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[S/Lay w/Me] Wham Bam

Started by Ron Edwards, August 05, 2009, 02:56:06 PM

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Ron Edwards

Sometimes something comes along, mentally, which makes me willing to take risks. It's happened again this year.

Late in 2008, Sean (username Calithena here and elsewhere) contacted me to write an article for the magazine Fight On! I like the mag and could feel a vague idea percolating regarding monsters. Monsters are a big part of my imaginative life and I've disliked most RPG monsters since about 1980 or so. I wanted to investigate my notions about "something" being lost from fantasy and gaming about then.

Well, life hit in the form of another child being born, as well as some brutal work demands outside of gaming. I didn't get my thoughts together and didn't see how I might ... until some internet scuffle regarding the retro supplement Carcosa arose, and some ideas snapped together. It wasn't just monsters, it was nudity. And it wasn't just illustration, it was content which the illustrations reflected and reinforced. Another avenue of inspiration then hit in the form of John Harper's Ghost Echo.

I wrote the article and a short new game simultaneously. The former is called "Naked Went the Gamer" and will be available for free at GenCon, as well as appearing in Fight On! #6. The latter, S/Lay w/Me, is printing more-or-less as we speak and fingers-crossed will be at GenCon too.

Too fast? Not playtested or baked enough? I dunno. My thinking is "not." It seems ready to me. This thread is intended to describe how the publishing process went. Whether it turns out to be instructive or a cautionary tale, I dunno that either.

The physical vision

It's short-short, not as handout-y as Ghost Echo, but clearly the physical artifact would be a pamphlet rather than a book. I began with the image of a digest-dimensions booklet, maybe 16 or 20 pages, white, stapled. My thinking was to have it professionally printed and bound, so the staples wouldn't be all cockeyed and the inner fold wouldn't be bunchy. To some extent, this recalled game supplements from the late 1970s. But I wasn't shooting for absolutely retro, so much as simple and "what it is, no more and no less."

Whom to get: layout and art

In all these years, Paul Czege and I had never collaborated on a creative project. I've admired the layout for My Life with Master since it was published, especially since he actually made those big margins work to help the book's clarity. I wanted something of the same feel for this thing, much in the way that an instruction manual will leave three-quarters of a page blank because that page's entry is short. I wanted to get away from the "cram it together" feel of a lot of RPG layout. I got in touch with Paul, sent him the various text as it stood, and he agreed to do it.

The goals for the art were straightfoward, because they come right out of the essay. I needed art drawn as if three decades of gaming culture had never happened. I wanted Berni Wrightson inking genius images onto leftover brown packing paper in the pot-smoke filled apartment he shared with fellow prodigies like Sean McManus and Bruce Jones, just because he felt like it. I definitely needed monsters and naked people, but drawn in a dynamic and engaging way that screamed situation. The nakedness had to be more art-school than display-porn ... well, you'll see the essay eventually, so you'll see what I mean then.

Anyway, as is often the case for a new book, I began by looking through my emails and the Connections forum to find people I haven't worked with before. I hit upon four artists whose style looked right or nearly so, and two of them allowed as how they might draw Teh Nekkid and not fear punishment by spanking. I asked Jeff Ward for a few interiors and Scott Purdy for the cover.

Game, essay, game + essay?

I'd had some good results in the past from combining the Sorcerer core book with the essay "System Does Matter." Should I do that again? The essay and the game are twins by birth; why not publish them together? I went back and forth and back and forth about this. Ultimately, and only partly because I still associated the essay's publication with Fight On!, I decided upon keeping them separate.

Of course, my equivocating didn't help Paul much. It's hard to lay out a book when you don't know whether half of the potential text will be in it or not.


All of these decisions were concurrent with furious playtesting. You can see some of it discussed in [S/lay W/Me] The Lion, the Wretch, and the Woman, [S/Lay w/Me] the Lover and the liquids, and [S/Lay w/Me] The back-story and earliest playtesting .

What I found, and this is probably the main reason why I split the essay out of the game book, was that the vision of play emerged really well from the text for people other than myself. They "got it." I decided that the game didn't need an essay to explain it, and in fact that a more visceral experience of reading rules, seeing illustrations, and playing might be both sufficient and more desirable.

And speaking of not helping Paul much, he knew he wasn't working with finalized text. I can advise any and all publishers not to do that to your layout person.


I had a lot going on with printing. I needed more copies of Spione, both for shipping to retailers and for GenCon. I also had Trollbabe in final layout for its book form, and needed that for GenCon too, in a big way. I had a choice: go with the printer who currently has the Spione files on hand anyway, and add these two new tasks, or to hunt for a new printer.

