I’ve no idea what Brooks meant by that statement, but it makes a decent lead-in for this post. And if you’ll allow me to paraphrase, “A bookmark can be a world.” At least in tabletop role-playing game terms.
About a year ago, on a whim, I did a weekend thought experiment in role-playing rules to track damage without the typical “Hit Points.” As of today, the Bookmark HP RPG core rules bookmark has reached Electrum Best Seller status on DriveThruRPG, and the Player’s Handbookmark is now a Silver Best Seller! Four other titles in the line are currently Copper Best Sellers (Bookmark Cyberpunk, Bookmark Supers!, Dracula’s Get, and the Game Host’s Guidebookmark), and several newer bookmark titles are well on their way.
Having worked full-time in a hobby dominated by Dungeons & Dragons, I realize that these bookmark sales are Lilliputian.
But if you browse the thousands of publishers on DriveThruRPG, with hundreds of thousands of products, and note that less than 14% reach Copper status, less than 15% more reach Silver, and barely 7% reach Electrum status, you’ll understand that for this retired, self-promoting, self publishing designer, doing everything alone, it is something of an accomplishment. Add in several other best-selling games outside the bookmark line, from Copper to Gold, with some very flattering reviews, and I still wake up each morning encouraged to create.
And you’ll understand just how much your moral support means to me.
One benefit (seriously) of the shift from Musk’s Twitter has been rethinking my bio on social media.
To this point, that bio has been a pitch for my self-published games, ending with a tongue-in-cheek, boat-rocking “Vegan gun owner.”
And I’ll be honest, the RPG designs in particular have been exceptional. (If that sounds arrogant, remember that I’m in the habit of saying the same about work by other designers.) D6xD6 and Bookmark HP RPG especially have a simplicity on the surface that belies the carefully crafted mechanics beneath. I’m gambling my Origins award for Dragon Dice on that opinion.
But social justice issues, especially the “Black Lives Matter” movement, are more important. To quote Salman Rushdie, “A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.”
I’m trying to capture all of that in the new bio: credentials, then passions, then gratitude.
“I’m a ‘retired,’ award-winning hobby game designer & author. Passionate about social justice, games, & poetry. A one man, best-selling, bucket-list self-publisher. Honored to play any part in other people’s fun!”
Walking the line between passion and arrogance is a difficult task. At times I’ve stumbled and stepped on toes, and I carry that guilt with me. At other times, when it comes to social justice, I step on toes intentionally, in the spirit of Rushdie’s quote.
Every writer’s work requires confidence, a belief in oneself, though few writers enjoy self-promotion. I certainly don’t. Nor do I “enjoy” confrontation.
But I tell you the truth as best I see it. About cruelty. And about human kindness. About suffering. And about joy. At my age, I’m aware that sometimes my efforts have changed lives, just as other writers have changed mine. I’m grateful for both.
And I love you. Here’s wishing you the very best today and always.
Ten years ago this month, my first self-published game, Invasion of the Saucer People! was crowdfunded.
Today there are 40 Lester Smith Games titles on DriveThruRPG, another 11 on DriveThruCards, and some freebies on this website/blog. (Check the menu, under “Games.)
All due to the moral support of some wonderful players, play-testers, and fans, several of whom have become my close friends and confidantes, even if only through social media, even if across oceans.
Whatever else you might say about the Internet, it keeps a guy like me connected to the world, and allows self-publishing to be more than just a local vanity press. For many of my old colleagues and public figures I follow, it’s a full-time occupation. For others like me, it’s an outlet for bucket-list projects and new inspirations, a place to discuss them, and maybe pay for coffee.
Games, like coffee, are best brewed with care. Anybody can boil some water and toss in a spoonful of instant. Literally and metaphorically. The result is its own punishment.
But to get a good cup of hot coffee, you have to start with the basics, at “ground” level, if you’ll forgive the pun.
Choose roasted beans that suit your taste. I prefer a dark espresso roast.
Grind them to the right consistency—err on the side of coarseness, to avoid silt in your cup.
Use fresh water, heat it to a simmer, and introduce the grounds for the right amount of time. I use a French press, so about three minutes. For a percolator, no more than five. Any longer, and you’ll extract bitters.
