Monday, 14 April 2014

My Writing Process - Part of the Blogtour

So apparently, there's a sort of meme working it's way through the blogosphere (we really, really need a better word for it than that) where writers of various sorts describe their current projects and processes before passing the format on to a new pair of bloggers they know. It's like a pyramid scheme, but nobody's getting rich.

  Last week, the illustrious Dave Chapman presented his new link in the chain and passed on the duties to Stoo Goff and I. I've known Dave aka Frankie for over 10 years now, and he is fundamental to the topic I'll be writing about today. Back when he worked at Ottakar's bookstore, Frankie was responsible for introducing me to the world of role-playing games, most notably through the Buffy the Vampire Slayer game produced by Eden Studios that he had a hand in birthing into this world. He ran a sort of reading group for RPGs, where we'd try a new system each month, and since then has acted as a player, a GM and most importantly a wise and awesome friend.

What Am I Working On?

  For the last year, my friend Bret and I have been taking the Unisystem created by Eden Studios and unceremoniously breaking it apart to create a heroic fantasy RPG. It was Bret's initial brainchild but he quickly drafted me in as a partner. The initial idea was to take the cinematic flavour and streamlined rules of the Unisystem and build something with the feel of Dungeons and Dragons, without the strict combat focus of 4th edition D&D, or the bewildering complexity of 3.5 ed.

  Of course, adding things like a class system, different schools of magic and a more controlled parceling out of weapons and combat skills makes the system considerably less stream-lined, but our watchword has always been keeping that cinematic flavour. In short - will this make playing the game feel like being the dashing hero of a swords-and-sorcery film? While the mechanics behind creating and progressing a character are more complex, the game-play is still (hopefully) as fluid as before.

  When I'm not working on the fantasy RPG, I have my own project that is slowly bubbling away in the background, similar in type but different in scope and flavour. Another tweak of the Unisystem (we've been playing with it for a long while and it's very versatile), this one is a modern fantasy drawing on inspiration like Scott Pilgrim, Adventure Time and My Little Pony to create a light-hearted game where anything can happen.

How Does My Work Differ From Others In My Genre?

  For our fantasy RPG, tone is something I've been very conscious of throughout. There is a tendency among fantasy to be either po-faced or parodic, and we don't want our game to be either of those. I want to play a game where I'm invested in the story, but I also hear AC/DC playing in my head during the fights. The fact that Buffy the Vampire Slayer has been Bret and mine's longest running game gives you a heads-up to the kind of universe we want to create. Something with mythology and scope, but also human drama.

  At the moment, the focus is on the mythology and scope end of the scale, as we're still crafting the history of the world. I've been responsible for a lot of the background work on things like the varying races' culture and history, and how the world feels. Even with this macro-level stuff, the focus is always on how this will feel when people play it. There is no point creating a history for a race that gives people nothing to hook on to.

  As for my own game, the work there is even more casual in tone, and I'm allowing my own personal voice to leak through a lot more prominently, not only as it's an individual project, but also because the atmosphere of the game is so much more light-hearted.

Why Do I Write What I Do?

  As far as I'm concerned, a good role-playing game creates an experience unlike any other, fusing the best elements of an immersive computer game, improvisational theatre and simply hanging out with your friends into something far greater than the sum of it's parts. As long as I've been playing them, I've been tinkering with them, and the idea of building worlds for people to explore and populate has always been a driving force and passion. I am more than happy to admit that when it comes to fiction, I am appalling at creating plots. Guiding a role-playing game takes some of the pressure off that demand - it's more important (to my mind) to create an atmosphere, and characters that are compelling. If the world and the characters are strong enough, the plot just sort of happens.

  With the fantasy game, the initial idea was Bret's, but as we've built the world and the system that supports it, my own motivations and running ideas have crept in. In some ways, we're aiming to make the game as trope-filled as possible, to allow our players to really delve into all their idle fantasies about exploring dungeons and defeating monsters, but there are also areas where we subvert them, or twist them into something new. That's where I find my passion really excited - chopping and screwing with expectations to make something new from old parts.

How Does Your Writing Process Work?

  In fits and starts. I am very much a slave to my mood and circumstances. I've pretty much given up writing at home since I had to move back with my parents - I have no desk in my room, and the other rooms in the house are either too busy or without suitable spaces. Plus, there is the dread distraction of the internet and all it has too offer. Most of my work has lately been done in coffee shops, which keep me both focused and in a caffeine-fueled hum of activity. Strangely, even when I'm working somewhere that has WiFi, the very act of going somewhere specifically for the act of writing helps me focus a great deal. I look forward to the day when I can afford a house with a study set aside just for this sort of thing - it'll certainly save me money on Americanos.

  The very scope of the project I'm working on allows me to move from one area to another when motivation dries. Because some of the writing is very technical, or is as much a task of mathematics as it is literature, there are days when I just can't face opening up six different charts to work out what sort of sword I should give this demon, and so then I can dive into detailing background, be it history, linguistics or simply description. Then, I can head back to the statistical tasks with a renewed passion for the subject.

Coming Next...

As I mentioned at the beginning, part of the Blogtour idea is that I pass this beast on to be continued next week. My two unwitting volunteers:

Josh Butler is a columnist, author and screenwriter from Norwich who somehow thinks the catch-all ‘writer’ is beneath him. He recently caught attention with his ‘Disney Theory’, where he connects the worlds of 30 Disney movies and he is currently enjoying linking other movies to that universe and trying to work out why nonsense conspiracies get some people so irate.

His idols are Whedon, Pullman, Sorkin, Fey and Murakami and he loves female-lead indie electronic bands and rapping along to hip-hop with a complete lack of self-awareness.

Follow him at @Joshubuh or post angry comments about Tarzan’s jaw-structure at

Alex Spencer has a day job, writing about the intersection of brands and technology for Mobile Marketing Magazine. But he still thinks of himself primarily as a blogger. Writing unspellchecked flights of fancy about whichever song, game or comic grabs his attention, to an irregular schedule – this is his vocation.

Follow him at @AlexJaySpencer or watch him pit 2013's best songs against each other in a multi-round elimination tournament at

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