Vox: Synchronicity, Too
On June 24, 2009 in Columbus, OH, aethereal FORGE will present the official release of the Vox RPG. This is an admittedly small affair in the grander scheme of things, but for me it represents the culmination of nearly three years of effort. Whether or not you are ultimately interested in Vox itself, the process by which Vox was created is -- at least in my opinion -- an interesting one, and filled with interesting coincidences and synchronicities. I firmly believe that Vox has been published precisely when it was meant to be.
Vox is a role-playing game in which each player ultimately controls a character with a voice in his head, and one of the other players controls that voice. It uses a variant of the PDQ system, which means that characters -- and their voices -- are constructed from Prose Descriptive Qualities rather than cold numeric Attributes and lists of Skills. The game presumes that a modern-day conspiracy type setting is likely, but the system itself is setting-neutral, allowing for games set in the far future, ancient Rome, fantastic alternate dimensions, prison cells, or anything else a GM might dream up. There's also a detailed (and somewhat mindbending) metaplot involved, which I won't reveal here. What I will share with you now is the story about how Vox was created... which may, in the end, very well have something to do with that plot.
The story of Vox really begins in September of 2003, when I moved to San Francisco at long last. I had thought about moving into "The City" from "The Peninsula," for a few years, and this seemed as good a time as any to do so. After settling in, I soon found myself wanting to find a gaming group, so I visited Gamescape -- the city's only "real" game store -- in March of 2004 and picked a "Looking for Players" index card off the bulletin board, pretty much at random. Within a week, there were four of us, first playing D&D 3rd Edition and then dabbling with Mage. Over the next few weeks, as things settled down, the group gained a few new faces, and lost a few. Finally, in late May a guy named Nick joined up. This was fortuitious in two respects. First, we ultimately switched gaming over to his house (because he had a dining table we could use). Secondly, and more importantly, he began GMing a different game in the winter of 2004/05. That game was called Unknown Armies.
UA had several novel concepts that I immediately fell in love with. The two most important (besides the amazing setting) are the fact that characters are composed of loosely-defined skills that you can name in any way you want (e.g., "Running Like the Devil"), and the system of Madness and Stress Checks, by which a character slowly comes to grips with an altered reality, or else crumbles in its wake, in either case being forever changed.
My character in this campaign was Murray Glassner, a washed-up old actor who was a Personamancer, able to take on different identities. Murray also had managed to get his hands on a mystical postcard that contained the essence of a terrorist hijacker (whom Murray had helped subdue) who was trying to elevate himself to a sort of godhood. The hijacker was not pleased that Murray had stymied him, and he began talking to Murray (and listening to him) through the postcard, occasionally influencing his life in irritating and often dangerous ways. Murray would change personas frequently, and not often in good ways. Many times, his personae would get the group in trouble; once, he personally ordered one of their deaths.
I'll add one completely irrelevant note here, which I've always found amusing. Every one of our UA characters was capable of killing bad guys, dealing with supernatural forces, and even wrestling the avatar of death himself, but we had one weakness: doors. Almost without exception, every time one of us tried to kick down a door or pick a lock, we would fail our rolls -- often critically. It got so that we would climb in and out of windows to avoid doors altogether.
But to get back on track: as we were just starting to play UA, I was also working on publishing and promoting a free gaming system called POW!, as well as a setting for that system, called Power Grrrl. On November 10, 2004, one Mr. Chad Underkoffler downloaded a free copy of the POW! Core Rules; I had known Chad's name, since he had been writing a column called "Let Me Tell You about My Character" on RPG.net at the same time that I was the Lead Columns Editor there. At the time he was just another columnist and I knew little about his work, but then synchronicity hit. Chad downloaded that document, and almost at the same time I began playing Unknown Armies, which had Chad in the credits. As I scanned the list of people who were checking out my free game system, his name jumped out at me, and on January 25, 2005, I emailed him and (re)introduced myself for no particular reason. We talked. I learned about his PDQ system, which like UA has characters that are defined by Prose Descriptive Qualities rather than specific Attributes and Skills. Chad ended up reviewing my Ninja Burger Handbook. And then, on July 26, 2005, I licensed Chad's PDQ Game Engine for use with the Ninja Burger 2nd Edition RPG.
