Category: Writing Tools

Design Diary: Order from Chaos

(this is a placeholder post to keep momentum)

One of the things I like about index cards for brainstorming is the way they focus down on one subject at a time. Another thing I like is the way you can work your way through a stack of blank cards and discover thoughts you had weeks ago that are actually good.

And the third thing I like about physical index cards is the satisfaction of handling them, ordering them into stacks, and pinning them to a corkboard:




This highlights the vital step that’s often missed in all brainstorming (and I encounter this in my day job a lot), which is turning the messy group of ideas into a coherent whole is an essential part of brainstorming. People skip this step because it appears to be the boring bit; the brainstorming typically involves talking animatedly about your ideas, making contact with other humans, but the write up is solitary, lonely stuff. But necessary, because otherwise everything up to that point is masturbation.

So, one of the things a brainstorming method does is to give you an overview of the whole thing your making… and that can be tremendously satisfying if it comes together. So I would say that whatever brainstorming visualisation tool you pick, you need to pick something that satisfies you. Card, pen and corkboard satisfy me much more than digital, and while this mess must go digital at some point, seeing the cards laid out like this is enough to keep me motivated in the interim.

the brainstorming is for Black Mantle. The split between Interior and Exterior is intentional, but the fact I have two corkboards is a happy coincidence. I was going to say I need a bigger board, but working within the constraints of a fixed board is possibly helpful


Five Analog Brainstorming Tools

Following on from Messy Designs and prompted by the Design Games Podcast (around 19 min in this episode) I would like to talk about five brainstorming tools I like for creating things.

However the aim is not to talk about how to brainstorm (because the reader knows this) or how to use each tool (because there are plenty of online articles for that), but to talk about how each tool affects the process

Assumption 1: Brainstorming is a process of

  1. Meditating on a concept or heading
  2. Writing isolated nodes of information representing single ideas
  3. Connecting these nodes together
  4. Reorganising these for an holistic view of your overall concept
  5. Repeat

The above process is true for all five techniques below; they are different ways of doing exactly the same thing, namely mapping out the ways that single ideas branch out into smaller headings.

Assumption 2: How Each Technique Could Influence Thinking

First, working with each method has two modes:

  1. Authoring of new ideas
  2. Reading and revising

Second, when writing new ideas, the nodes are not created in isolation but are influenced by the visibility & spatial representation of neighbour nodes.

And third, when you’re looking at the whole thing, your ability to get value from the design comes from

  • context around each node, i.e. what is the thought process connecting one node to the next (is it implied, or explicit?), and
  • ability to reorder into a coherent view.

The Techniques

Considering 5 techniques:

  • Index Cards
  • Mind Mapping
  • Concept Mapping
  • Mandala Charts
  • Outlining

Note: I really prefer a physical piece of paper to interact with (“analog note taking”) but I’ve mentioned software options as well. I like the physical thing because

  1. less temptation to delete
  2. less distraction by screen elements
  3. more fresh air and natural light

Index Cards

Get a stack of index cards and write thoughts on them, then reorder, sort into piles, etc. Cheap, very portable, very tactile.

  • Writing: cards created in isolation, no visual influence from other nodes. No shape, no implied hierarchy.
  • Reviewing: sort and stack. May be harder to get an holistic view of the project, simply due to the size of each card. You can get an holistic view of the stacks as headings though.
  • Chaos: very messy

Software options: Scrivener (cross platform), SuperNoteCard (cross platform), IndexCard (iOS)

Mind Maps

Tony Buzan’s technique has the user start with a central topic and branch out in all directions, creating a hierarchy of nodes.

  • Writing: nodes created as subordinates and peers of other nodes. Central concept will always impose itself on the process. Radial hierarchy.
  • Reviewing: drag and drop (for software) and colour coding. Pretty good for holistic view, but focused on one central concept or question.
  • Chaos: moderately messy in that order isn’t imposed in the writing process and the map grows organically

Software options: FreeMind, XMind

Concept Maps

Joseph Novak’s technique involves a branching map much like Buzan’s Mind Mapping, but crucially differs as there’s no central node and nodes are connected by contextual statements.

  • Writing: nodes have peers but no subordinates. No hierarchy.
  • Reviewing: draw connections and colour code. Gives a fairly good holistic view although its main strength is being able to follow a thought process jumping from node to node
  • Chaos: messy, although it requires discipline to apply the contextual information around each node at the time of writing that node

Software options: C-Map Tools

Mandala Charts

This is a 3 by 3 grid with a concept at the central box; each other box in the grid then becomes the central box in one of eight secondry grids. There is some interesting method around creating the opposites as flexible pairs. Look here.

  • Writing: nodes have peers and subordinates.
  • Reviewing: highly ordered and focused on the headings you have chosen. 2-level hierarchy, and rigid shape. Good holistic view of the grid.
  • