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Household Name

I Have Words & I Must Not Design

by Mike Pohjola
Jun 03,2004


I Have Words & I Must Not Design

Picture, if you will, a literature event in a semi-large town in Finland. It's organized by the town library and the culture council with all the newspapers of the area reporting. There are a bunch of authors present, a couple of expos, it's a big event with programme all day. The key note speaker that starts the whole event is a young author who is supposed to talk about the way art defines our perception of reality. When I held the speech, I mostly talked about roleplaying games. An audience member called it the best culture related speech in the town ever.

Many people, especially in the Finnish scene, have been wondering about the difference between a roleplaying game designer, and a roleplaying book author. There is no real difference, because what I've done is write a book that contains a roleplaying game, just like many game designers. But there is a big difference in the perceptions of the non-gaming crowd.

Being called an author means being treated as one by people like journalists, teachers, directors and producers - and by other authors, as well. I had not planned for these benefits, but seem to have stumbled on them by accident. Who knows, maybe it could work for you. I will now try to sketch an outline of the process.

Everyone is a designer

The term roleplaying game designer is traditionally used of people who have had at least one roleplaying game published or self-published. However, it can also be applied to the lead Game Master of every larp, live-action roleplaying game designer. Although sometimes the slightly more artistic term larpwright is used instead. But can not a tabletop GM be called a game designer? Why not, especially if they have ever published a one-shot adventure in a magazine or on their website.

Game designer also has that nasty word "game" in it. Designing a game leads you to think of balancing abilities, calculating rules mechanics, conjuring up puzzles, creating rewards, and that kind of stuff, which can be a part of roleplaying games, but is not the end-all-be-all of it. Game designer could be a person who designs collectible card games or board games. A game designer does not in my mind do things like writing character backgrounds or creating new cultures, unless these are important for balance of power, goals, rewards, and the like.

The character Hamlet written by a game designer would focus on the goals of getting revenge for his father's murder, and finding out if his uncle is guilty or not. The character Hamlet written by a larpwright or a roleplaying author would focus on guilt, self-doubt and existentialist crises.

All over Northern Europe, there are people calling themselves larpwrights rather than larp designers or Game Masters. To my knowledge I am the first one to have obtained (or taken) the title roleplaying author, although more are coming, as you know if you read Juhana's column. Publishing houses in Finland are working on new roleplaying books, and I would not be surprised if a similar development was going on in other countries.

Having a publisher

Since gaming publishers quite understandably mostly target gamers with their marketing, they are usually very good at a very specific thing: selling games to gamers.

Selling roleplaying games to people who are not yet gamers is a bit more difficult. So is getting the press interested. So is selling roleplaying games to libraries. And so on. A book publisher will probably not know about the specifics of marketing roleplaying games, but they do know how to market a product to the general audience, and I'm glad at the way it's worked out so far.

One sign of being an egoist is Googling yourself. (1060 hits.) But a sign of being an egoist author is going to the library and checking for your book on the library search engine.

My home town's children's library stores one copy of each popular roleplaying game, and no copies of the less popular ones. A normal young people's book would have fifteen or so copies scattered in different libraries around the town. Myrskyn aika is far from a normal book, but there are still nine copies in the local libraries, two of them in the children's library.

The situation seems to be the same in other towns: if the libraries only carry one roleplaying game, it is mine. I would assume my publisher did not actually do anything more than a roleplaying publisher would have, but their credibility made the libraries more interested.

Expert Set

Thanks to being an author, I get treated like an author. I am asked to hold lectures in schools, libraries, institutions. I am treated as an expert in my field. I have some experience as a playwright and a freelance journalist, but this has opened all new doors for me.

Last month I held a lecture in the Orivesi academy of writing, the most prominent of Finland's very few writing academies. They had a seminar on teaching writing, and had several authors and writing teachers discuss their methods and techniques. I was to speak about scripting roleplaying games.

Had I taken on such a task a year ago, I would have been treated as a sympathetic if eccentric hippie who happens to know something about a very strange subject. It would have been nice that I could give a youth perspective on the matters. This time, though, I was all grown-up.

I had been fantasy larping the previous day, and arrived with the night train in the middle of the evening festivities. I was to hold my lecture the next day.. The principal of the academy came to greet me by my hand, apologizing that I had missed the musical performance that had started the festivities, then showing me around the cocktail party, asking if there is anything he could do for me. I still had glue in my ears for wearing my first ever pair of elven ears, and really just wanted to go to sleep. But the principal and some other people were so keen on hanging out with me, an author and an expert, that I felt I had to stay a while longer.

I held my speech just before lunch on Sunday, and was almost revered. I was given an hour to speak, and then half an hour to answer questions. But after fifteen minutes, the over-enthusiastic crowd drowned me with questions! And most of the audience were female school teachers past the age of forty. The kinds of people that ten years ago were condemning roleplaying as satan worshipping.

A few weeks ago I was in a literature event talking about roleplaying. In the fall I will be speaking in high schools about roleplaying as a form of art, I am writing to magazines about roleplaying theory, I was elected a member of the board of a local authors' association, I have been asked to discuss library funding in press conferences, and I am interviewed for newspapers who want to do articles on roleplaying. This is all very strange, and I feel not much of it would have happened, had I self-published Myrskyn aika, as is the norm in Finland.

When I want to write something non-roleplaying related, I can just call a publishing house, and they will know who I am. The process of being read, accepted, edited and published might not be any easier than with first-time authors, but at least it will be much faster.

It is my belief that not only has dubbing myself an author helped my career, it has also helped the acceptance of roleplaying games as something else than a bunch of weirdo kids rolling dice or wearing funny costumes. If you're writing a roleplaying game, self-published or not, you might want to consider calling yourself not a game designer but a roleplaying book author.

Remember the words of Aldous Huxley: Rights are not given, they are taken.

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