I had an inspiration (my Voice-hearing UA character). I had a game engine (PDQ). I just didn't know I had Vox yet.
Vox was conceived at approximately 12:30 pm EDT on Friday, August 11, 2006 at Houlihan's Restaurant, 111 W Maryland St, Indianapolis, IN 46225 (they are awesome people -- they wore Ninja Burger t-shirts at the 2008 Gencon and they've always had great service and food). This was my first visit to Houlihan's, and I played it safe and ordered the chicken fingers and fries and a Diet Coke. While I waited for my food to arrive, I started noodling about and knocking ideas around. In my goodie bag beside me, I had a stack of Ninja Burger 2nd Edition RPGs, hot off the presses and laden with PDQ goodness. In the back of my head, drifting about somewhere in my subconscious, was my old UA campaign, and the idea of voices, and personas.
And so I jotted some notes down in my Moleskine, quite at random. Suddenly, with Murray Glassner as its father, and PDQ as its mother, Vox had begun to take shape.
As you can see from the scribbles, Vox was originally called Voci, and from the horrible sketch on the bottom of that page you can see a really bad drawing of a half-face, which I promptly scribbled out because I suck terribly at drawing (we'll come back to that image later, though). Almost nothing else on that page made it into the final product, and almost nothing else in that Moleskine ever came to pass (including my applying for a writing job with Cryptic, and getting Ninja Burger stickers in the Gencon SWAG bag). The circled "2006 Gencon" in the photo shown here, by the way, was added to the page a year later once it became clear to me that Vox was really going to happen. I wanted to remember exactly when it had first emerged into being.
Over the rest of that weekend, however, I was completely distracted. First of all, I had come to Gencon to pick up the brand new copies of Ninja Burger: The RPG 2nd Edition from the Key20 booth (which is where I first met Jerry Grayson). I was also at Gencon to attend the 2006 ENnie awards with Sean Frolich and Deborah Balsam of Dog Soul Publishing. I had recently written an electronic book for them called Folkloric: Baba Yaga, and it had been nominated for two ENnies. We didn't expect to win, and when the Best Writing award flew by we were resigned to being happy with our nominations. However, in the end we won Gold for Best Electronic Book, and needless to say I had little else on my mind for the next day or so. By Saturday morning I had completely forgotten about "Voci," occupied as I was with a side trip to visit an online friend, Milly Hacker (who would go on to write for Vox, as it turns out). In fact, Milly is the one who told me that Vox would be a better title than Voci, though I can't remember if it happened on that Saturday, or in the days that followed.
The next day, on the plane back home after Gencon, I started leafing through my Moleskine, and for some reason the idea of Vox really called out to me. For whatever reason I began to take other notes on Vox, and by the time the plane landed I had ten pages of ideas. When I got home, the notes got transcribed into a text document on my computer, and I started chatting online with Milly, fleshing out ideas. It took a while for most of the ideas to coalesce, but one thing was almost 100% designed by August 21, 2006: the cover, which depicts a face trying to emerge from inside the book. It is based (I firmly believe) on that horribly scribbled over half-face, that stupid doodle that I had tried to blot out with my own form of static noise, a personality trying to emerge from blackness. The image, which I found on sxc.hu, immediately ingrained itself into my psyche when I came across it. It had to be.
I also decided at that point that this cover would be the only recognizable human face in the entire book, an artistic direction that I stuck by even as many other things changed and morphed. Vox contains many photos, but the only "faces" in them are in the background, and even then only in photos or posters on the walls. Vox was about personalities, and changing them, and internal conflict, and it seemed disingenuous to fill the book with beefcake shots of people posing for the camera. The people are there, but only as observers of the shots -- presumably, the player characters.
By late August of that year I was confident that I could get Vox out within 15 months, and so I created an ad and stuck it on Livejournal. Two quotes about voices appear in the ad; the one on the top was the first one I found, and it's the only one that made it through to the final product. The release date would change, however, for shortly after posting this ad the company I was working for at the time began to have some stability issues, and I ultimately resigned and began to look elsewhere for work. While in-between jobs, I had a bit of time to myself, so a great deal of Vox was written in the month that followed.
