Alleged Entertainment

A Group Writing Process

As LARP writers, we tend to talk a lot about game design: characters, mechanics, plot construction, information economy, et cetera. We also tend to talk a lot about runtime issues: logistics, space, props, GMing, and production. This tends to leave out the fact that there’s a whole expanse of stuff in the middle, in which you need to actually sit down and write the LARP.
Writing, as anyone who’s tried it knows, is very, very hard. It’s a craft that many professionals work at their whole lives and never master. I’m certainly not about to pretend to give advice on good writing in general. What I do want to talk about, though, is writing in a group.
Group writing complicates matters significantly. It brings in the problem of coordinating between different writers to ensure consistency and continuity. It also presents a devil’s bargain: do you risk bruising egos and damaging friendships, or do you risk putting out a subpar game because you didn’t want to hurt people’s feelings?
In this essay, I’m going to talk about a writing process we often use at Alleged Entertainment. This process doesn’t have an official name, but feel free to think of it as “that process Nat wrote about in the Alleged Entertainment blog.”

Overall Structure

Let’s think about the lifecycle of a typical game. Different LARP groups use very different timeframes for their games, but here would be a typical one for us. Let’s assume here that we’re bidding a game for Intercon New England, which is every March.
  • February: while in the process of finishing up the final prep for Intercon, someone brings up a question: should we bid a game for next year, so that we can get it into this year’s shameless plugs? Someone says “well, remember the idea I’ve been sitting on for a few months? How about we bid that?” Everyone agrees that it is a good idea, so we fill out a bid form for next year’s Intercon.
  • March: the bid is accepted (knock on wood). We go to Intercon, run whatever we’re running there, and the fine people who run the convention mention our new project in the shameless plug.
  • April-July: we go to some other conventions! Festival, Pi-Con, whatever. It’s summer and we’re enjoying ourselves.
  • August: someone says “hey, shouldn’t we start writing that new project?” Everyone goes “oh yeah, we probably should.” A meeting is scheduled, and we begin the initial design discussions.
  • September-October: we nail down the overall design of the game. At the last meeting in October, we will feel like we have enough of a handle on this game as a whole to begin actually writing it. Assignments are handed out and we begin writing.
  • November-February: writing!
  • February: printing, stuffing, and prop building meeting. We plan logistics, and someone mentions a project for next year’s Intercon…
  • March: we go to Intercon and debut our new project!
A couple of things are evident from the above timeline: first, we’re slackers and really ought to beta test our games. Second, the writing takes up about twice as much time as the design. (I actually gave the design process more time than it often really takes in the above timeline – it’s frequently more like a 20-80 split.)
For the purposes of this essay, I’m only going to focus on the actual writing part, which represents the bulk of the time it takes us to produce a LARP from scratch.

Writing Collaboratively

Here, then, is our process in a nutshell:

Manageable Chunks

We split up our writing work into small chunks that can be handed out to people. With most games, this ends up being characters – so each writer will get a particular set of characters to draft. Some games split differently; for example, in 10 Bad LARPs we’ll usually give each writer a set of micro-LARPs. Each game has a different structure, so that may naturally lead to different ways of splitting up the work.

Frequent, Regular Meetings

We typically meet during a project every 4 weeks. This depends on the needs of the project itself – for example, we wrote Time Travel Review Board on a somewhat more compressed schedule than usual, because we had a short deadline and wanted to do a beta beforehand, so we met every 2 weeks instead of every 4. With Imagine That, we have long character sheets and a very busy set of writers, so our time between meetings is often a bit longer. Regardless, it’s important to meet regularly in order to keep the project’s momentum going.

Out Loud

At every writing meeting, we go through the new material people have drafted between this meeting and the previous one. The author will read the new work aloud to the group, and afterwards, everyone gives feedback.
This is a really dicey part, because it’s here that feelings can get hurt if you’re not careful. Make no mistake: although it’s “just a game,” this really is creative writing, and as such, artists tend to be defensive of their own work. Therefore, it’s important to have clear understandings about feedback in the writing team. Just as every game is different, every group of writers is also different, and each team may well end up handling this issue in its own way.
I’m planning on writing more about this in a future essay.

Always Leave With A Plan

At the end of every meeting, there are two questions we always ask before leaving:
  • When and where is our next meeting?
  • What are we each going to do between now and then?
If you leave meeting scheduling for “later,” it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of forgetting to schedule. By agreeing to a time and place at the end of every meeting, it’s much easier to keep to a regular schedule of meetings.
Similarly, if you know at the end of each meeting what’s expected to be done by the next meeting, it’s relatively easy to know whether or not you’re falling behind schedule (and might have to postpone the debut run). As an added bonus, you also get a better sense that work is being divided up equally amongst the writers.

Process Is Important

This is by no means the end-all and be-all of LARP writing processes. In fact, I’d say that if anyone tells you they have the perfect structure for collaboration of any sort, they’re full of it (see also:Extreme ProgrammingScrumSix Sigma, and an endless array of similar processes). Common sense dictates that you should do what works for you and your team, and not slavishly follow someone else’s idea of the best way to work.
But I also think it’s important to at least think about process before you start writing. At the very least, you should ask yourselves how you plan to work together, and how to avoid interpersonal conflicts while still being honest with each other. Maybe (hopefully!) it won’t turn out to be necessary – you’ll all just work together naturally and easily, and not have any fights come out of the writing process. But if that doesn’t turn out to be true, wouldn’t you rather have had the discussion up front?

Comments imported from DISQUS

bleemoo, on 10/05/2009 at 10:35 AM
This got me thinking about writing in general, and about my preferences as a writer. I may end up expanding this into a post of its own, but it's a direct response to this post, so I'll at least start here.

I dislike writing games. I like running games, and I like writing character sheets, but a large part of the process you discuss above has nothing to do with writing characters, and is work that leaves me feeling drained, frustrated, and very unenthusiastic about the game I am working on. Do other people face this problem? How do they deal with it?

Eric, on 10/05/2009 at 10:36 AM
Well, when Kreg and I write larps, out standard process usually involves Kreg writing a bunch of characters with either no plot or lots of plot holes. Then I write a bunch of characters that create the plots for all his characters and fill in the holes. As an example, Kreg wrote Nathan Windswept, while I wrote Ibis. He wrote Nathan first, then went back and rewrote Nathan after I did what I did with Ibis.

To bleemo - If you are not adverse to going back and rewriting your characters to fit what others do with them, that might help you get to the writing character phase, the part you like. You could just write some characters and then adjust them to fit later on. That method won't necessarilly work for everyone though, so it could depend on who you're working with. It works for Kreg and I. Kreg and I have a fairly fluid writing method, where we mostly create as we go. We toss in and toss out ideas as we write. For Story Wars, we added in GLaDOS as a character late in the process, simply because I had played Portal

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