Where Did It Come From?
2020 has been a bad year. When police officers killed George Floyd, they added another cultural ring to the tree trunk of systemic hatred. There are so many names on a list that should not exist. I won't put them here, but it would be wrong to neglect the headlining issue. This episode of Code Switch outlines the trends of violence. It's worth listening to and reflecting on the people behind the names, their individual personhood, the way they settle in after a long day, the way they like to grocery shop, what they call their loved ones.
This story is not just about racism. It's racism in an era where we're facing a global pandemic that threatens vulnerable populations. Despite powerful calls to action, I greedily want to avoid exposing my grandma, who I live with, to the virus. I give money to The Bail Project and Reclaim the Block, I'm still restless.
Dissident Whispers is a product that is born out of an insular and focused desire to do something amidst a general restlessness. Indeed, the scaffolding seems to have already been in the walls, in the organizers, and in the supporting technologies. I couldn't point to a specific moment the project felt cohesive. Rather, the concrete and furniture were already set by the time I had moved into the Discord, sitting spaces arranged, everyone knowing the how-tos, and the where-goes. The goal was clear.
We're going to make a lot of table-top RPG content, and we're going to raise money for bail orgs.
Silver Goat on Discord started the organizing by messaging people and asking them if they'd help and advertise. The tabletop community told other people in the tabletop community, big names got attached. First timers and vets began production, working through processes that had organically sprouted up the moment Silver Goat started recruiting.
The bones of the project gave participators an uncanny amount of agency while stripping away the ego that can accompany creative freedom. Tight deadlines, presented early, kept goals realistic. Perspectives on projects were varied enough to put flesh on old sets of bones, while new projects flourished with the creative touch of other talents.
How did it Manifest?
As a product Dissident Whispers features 58 independent adventures for a number of systems. Each of them takes up one A3 spread, with the total size coming out to 140 pages. There is a physical pre-order through Tuesday Knight Games, with European copies proxyable through Melsonia.
While I love the entire book, I think Jabari Weathers' cover art is a perfect choice, the way that choosing a window seat on a short flight is a perfect choice.
Inside you get two adventures explicitly written by me, but it's wrong to say that they're mine. The things that I wrote were laid out and worked on by other people. Emerald Horizon, my Mothership adventure had been laid out by Sean McCoy, and The College of Acoustic Ministration, was tailored by a wonder duo who make up Ember & Ash Games. It is incorrect to say that they're my adventures.
The PDF has been worked on since release. Putting together fifty-eight individual adventures into one roughly homogeneous book is the logistics equivalent of trying to turn oatmeal into cereal. The first installments had issues with loading, and had incomplete credits. Dissident Whispers has resolved all of its PDF problems, and can now provide life advice on how to resolve all of your individual problems.
Organic Workflow? Firmament?
I have never said the word Trello before. In fact, I never imagined that on a given day I would ever know the word Trello and be saying it regularly. If you, a coven of OSR page turners, and your magic-number-machines want to make an RPG book, I would say that you need three pieces of technology. One of them is internet, one of them is Discord, and the last one is Trello. Everything else is negotiable.
Trello works because an adventure in the RPG sense has nicely defined tasks that go into its production. Those things are writing, editing, art, and layout. If you were budgeting for role tags, you could compress writing and editing, but this is ethically equivalent to skipping showers because you put deodorant on.
The writing channel felt slightly less used, but it is a nice place to help the creative process get to a minimum viable product.
When a writer writes...
In the gut feeling part of my brain, the growth of online media has also increased demand for the visual design that accompanies writing. Rather than being a product of itself, the writing acts as a sourdough starter from which the bread of a complete product can rise. Writing is essential, but the value of the writing increases with even small touches of art and layout.
I'm reminded of Schwartz and Middleditch, the Netflix improv series by Benjamin Shwartz and Thomas Middleditch. Before engaging in the improv, the duo will gather information from the audience through the probiscus of conversation. This converation nectar passes through a chambered stomach of comedy instinct, improv training, and brotherly trust, before being regurgitated at putrid length into a cheesecloth strained comedy bit. The process is vital to the value, but there is no value without the conversation nectar. Both are required filament to ignite the bulb we call roleplaying.
Dissident Whispers does not mirror the production of Middleditch and Shwartz, except for the flimsy point that writers spark the process by submitting dungeons. These dungeons were in a mixed state at submission. I edited around 8 distinct adventures, some needed style notes only, while others needed vigrous cutting.
All of those adventures wound up as amazing spreads in DW, but the initial qualia of the writing is the least important factor in determining the final outcome. Rather, the textual contents inventiveness did far more than properly placed periods ever could. A jarring example of this is the nearly 1300 words of College of Acoustic Ministration being 1/100th the quality of the Pony Adventure. Luke Gearing's TEN THOUSAND ALLIGATOR HELL somehow gets several thousand words of adventure into a single alligator, of which there are ten thousand.