By early October of 2006, when I had gotten myself some more writing work, I had lots of notes, including some quotes and thoughts lifted from actual UA gaming sessions that had occurred in the campaign the previous year. Although these quotes seem completely irrelevant now, composed mostly of out-of-character talk, in fact they became a great source of inspiration for Vox. It was from them that I came up with the idea of encouraging outside chatter to have an in-game role.
A great example of this is the "DETECTIVE Brodksy?" joke that only five people in the entire universe -- my gaming group -- will ever appreciate. The UA characters we were playing in my campaign had to find a way to infiltrate a warehouse full of bad guys, with an undercover detective (Brodksy) somewhere inside. While plotting our entry, someone came up with the brilliant idea of just calling and asking for Detective Brodksy. "DETECTIVE Brodksy?" said the GM, mimicking the voice of one of the bad guys. This was followed by gunfire as, presumably, poor Detective Brodksy was gunned down, his cover blown by a bunch of amateur Adepts.
Of course, we never followed through on this plan -- this was all OOC nonsense -- but it nevertheless subtly influenced our characters' decisions in the upcoming raid. The irrelevant voice chatter had an in-game impact. So, I thought a year later, if that sort of chatter happens all the time, why not just encourage and allow some of that in Vox, and tear down the wall between IC and OOC? After all, the chatter IS relevant to the game, and if the characters are hearing Voices in their heads, who's to say that they don't hear the players' voices too, somewhere back in the noise?
By October 23, 2006, I had an outline of the book. As with most books (and in particular, HELLAS: Worlds of Sun & Stone), the end result was far larger than I had originally anticipated, with the final product weighing in at 196 pages, rather than 108. One interesting note is the little mention of "Queen Vickie" in one tiny little corner of my outline. This was nothing but a random idea I had jotted down years earlier after a particularly vivid and nonsensical dream, wherein little Victorian rugrats were running around a muddy city chased by shadowy men who wanted to find a tween Queen Victoria. Here is the entirety of what I typed into my computer, bleary-eyed with sleep:
Queen Vickie. steampunk/dresden dolls feel. Underworld, everyone flees from city streets and night into underground, no electricity, for safety, some kids sneak out elsewhere, brave, one captured and turns traitor. Back home on train next day traitor is there like nothing happened. Badness ensues. weird quiet kid in grey, saves, speaks -- Vickie's boyfriend, he says. smiles. hero? turns out no. he betrays, turns her in. Other girl is now mute, didn't make it into the cache, saw horrifying things the other boy did, won't speak, afraid of him, she knows. Four main characters, thus: girl hero (Vickie), guy bad grey hero, guy who turned traitor, mute girl.
This nugget of stream-of-consciousness nonsense sat in a "random notes" document I keep on my computer for almost five years before I snatched it up and stuck it in Vox. Most of what's there is gibberish that didn't make it into the actual setting, but it did help to inspire the setting, as well as a supplement to Vox that I have planned -- if the book is at least a marginal success, that is.
Influences surround you when you're designing a game. No one creates in a vacuum; everything is tainted, however subtly, by something else, or many somethings. When I sat down to create a mockup of Vox based on my outline, I found myself scribbling random ideas and thoughts all over the pages of the proof. To name but a few: Dark Messiah and Prey were two PC games I had recently been playing, and each of them includes some element related to the "Voice in your head" concept; the film Stranger Than Fiction is all about a protagonist with a voice in his head; and the book The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier deals with similar themes, and came along at just the right time for me to work pieces of it into Vox.
The next official hint of Vox was jotted down in another Moleskine sometime around November 20, 2006. I know this because November 20 is when Jerry Grayson and I first decided on HELLAS: Worlds of Sun & Stone as the name of that RPG, and the opposite page contains me working out how the HELLAS subtitle would break down. On the other side, however, was a rough idea for a Vox logo that I tried, and then abandoned, and then in a way sort of brought back in the last month before publication. I knew that there was some relationship between the V and the X, some sort of mirroring effect, but I didn't know exactly what, back then.
