On Quality and Consequence

This post is a companion to and expansion of a video that I released on my YouTube channel of the same title. That video was intended, more than anything, to raise one question in line with my contention that the text is the principle part of an RPG product. Quality, if there is going to be any in these products, must begin with the text. The question I hope to raise is simply this: if we, as either producers of RPG products or the purchases of them, find a product which does not meet our standards, what will we do about it? This post, and another video which will follow, are being offered in the spirit of attending to the beam in one’s own eye before pointing to the mote in another’s.

This post is intended to put myself in the context of the discussion, demonstrate part of what I am already doing, and to signal some changes coming in the future. It is an indication of the position from which I make my observations, and so answers the basic of question of where these observations originate.

First, I live in South Korea and as a result, do not have a Friendly Local Game Store to frequent to seek out and evaluate new products before I buy them. As a significant part of my enjoyment of the RPG hobby is adding new games to my library, reading them, playing them, then evaluating the results and sharing my experiences with like-minded gamers, that puts me in a position of needing to curtail my own fun, or take risks with products sight unseen. Further, due to my own preferences and habit of using game books in play, I choose to explore the higher end of the production scale to obtain better bindings and paper, as well as things such as plain leather or leather-like covers. With greater physical quality comes a commensurate increase in cost, and when that turns out to be coupled with text that fails to adhere to the same standard, I have an understandable reaction.

Second, as I mentioned, a significant part of my enjoyment of the hobby is finding, reading, learning, playing, and discussing games. I add quite a few new games, or games new to me, to my library each year with the intention to read and use them. I do not believe in a distinction between the perceived indie and trad divisions within the hobby. I see people producing games, or not producing games. I do not believe that a specific type of publisher is producing good work while a different type is producing bad work. I find at all levels of production within the hobby we can find examples of products which demonstrate a desire to put quality first, and we can, disappointingly, find an attitude that says that something is good enough.

That latter attitude, the one that says that something is good enough, that no one will notice, that no one will get a chance to play, that we can fix something in a PDF update, that we can address feedback in an all-new edition – that attitude has no business being involved in the production of items which people are to buy, and indicates the sort of person with whom consumers should not do business. Games are things to be played and the text is the medium through which games are communicated, learned, referenced, and are therefore the route to the game being played. It is with the text that quality must reside as a basic principle.

These two points frame my attitude toward production and my preferences for purchase. As I mentioned in the Quality and Consequence video, I have been complicit in enabling unscrupulous producers as there have been game lines that I have purchased in hope of a rise to or a return to quality. I have purchased games to examine their quality problems, and I have purchased game lines to customize and revise certain core ideas intending to cull the rest. Through all of this, out of some sense of propriety, out of a sense of camaraderie and support, out of the false belief that we are all gamers and so might all be looking out for each other, I have chosen to be silent about some of my disappointment, or have gone out of my way to ensure all the details were presented in non-partisan fairness. Silence about our own reactions and disappointment, especially when supported by clearly demonstrable proof, only aids the unscrupulous and fails to aid those who, like me, must experiment in order to find new and interesting games to play. It is said that there is no bad publicity, and in reaction to that a desire to not increase the signal about a game that does not rise to acceptable standards can seem wise, but that also means we fail to warn those who might purchase it like we have. This leads directly to the question raised in the video, what will we do when we find or produce a game that does not meet our standards?

Now, who am I? As those who already follow this blog, or my channel know, I am just a guy. I love roleplaying games and value playing them – usually running and playing in several at once. In my employment I often work in an editorial capacity and from time to time am called on to work in an authorial one. These jobs, in the truest sense of the word, are work. I maintain a professional attitude, do my best, and focus on developing professionally in order to ensure that I am able to retain employment. It is neither easy nor enjoyable, but I can take a professional pride in what I do. There is a barrier between me and the product, and when a project is over my connection to it ends. Inside the RPG hobby, I have also been called on from time to time to serve as a writer, a proof-reader, or an editor. This is an entirely different experience than my day job as in these cases I find that I am being tasked with working with material that I would choose to explore on my own. I can invest myself in working on these projects and they stay with me after the project is over in personal as well as professional ways. I think this highlights an essential quality which should be taken into consideration in an industry such as that surrounding roleplaying games.

In addition to the random freelance opportunities I have had in RPGs, I have the great pride and pleasure to serve as the Line Editor for the series of games which use the Ubiquity Roleplaying System, produced by Triple Ace Games. This pairs me up with a writer for whom I have deep respect, focusing on a system that I routinely use for my own games, and in settings that I regularly run and play campaigns in as a matter of course. As a result, I am conversant with each setting’s details, conceits, and considerations, the ins and outs of the underlying system – and the specific permutations for each line. I like to think that I can be counted on to care about what is produced for this system and these lines, and care about what is added to them. This is a pleasure in all regards, and so leads to a deeply-rooted desire to do my best. It ensures that I have a sense of responsibility to help the creators present their work with a minimum of distractions, mistakes, and errors. Quality is the end goal. Full stop.

Establishing a house editor, so to speak, lays the foundation for this sort of relationship. The creative team and the editorial team can build a connection to the product and each other, invest in the process of creation, and commit to being on the same page and staying on it, together.

