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Herding Secrets

By Alexis Kennedy, July 13, 2010 · Tagged with

Fallen London is full of secrets. Full, full, full. You may already have guessed the price that was paid for the city, or the original names of the streets of Spite. If you’ve got far enough into the game, you may know who the Topsy King used to be, or what the Correspondence is. If you’ve been paying close attention, you may have some idea why the Masters cover themselves or what the Church does with all those candles. But everything in the game is due a reveal eventually – the real nature of the Bazaar, the source of glim, why death is different. Whether warm amber is actually something unhygienic.

So there’s an ocean of backstory, secrets and continuity material. And we add to it all the time, God help us. Here’s some of the ways we keep it straight.

Keeping it all inside. One thing I brought away from software development is this: information in documentation is OK, but information is most valuable when it’s in the team’s heads. So we have as many meetings as is practical with a distributed team, we have a bunch of specific techniques (more below), and above all we work collaboratively.

Final repository of truth. Of course we do need something less volatile than our brains. Another software dev thing – DRY, don’t repeat yourself. The actual content database (250,000 words and counting) is the final repository of truth in the game. Where practical, we use that as our reference point. Where content hasn’t been implemented yet, we have a deliberately limited number of secondary docs, including…

The view from above. We have one really big Google spreadsheet with more or less every important secret in the game. There’s a row for every subject, and the columns run from very shallow to very deep to [REDACTED]. So a shallow secret about the Masters is that they’re all only five foot high and wear platform shoes, a medium one is that they’re made of balsa wood, a deep one is that their secret motivation is to kick ass and chew bubblegum. And so forth. The advantage of organising it this way is (i) we can scan and remind at a glance (ii) we can make strategic decisions about how much info to release when.

Coloured lights. When any of us adds new content to the secrets birdseye or another doc, we do so highlighted in our own heraldic colour. We may kick it around a bit. Then I come along and black-and-white it if I’m happy, and it’s canon. It doesn’t allow for fancy version control, but it’s a very simple at-a-glance way of handling additions.

Email discipline. Email discussions about ideas and plots easily get bogged down in half-formed ideas and interleaved discussion with too many loose ends. We have a specific protocol we bring out for these occasions: no interleaving, only clear and specific suggesions with no ‘perhaps something like…’, ‘I propose…’ as a clear flag for suggestions so people don’t feel their ideas are stepped on, that sort of thing.

Three gates. Everything we write gets subbed by another team member to weed out bloopers and typos and game imbalances. We have a set of guidelines and house rules for that, plus the birdseye. It then gets reviewed by me, as a final check on continuity and so I can mess with the prose if I think it needs messing. (When I’ve written it, the process is a little murkier, but it should always get a sub.) The key thing here is that we don’t sub as a hierarchy – anyone can get assigned to sub anything. This has the added, big, advantage that we’re constantly keeping abreast of each others’ work: which takes us back to the very first point, above.

Any of you folks build or maintain worlds – for fun or professionally – as part of a team? What tools and techniques do you use?

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How the hosts of spoilers / prowl and prowl around · Failbetter Games Jul 23, 1:19pm

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Parmeisan Jan 27, 8:16pm

I haven't had a chance to work on world-building collaboratively, but I imagine Google's dying Wave protocol or Novell's soon-to-be-released Vibe (which uses the Wave protocol) would be amazing tools for that. It's like a wiki and a forum and email and instant messaging and Google docs, all in one. For solo use, I've been finding yWriter good for novel-y stuff and Obsidian Portal fantastic for RPG worlds. (Actually, the latter would be OK collaboratively as well, since it's a wiki, but you'd probably want to share out the GM password).