If there is a lesson it's that the writing is a seed planted in creativity soil, watered by concept. Good writing is taking a pruning knife to the fruitless buds on the grown tree. Your writing might be bad, but far from a foundation, writing is an opportunity to grow a creative theme with your team. The textual quality is secondary. The imagination, when prompted through the art, can smooth over mechanical folly, leaving an impression of quality.
Distance yourself from the concept of a masterful author, you're a lemon, and writing is the juicer. Of course there are benefits of doing a good writing, the writing is not unimportant. It's the first part of the process, and it will become less important as that process goes on.
The lemon juice of your writing efforts is placed in a Google Doc, and that doc is attached to a Trello card that will belong to your project through the entire pipeline.
Once a document has passed editing, the Trello card would be moved from under the Written (Editing Wanted) to the Written (Art/Map Wanted) or to the Written (Layout) column.
Before grabbing a Trello card, a conversation happens in Discord so collaborators know what they're getting into.
Editing: A Practical Science of Considerable Eyestrain
Editing engages a different cognitive process than reading. I think this is true for any editors out there (#EditingFam #ActiveNotPassive #Positive4Apositives), but it's hard to describe the difference because this process is holisitic for me. It's like flipping a switch, I know there are other processes at play, but they're all soft feelings, not hard rules. I'm going to try anyway.
When editing, every single word is a suspect in a vast lineup in which you are always missing offenders. To be and it's myriad conjugations want to strangle the art out of the writing, and it is your responsibility to be a fan of the non-edited work and help close the gap between its content and its presentation. Abundant adverbs choke a sentence. If the writing doesn't feel spicy, try varying the sentence length, or the structure of a sentence.
Length is straight-forward, but for structure, most sentences are S, V, O. Mitch skateboards on the street.
You can try verb, object, subject. Skateboarding on the street, Mitch.
Object, subject, Verb. The road Mitch skates.
Because our default mode is the SVO sentence structure, an easier way to punch a sentence up is by using a complex sentence with the dependent clause coming before the independent clause. Subordinate conjunctions, when memorized, are a cheaters way to doing this naturally in writing.
Try not using any -ly words for awhile. Go back and cut the -ly words out and see if the sentence is better. This is how you write now, judicious use of adverbs hath elevated the piece to new heights.
There were, a lot of editors in the Whisper Collective. Lots of them were good, some were literary demi-gods masquerading as roleplaying adventure editors, and all of them left the edited pieces better. The message is clear. Show your work to other people and let them comment regardless of their experience. Criticism is fuel for refinement, and the artistic license to reject criticism, incorporate criticism, and discuss the reasoning behind criticism, is part of the editing process. Authors are themselves the only editors that have final say, and it is up to the others to provide outside avenues of editorial critique for that final opinion.
Looking For Art
Artist collaboration is essential. We'll revisit this idea later on in the layout section, but everything is improved by visual pop. Whether that pop comes from great layouts, great art, or distinctive framing, aesthetics are another vector of communication.
In previous projects I've always asked artistically savvy friends to contribute. My last big push into digital spaces was The Skill Floor, a nearly four year streaming enterprise where nearly every art asset was done by one of my childhood friends, Sivartzz. Before he took over branding, Mexicanines did literally every thumbnail for our podcast and made our logo look like something. Pointedly, I've never been the dude behind the artist seeking a specific result, and in turn always have my faith rewarded.
Artistic additions in this project were similarly un-dictated to the contributing artists with immensely satisfying results. Artistic embellishment works. I can think of no better evidence than the pixelated prowess of Ribston, and Madeline Ember of Ember + Ash.
Speedy development and tight deadlines mean there is no time to shop for artists, in exchange the writer has to be content with any deliverables. Terrifying this might be, the added pressure encourages meaningful effort (and additional pressure).
If DW were an ice cream shop, then each artistic flavor is an unmelting, perfectly temperate, platonic ideal of a flavor. Cold Stone's frozen creams would melt in jealousy at the ludicrous display of art, metaphorically cast as chilled dairy treats. At no point does the consumer wonder how someone decided to put oreos in ice cream, it just seems like it was always a thing that people did.
To assist with speed, requests to the artist pool should include a concept, and a size for the picture. Lacking these will slow the process, and potentially put layout in the awkward position of calling for cuts, bummer if text needs to go, tragedy if the art gets removed.
Pieces, Wholes, and the Glue That Holds Them
Art and writing do not hold hands on their own. In the world of online publishing, getting these two components to fit together comes down to the sudoku-similar world of Layout.
An art to itself, layout tries to conform two potentially disparate ideas into the unified format of an A3 spread. Much like Reading Rainbow, Layout wants to make reading easy, and like Lavar Burton, host of Reading Rainbow, the delivery mechanism should be beautiful.