One reason I am willing to be a part of the team at Triple Ace Games, beside my respect for the Creative Director for RPGs and Lead Writer, is that the owners have a sensible and effective production model. For instance, the text is written first. Before a project is announced, before a kickstarter project or publication is planned, before it is even discussed, the text is done and in most cases, I have seen it. This gives us the requisite time to not only work with it and improve it in the few places where it might need it, but to refresh our sense of it at various stages of production so that we may come at it for successive passes with clear eyes. Ideally, with more resources to draw on, the bar of quality could be raised by recruiting, training, and managing a corps of proofreaders. As a small company with finite resources, I must trust in the fact that we are doing the best that we can, while also being honest and recognizing that errors will escape us. It would not only be incorrect to imply that we produce products without flaw, it would be ridiculous. If we could maintain a staff of proofreaders, each given a small section of text to review under specific guidelines, we could push closer to that sort of quality, but until that happens, we will continue to do what it takes to maximize the effectiveness of what we have. Having such high quality text in hand so early in a project makes that much easier. Having an ongoing working relationship as editor and author, each growing to learn the style and quirks of the other, makes that easier.  Having a clear vision of what a project is, what form it will take, where it fits in the overall line, and who its audience is, all helps to spur us on and guide us forward. It means that we can keep the passion for quality alive through years of development and production. It means that nothing is ever ‘good enough’.

An editor’s impact on a product line can (and I feel should) often be invisible, or seemingly of importance to just the writing staff, and this grows more and more true the more talented and in tune that staff is with the line. It can lead people to believe that having an editor or taking the time for proper proofreading is a luxury, not an essential step in production.

In my time serving as editor for TAG, I have had the pleasure to see my input take shape in small ways which, while invisible, are hopefully worth the contribution. As an example, I have guided the transition from the use of an intended alternation between he and she as generic pronouns to the use of the generic they in its sense as referring to a person or persons of unknown identity. I felt that there is an excellent case for such a usage in RPG material, particularly because where we see the use of pronouns is in sections pertaining to the creation of a character, not a final and specific-to-the-reader version. In all respects, isn’t that what we are dealing with in those sections – a proto-form of character that will be, but is not yet, definite in form, gender, age, occupation, or even species? I did not suggest and the company did not agree to this implementation of style due to external social pressure, some desire on my part to be referred to as ‘they’, or with a view we wanted to enforce on the world. Instead, it was done as a response to an analysis of what roleplaying games are, who reads them, and how the importation of writing approaches decided outside our industry has not always been an accurate or fully useful practice.

The last item that I think I should share in this effort to state my position, is my personal process for editing and proofing when I have control over the production schedule. This is still in the spirit of Motes and Beams.

When I receive a manuscript as its editor, the first thing I do is read it to gain a sense of it. I take notes – written just for myself – about my first impressions, my predictions, and my expectations as I make my way through the text. In this first pass, I also note typographical errors and correct whatever repeated quirks of typing or odd sentence construction the writer or writers do habitually.

I let the project sit for a few days, then return to it for a second and deeper read, comparing my understanding of the material to my notes on impressions, predictions, and expectations. In this pass, I begin to prepare notes that I will, when all the notes are compiled, evaluate for sending on to the writer or writers. Some will be discarded, some revised, some will be sent on as written initially. This pass, like the first, will also see the correction of typos that have slipped past me the first time, and will see further notes on grammar and organization – when necessary. This stage of the process sparks a review of what has been written, how it might be adjusted to bring desired qualities out, and what if anything needs to be added or removed. For TAG, this step is effortless now due to the relationship and understanding we have built up over time and hours of actual play on my end, but even when it is not a significant use of time, it is an important step.

Finally, we go through the last editorial pass where the focus is on ensuring the content and tone that we have agreed to is what is on the page. Here I read with intent to refine the form and correct whatever errors or mistakes have crept into the writing in whatever waves of changes it has been through.

After this stage will come layout and the insertion of art. Text which was fully corrected before these steps can often be mangled by one or both of them, so another pass will need to be made to verify that all is still well. With luck and good time management, sufficient time will have passed between the last pass and this pass to make the text seem new again and to allow me to proof it without projecting my memory of what I know is supposed to be there upon it. Sometimes this can and should be a very slow, word-by-word check.

As I mentioned earlier, the best results can be obtained with a dedicated staff of proofreaders working with small sections of text. Even with this level of scrutiny, mistakes slip through. It is frustrating and can drive you mad as a page you have checked over and over can, at your first glance at the freshly-printed book in your hand, brazenly display a typo.

“How did this happen?! How can I prevent it from happening next time?!”

When we stop asking those questions, we are ready to stop producing things for sale.

Now, some might read these comments and respond as though it were an attack on them personally – particularly if they are a small producer who handles all aspects of production themselves. I know of many creators who write their own material, do their own art or rely solely on discrete uses of stock art, and who have taught themselves how to use layout software in order to get their products into the hands of others. Likewise, I can hear the voices of the producers of immense, multi-book projects on a carefully-timed release schedule.

These observations and my belief that the consumer deserves the best, is not an attack – at least not if you are approaching each stage of production from the point of view of doing your best. If that is your outlook than you and I are fully on the same page. If we do our best on a project, assess the results and plan for how to improve or expand our capabilities for the next release, then we are both headed in the same direction – striving for quality.

If, however, the resources to do better exist, yet are not employed; if the target for the product is not seen as a fellow gamer you want to entertain and impress, but is rather just a customer; if the work is simply work, not a point of pride and pleasure…? If these are the attitudes in place as a product is prepared for release, then it is with you that I, gamers like myself, and many more beyond, take issue.

This then is a look at and a sharing of the beam in my own eye. I think many agree that it is past time we address the mote in yours.

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  1. […] Update: January 5, 2018On Quality and Consequence, On Motes and Beams […]

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