Between December and March of 2007, I started to secure the assistance of other creative types I knew, for writing and photographic help; most notable among them are Will Reeves, Ryan Elliott, the aforementioned Milly Hacker, and Nievita Hartness. To one degree or another, they all helped shape what Vox became.
And then, as it often does, life intruded in an interesting way.
On March 16, 2007 at 10:35 AM, my car was totaled in an accident that could easily have taken my life, seeing as it happened at about 50 MPH on the freeway. A car two lanes over tried to rapidly merge into the lane to my left, causing a second car there to rapidly swerve into my lane, causing me to make a split second decision: do I hit the car in front of me (with children staring at me out the back window), or do I hit the wall? They say that in moments of intense stress, time can seem to slow down, and indeed, for a moment there I really felt I had plenty of time to make the choice, even though it was less than a second (this idea of "Entering the Zone" would make its way into Vox). In the end, I thought the wall was a better option.
But that's not the really interesting part. At the time I was working from home, but occasionally I would have to drive a short distance to my employer's office for meetings, which was about 15 minutes away. Today was one such day, so I checked my email one last time at 10:20 and then headed out the door. Literally moments after I left the house -- at 10:21 AM -- the person I was going to meet emailed me to cancel the meeting. If I had checked my email one minute later... Well, a lot of things would be different, especially Vox.
As it turned out, I didn't need a car anyway. Within three weeks of the accident, a friend of mine had managed to get me an interview with a game company called Perpetual Entertainment, and ultimately they decide to hire me on as a Quest Writer. Since San Francisco has excellent public transit, and parking downtown was an expensive proposition anyway, I decided that I would not replace the car, and for the next year I went without one for the first time in 17 years. The universe had taken my car from me just when I no longer needed it.
While this smacks of synchronicity (a major element of Vox), it also might seem somewhat tangential. However, a lot of unexpected factors slid into play thereafter, each of which helped build what Vox became. For example, I started riding the subway to work, and in mentioning that fact to my gaming friends, one of them mentioned the movie Kontroll, which became another thematic influence on Vox. Riding the subway also meant that I had plenty of time -- both walking around the city, and riding the subway -- to map the game out in my head, and take notes, and to observe strange people, eavesdrop on their conversations, and bring all that weirdness into the game.
By June of 2007, I had another writer helping out -- Michelle Elliott -- and I had a solid outline. By this point the page count had ballooned from 108 to 240 pages. Some of that is because the book itself was shrinking, however. I had started out, as most people do, with a standard 8.5x11 layout, but by the second week of July, 2007, I had enough text to start playing around with InDesign. The first real mockup was in 9x7 landscape format, because I though that would suit the photos I was using for the book much better. Though I was also working simultaneously on HELLAS, the idea to do a landscape layout for that book would not come until months later.
August arrived, and with it came the anniversary of Vox's humble birth. I attended Gencon, this time behind a booth, and ran ideas past Jerry Grayson and Milly Hacker. By the time we left Gencon, Milly was signed on to write one of the game's four settings. The book was well on its way to being finished and published by year's end, as I had originally envisioned.
And then, another complication: between September and November of 2007, Perpetual Entertainment went through some rough layoffs, and although I survived the first round I did not make it through the second. Few did. Gods & Heroes: Rome Rising was shelved, and Perpetual struggled to survive (eventually expiring a few months later). With its death, and my sudden need to look for a job, any hope of publishing Vox in 2007 died as well. I just had other things to worry about.
The layoff did however enable another big event to take place: moving to Seattle. Rather than looking for jobs here, I began to look for some elsewhere. My wife and I also began looking for houses in Seattle, and that whole process happened much faster than I thought it would. In December I flew up to interview with Sierra Online (unfortunately buried shortly thereafter, in the wake of the Activision-Blizzard merger), by February we had a house picked, and by mid-March we were making the move. Once again, the universe seemed to intervene: because of the particulars of our situation, we needed a second vehicle to make the trip, and as it turned out, some friends of ours were conveniently getting rid of their old car just at that moment. We transferred the title and tuned the car up just a few days before we drove to Seattle, in the nick of time.