College had layout done by Natalie Ash of Ember + Ash who solved a major textual problem of trying to introduce two things in opposition to each other. When writing in a google doc, juxtaposing them is not an apparent solution. In the medium of layout, Natalie picked up on that and made it look great.
Emerald Horizon's map is ugly. Made by me, several hours after sheepishly giving up on making a map, it shares a color pallet with a concept album based on the 1995 movie Hackers. Sean McCoy, of Mothership, the system Emerald Horizon is couched in, offered to do layout. I became obsessed with what this tacit professional would do with several shades of brown served up in this layout soiree. It felt like bringing a food critic to the Hometown Buffet, a place where the only thing having a good time is the fungal growth in the hot water baths the soup sits in.
In essence, I knew Sean would "figure it out," but I was positive there would be some color swapping and minor indigestion in the process.
The next morning it's nearly done. It looks great. All of the colors highlight each other delicately creating a Rose Parade of design choices that triumphantly march into your eyes. The only thing missing is audible fanfare.
On its own, the map is just a jpeg of a map. When sent with writing it's possible to open both and browse the map and text simultaneously. You can fake layout, by placing the two together, but this is always the lowest bar. Far better to have a layout imposed on the text and image to form them into a cohesive whole. The style around the text emphasizing uniformity with an image, consecutively informing thematics, and executively teaching mechanics.
Hitches in the Highway
A process needs flaws to inspire improvement on the next go around. Far from a delinquency in the process, perfection can be prohibitive. A good example are the droves of new Wardens coming into the Mothership Discord to ask about health pools, who go on to answer those same questions.
There were many editors, and few pieces. At some point, I got lost in the scramble of submitted adventures, more hungry to put my name in the comments of Trello cards, than about the betterment of the project. In the initial rush, voices were squelched, one such voice wound up being a huge asset on College during the editing process.
In one of their earlier editing attempts, another editor jumped onto the google doc they were in and started tearing through it, discouraging their efforts and dissuading them from additional edits. A helper wound up coordinating editors so that work was not duplicated (another thing I had not considered), and nobody would have work snuck out from under them. The use of Trello tags to indicate ownership became a key tool. Using the tags in future projects to indicate editor assignment will be key to all stages and will prevent the blanket haggling that happened in Discord channels when people were unsure what needed doing.
Layout's Got it Bad
Without exact numbers I have to play pretty close to the chest here lest I be wrong. Layout had the least representation in the labor spread. As I start to experiment with Affinity Publisher, the time and energy cost of a single small spread is equally taxing to writing an adventure. Some layoutnauts were flipping 4 or more adventures in one day.
Text channels did not bubble with so much burnout talk, except for layout, where fatigue was becoming an unavoidable problem. I'm specifically trying to get some practical experience laying stuff out to help. The only way to solve this problem is recruiting more layout people. It's fun, you'll love the things you can make, I already think it's rad and have started using it in my day job. Please? Layout people will be necesarry as Whisper Collective grows. We'd love to have you.
The Minor Edit Problem
Right before publishing there were a few small changes in College I wanted to make. At this point, the adventure was frozen in the untouchable layer of layout, and to make these changes I would have to contact the layout person and ask them to make revisions. It felt very bad to ask someone else to make these small changes. I don't have a solution to this hitch because it's a very complicated question, one we saw further ramifications of as the publishing process continued. Layout files are not easily shareable the way that google docs are, and we're not all on the same software suite. Having a way to easily make changes would be great, better if there's a solution with edit tracking a la Git.
Ending. Nexting. Purchasing.
It was fun! Dissident Whispers was all I could talk about for a hot minute, it took over my life. At the end I was feeling so overwhelmed I took a day off work to decompress and reflect. What's cool is that I feel like I can do it. I don't know what it is, but this was the thing that nourished an artistic tendency that has been so far neglected. Not just the project itself, but the people involved. It is really something to see a Chris Mcdowell to give your adventure the Bastionland stamp of approval, it is really something to talk to others about their protest experience, it is great to feel understood by so many strangers. To all of the helpers, you did amazing. To Kat, thanks for being an amazing social media human. Jert for all but running the writing room, everyone on the art and layout teams. Of course to the incredible editing fam, without whom my ship will have sunk, my words would have stank, and our tag color would not be nearly as dank.
Whisper Collective is an ongoing project. I encourage you to keep tabs for future projects that you might be able to drop roots into.
On the backend of this adventure, I finished setting up my personal blog, which will live here. As part of the process I picked up Ghost, and decided to try out Lightsail versus doing the traditional AWS stuff I did with The Skill Floor.
I'm going to fill that little server up with garbage, but before that you get this one hopefully good thing.