Kay Whitby Dec 15, 9:22pm

Dramatis Personae sheets and timelines, with drawn profiles for the former. Then again, I've only ever done world developing in a two-person team, and never professionally. Typically I'm the chronicler and the second person is the brain repository, and we'll use each others as soundboards for a few hours straight until we have something agreed upon. If there's no agreement, we walk away from the idea so we can come back later either with a new concept or a new take on the original concept. It also depends on the world being built. I've had some that pretty much required rough maps, others that required detailed cosmic physics, and still more that were deliberately ridiculous and thus everything hinged around the characters (making them the map, essentially, so everything was recorded in relation to them and their movements). Google docs are excellent for collaborative building, but lately I've been making copious use of Dropbox and word documents. Gmail's always a favourite, and I always have conversation logging turned on in my instant messenger. Finally, I've been finding that Licorize can be pretty handy for documenting and sharing resources, tasks, and deadlines between several people.

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Herm Jul 15, 5:38pm

:) Black Dogs come in many guises, delicious friend. And with variable numbers of heads.

Alexis Jul 15, 3:19pm

Glad you found it useful, folks! Herm, I see you're looking more autumnal these days.

Herm Jul 14, 1:20pm

Very good points there. Snark makes everything better, as do good collaborators. Fallen London evidently has both - and is that much richer for it.

vespers Jul 13, 6:01pm

I also build worlds.. I build worlds a lot more than I write prose in them. I work with Herm and a couple others on a shared-worlds concept, with my own hand specifically in about two particular worlds therin so far, and also in the overarching mechanics. I also have a world I've been building for my own fantasy epic.. and there are scraps of a couple dozen others in a folder in my hierarchy waiting to be used or incorporated into something. What Herm ain't telling is that his (our) collaborative wiki is written in the snarkiest tone imaginable! That's how he makes sure we don't know for sure what's canon and what isn't.. if you believed everything that sounded silly was in-character off-putting, you'd never believe any of it! Herm has occasionally rewritten bits of my entries when they needed it, but they always come out snarkier than before. Which is.. pretty snarky. I agree, your methods are pretty spectacular; this post went straight into my Delicious bookmarks. I myself am much slacker than Herm about keeping wikis up to date. I also have a local MoinMoin wiki, but it is updated sporiadically at best. Most of my best thinking is done on the spot in email.. A lot of it stays there for a while before it gets noted down somewhere else. I do have a fairly in-depth bunch of Gmail tags I use to keep track of stuff, at least.. I can narrow a search way down before I have to go hunting through text to find an idea. That goes for non-collaborative writing as well.. I bounce ideas of my writing buddies about my own work as often as I discuss our shared works.

Herm Jul 13, 5:12pm

I build worlds on which to set my writings (both solo writing and collaborative play-by-messageboard stories). I keep the information I have made public in a public wiki. Not all that you'll read on that wiki is canonical (i.e. confirmed by me to be true): I also add things that have been claimed by a character, and things believed by the majority of inhabitants of a place, just to keep it interesting. I will also refer back to things I've written in the past in order to get details right, but I try to transfer every fact from the writing to the wiki and refer primarily to the wiki, with the aid of cross-links to the posts on the web in case the original context provides a nuance I hadn't thought to record. Secret information, on the other hand, is kept in a private wiki, stored offline (a local installation of MoinMoin, if you're interested), but I find that that wiki is always one or two versions behind what's in my head. My method is workable for worlds that are built by only one person. When building collaboratively, we tend to talk by email and IRC, and hopefully the details get written up instead of forgotten about! Your methods are fascinating. Thanks for sharing them. It's great to hear how much thought goes into deciding what you reveal to the public when, and to get a glimpse of your quality control methods. I've always been impressed by the accurate spelling and grammer in Echo Bazaar, so your care shows. And I enjoy interacting with worldbuilders who have an entire world, full of secrets, mapped out behind their stories. That's just so impressive.

Ben Jul 13, 6:14am

I'm working on various fictional worlds a lot from helping to organise and run live role playing events to collaborative fiction. We tend to use private internet forums and meetings to discuss our ideas, implement what we like, throw out what we don't. In many ways it's a system which is less than ideal... I'll certainly be proposing that we take some of your methods on board.