Pour it over ice, if you want it cold on a hot day.
Drink it fresh. Nothing’s worse than a pot that’s been sitting on the heat for hours, steaming away to harsh sludge.
To extend the metaphor to game design, I like to …
Start with a solid idea, something new and fresh.
Grind it into a first draft—whether that’s an ordered list of ideas, an actual outline, or a few paragraphs of synopsis, with details jotted below as they occur. Without grinding it too much by fixating on specifics too early.
Expose it to the fluidity of early play-test, generally alone at this point, to see if the dice rolls and/or card draws feel like I thought they would, and if questions arise I hadn’t thought of. Then dive deeper, examining the mathematical odds, using them to adjust details.
Pour it onto the page in full sentences, with headings and any graphics needed.
Have other people play it, and watch their reactions. It may mean I need to refine my brewing process for this game, though I seldom have to trash the original bean of an idea.
That’s not a perfect metaphor. But it suits the image I put together for this post!
“It’s not all bad. Heightened self-consciousness, apartness, an inability to join in, physical shame and self-loathing—they are not all bad. Those devils have been my angels. Without them I would never have disappeared into language, literature, the mind, laughter and all the mad intensities that made and unmade me.”
Maybe other people go through life without regularly reexamining their own actions, striving to improve. I don’t know. What I do know is I can’t help but look back in order to look forward.
And looking back, I’m starting to realize that a central theme of my life since childhood has been shame. Specifically shame from failure.
One instance of a shame that has haunted me in adulthood is having walked away from an uncompleted Master’s Degree. To understand the significance, you need to know how close I came to completion. (No humblebrag, just fact.) I’d finished every needed course—two solid years of study—with an A grade in all but one, a B. (My graduate entry GREs had been a perfect 800 in both the language and logic sections, a 760 in the math.)
All that was left was the formality of a final, comprehensive exam. And for the first time in my overachiever’s life, I partied through the night before, unable to study. Then walked into the test, filled in two sections, thought “There’s no way I’m making somebody read this bullshit,” and walked out, half finished, never to return.
Jennifer had labored hella hard to keep a roof over our head through those years, and we’d gone far into debt with student loans, but for some goddam reason, I just couldn’t step through that final door. I rationalized it with the truth that I was already working full-time for a game publisher, more than 40 hours a week, with a family of 4 children also needing attention. But even then I knew it was clearly a rationalization.
Nowadays I recognize it as an unconscious walking away from a trap. Getting that Master’s would have led further into a career in academia; there was no way this guy here could have done otherwise: Pursue a PhD, then the pursuit of increasingly rare tenure somewhere, to spend my life writing post-Transcendental Derridian Subjectivist critique of Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus or some such. No disrespect meant for PhD’s, but my soul would have withered.
That “walk away” doesn’t feel like rationalization. It feels like an unconscious pattern of turning away from traps, to instead achieve something joyful.
I had walked away from a great factory job after eight years, by not waiting out a layoff. Because it was clear I’d never otherwise have the courage to leave, to risk entering college as an undergrad at 30. My dad argued that I should return to get in 10 years for a vested pension, and rightly that I could take courses at night. But I’d have never escaped, and nowadays that factory is gone, its pension program ravaged.
I had walked away from GDW, as much as I loved the company and companionship, and as much as my star was rising there, to take a job at TSR. And not long after, GDW was no more.
I had walked away from TSR shortly before its collapse—and please hear me out. For most of my colleagues that change was nothing but a blessing, folding them into WotC, which treated them like royalty, honoring their years of TSR service with WotC stock options, though that new employer had no legal obligation to do so.
For me and mine the move would have been destruction. It’s no exaggeration to say that some members were still traumatized by the previous transit from Illinois to Wisconsin. I couldn’t uproot them again without destroying the family.
There are other walkaways I could list here since, but you get the point.
Ultimately it has all led to this place. A history of paths taken and things achieved, because other paths were abandoned. And at last maybe I grasp that “abandon” needn’t be a synonym for “shame.” To paraphrase Stephen Fry, it needn’t necessarily bedevil me. It may have fed my better angels, if people who judge me less harshly than myself are to be believed.