Publishers have had varying results from Publishers' Graphics, a company in Illinois (see Designers with printed books: who do you print with and how's their service?). So far, like Bully Pulpit Games, I'd managed to be on the good end of the spectrum, but was wary of continuing with this company based on the latest reports. But time was short, and I wasn't entirely certain of which files were which for Spione (did I mention my laptop crashed?), and I knew that ironing out bids as well as organizing computer records would eat up the hours.

So I went with the known printer in hope of another good experience. I'd still like to establish a working history with at least one other POD company, in order to have some flexibility at the very least, but now was not the time.

Crunches and hassles

Certain things were proceeding very well. All the playtesting was yielding very important one-sentence, one-phrase adjustments to the text, but the fundamental structure and enjoyment of play turned out to be sound. Paul had settled upon some great fonts and a basic look for the book, and Scott busted out some astonishing cover art. We had a very good experience with my favorite way to work with artists: sketch, dialogue, sketch, dialogue, provisional piece, dialogue, finished piece. It doesn't work for everyone, nor do I mandate doing it this way, but with the right person, it's fantastic. Scott even said that this piece recalled to him the reasons he became an artist in the first place.

Jeff's sketches were on track, but he was hit by other deadlines and as it turned out, managed to get one usable (i.e. very very good) piece to me a few days following the July 1 deadline. He finished a couple of others too but I decided not to use them.

This was a problem. Waiting for the last illustrations had taken me past the July 1 deadline by which I'd promised the files for the printer; it was already the 7th or 8th or something like that. And now it seemed I'd have a single interior illustration for a game which absolutely relied on a highly specific sort of imagery.

I had several options. One would be to include the game as an ashcan instead of a printed finished product, along with the two other ashcans I was putting together. Another would be to print up the game with the limited materials I had. Another would be to find some more art, then the question would arise whether this was (i) even doable in this time-frame (AKA get it done by yesterday) and (ii) printable considering that no sane printer needs to do work for a publisher who needs it now but missed the submission deadlines he'd set himself.

Finally, because we were long past the point where Paul had expected to be completely finished with this project, he was now stuck with much more of a rush job, and although the text was finished, the number and type of art pieces were still unknown.

I began to think in terms of bagging the whole thing and releasing the game later, using GenCon only to generate playtesting buzz if possible.

Team 2 at the 11th Hour

I owe it to Paul. First, he made it clear to me that Ed Heil would be happy to do some art for the game. I contacted Ed who scribbled furiously, and Ed got in touch with another artist named Adam Black; both of them were so juiced by the essay that they have probably papered their attics with private sketches by now. I had more art than I could use in less than three days. Second, Paul did not cancel out on me or "disappear" (a common tactic), but rather got in touch with Michael S. Miller himself to see whether Mike could do the finishing work on the layout.

In other words, if doing a job looks dicey to you, then find a solution. This is not trivial. It's also nearly unprecedented in my experience as a publisher. Especially since I had not successfully delivered all the needed materials to Paul in the time we'd hoped for.

I got in touch with my rep at the printer, who was trooping through the process with Spione and Trollbabe, and he stroked his chin and said it was not entirely impossible to get the job done in time for me to pick up the books for GenCon after all.

And where I am now

There are still some if's involved. No printer can guarantee a rush job, and I'm skimping on the proofs step. But as far as I can tell, there's a good chance that I'll have a box of S/Lay w/Me at the con.

And I'm very, very satisfied with the content and design as a physical product.

Overall, I would not recommend that anyone take this thread as an example to follow. It's an example of recognizing a project as a risk, then taking that risk, including enlisting others who know it's a risk too. Such things ... well, they can be done, and I've had at least one really big payoff from doing that in the past, but it's a diversion from the most reliable policy, not an example of it.

Best, Ron

Gregor Hutton

Thanks for posting this Ron. I heartily endorse your Scott Purdy recommendation too. I have been buying a lot of Scott's stuff from (in fact, he may be the only illodeli guy I've not met now that Ben Powis is in Edinburgh too).

I had a similar experience where I missed deadlines for AD 316, rather than anyone else goofing up for me. In the end, I'll hopefully have a 32-page "sampler" at the con that entitles people to the full PDF when it's done. The game (to play), I'm happy with, but I'm not 100% sold on the text (I think I can word some of it better) so I didn't pull the trigger on printing the book. In a mirror to your situation I had all my art done but it was the text that wasn't there.