefully-crafted words torn apart the first few times, but one of the best skills you can cultivate as a writer is the ability to not only accept criticism, but use it to improve your work above and beyond the individual edits. Taking a collection of individual notations and finding patterns that can improve your writing holistically is an amazing skill to have, but a hard knack to learn. It takes time and experience, but you should never stop trying.

That being said, I don’t think that initial sting ever goes away. Even after nine years of professional work, I still fear opening up an email with redlines. I still get a tiny sting when I see the meat of my work carefully shredded.1 Once that sting is past, I can look to the bone that’s uncovered and rebuild on that skeleton, which is always awesome. However, my career thus far has been all about getting past that sting – ripping off the band-aid so I can get to the good part of making the work better.

I’ve been going through a number of revision cycles in short order recently, and I’ve noted that the revision sting actually comes in a few different flavors. Each flavor itself tells me something about what I’m feeling about the work on an almost subconscious level, and I think that the sting of criticism itself can be telling in how to improve the work. It’s that tiny little editor in the back of my head, poking at the writer portion of my brain and going “Hey, asshole, pay attention to this part.” Because my little editor a foul-mouthed bastard, I’ve broken the stings down into three categories of “fuck”.

Fuck me: This is the sting of “oh god, how in the hell did that get in there?” (Also known as “who wrote this crap? Oh wait, that was me.”) This is the easiest one to resolve – someone pointed out a mistake, and you completely agree with it. Make the change and move on. I actually like these, because that means that someone caught something I missed, and the manuscript is definitely improved as a result. Cherish these moments.

Fuck this: This is the sting of “why am I even changing this?” It’s not that you necessarily agree or disagree, but you’re wondering why this revision matters. This is likely a general dissatisfaction with a larger-scale problem. It’s a bit trickier to diagnose in isolation – if you’re only getting it in a particular section, say, that section might need to be completely rewritten or just cut. If you’re getting it all over the manuscript, though, you might be burned out – consider putting it away for a while and coming back to it later.

Fuck you: This is the sting of “no, you’re wrong, my way of doing this is right.” You’re disagreeing with the criticism, and you find yourself building up defenses of the work. This is where you need to tread carefully.

As you’re starting as a writer, you need to beware this response – take a moment to really think of why the change is being offered, and see if this doesn’t actually improve the work. Despite their reputations as destroyers of quality prose, a good editor needs to be cherished like a rare jewel. They’re not ripping this apart because they hate you, but because they want to see you do better. Think about what’s being said and why, and consider if the change isn’t really better for the manuscript.

If you’re writing for hire and the criticism is from the hiring editor, always reconsider this reaction – depending on the editor, they might be open to contrary opinions, but at the end of the day, you’re writing this for them, and they can do whatever the hell they want to the material. Make sure your points are genuinely making the work better, rather than you stubbornly clinging on to something you think is particularly clever or interesting.

In general, I’ve found that the more experience you have as a writer, the less often you come across this reaction. At that point, I think you should switch from watching out from this response to embracing it – it may be your subconscious experience telling you that there’s something here that’s worth defending.

Regardless of your experience level, though, this reaction is always a good point to pause and think. I’ve taken to skipping these edits and moving on to the other “fuck me” and “fuck this” edits. Once they’re all done, I can look at the “fuck you” edits in isolation, and really think about them.

  1. It’s one of the reasons why I continue to offer my own writing up for review, even though I’m a developer now – I never want to be in a position where I’ve forgotten what it’s like on the other side of the red pen.