Throughout the spring and summer of 2008, in between other writing assignments, I began to find snippets of time to work on Vox. I began experimenting with different layouts -- Crown Quarto, 8x8, 8.5x11 -- and to seek initial quotes from various printing companies. I also began to put the squeeze on my writers to get me the final copy, which I had let slide because of my own lack of focus, and made the decision to use some of the player characters from my old UA campaign in Vox. On August 11, 2008, I did a rough layout in 8.5x11 landscape, printed out three copies -- the first "complete" proofs to come off the printer -- and took them with me to Gencon. Two were for showing off and proofing, and one was for Chad Underkoffler to check out. My marked up copy after I got done thrashing it is shown here.
It was fortuitious that I gave that copy to Chad, because in September he sent me many helpful comments about it, and we began discussing his new game, Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies, as well as the new version of PDQ that he was using for the game, dubbed PDQ# (PDQ Sharp). He suggested that there were elements in PDQ# that I should consider using for Vox, and my attempts to wrestle PDQ# into Vox ultimately led to a spinoff version of PDQ that I helped write, called PDQ2 (which is basically PDQ# with the swashbuckling bits stripped out). PDQ2 was put in place, and at last the game was finished enough for playtesting, which occurred between October of 2008 and January of 2009, during which time Jen Schoonover also came aboard to finish up the final setting. It was difficult to find the time to finish Vox, however, because the game writing and design work I was doing at the time was getting in the way.
You can probably guess by now how the universe decided to "help me out."
By the end of January, the work I was doing suddenly hit a dry spell, and I made the decision that I would at last use this time to sit down and hammer out Vox. By March 19, I was finished enough to request an ad from Fred Hicks for the "back" of the book, and by March 27 -- when Jerry Grayson and I attended Gamestorm in Vancouver, WA -- I was even more finished, enough so to print out a new version to take with me. Again, three copies came along, one to be marked up, and two for others to take, peruse and comment on. I was certain by now that the book would be landscape, but I still wasn't sure of the size, or the exact presentation. I wanted the Player and GM sections to be reversed from one another, and so for this version I printed the Player's section on one side of every page, and the GM's section on the reverse of each page, upside-down. My friend Nievita gave me a different suggestion, however, and it's the layout that eventually made it into the final book.
One other interesting anecdote from Gamestorm: I sold a copy of Vox before I even had them printed, much less finished. A fan of Ninja Burger stopped by the booth, and I began idly discussing other PDQ-based games, mentioning in passing the forthcoming Vox. She informed me that she would be buying Vox when it came out, just based on my description and rough proof copy, and that she would be watching the web for the official release announcement.
Here it is!
In April I brought Jen Schoonover back on board to copyedit the book, and I began seeking new quotes from various companies. It's here that I hit my big problem, which was that most POD printers couldn't handle landscape format books very well. I discovered that everyone wanted me to get the book down to no more than 8.5" wide, if not 8", and I struggled to find a format that worked for my content. I tried going back to Crown Quarto (which more printers handled) and slapped a new layout together, doing a Lulu run on May 16, 2009 to see how it looked. The downside here was that Lulu could not print Crown Quarto in landscape format. They could, however, print 9x7 in landscape... which as it turned out was the first layout I had tried, almost 3 years earlier. It was meant to be.
On May 18, 2009, I uploaded the first sampler of the game and kicked the website into gear. A PDQ thread on RPG.net soon revealed another instance of synchronicity, and now it seems there may be followup to Vox with a fantasy setting. In late May I entered discussions with a few other POD printers, hoping to get a better price than what Lulu was offering me, but in each case they required that I get the book down to 8.5" wide, or thereabouts. Faced with the prospect of having to spend a few days readjusting the layout (with the very real possibility of accidentally creating a new error or three along the way), I eventually decided that the first printing would be through Lulu, just to play it safe. And so it was.
On June 24, 2009, Vox will premiere at the Origins Game Fair for the first time. Shortly upon my return, it will be available in PDF format online, probably followed by a full on second printing through an offset printer (or, if I continue to play it safe, through a POD printer). Whether or not Vox achieves indie success (which would mean sales of at least 1000 copies) remains to be seen. Regardless, it seems that it was meant to be, and what's more it was meant to be right now. At least, that's what the voice in my head says.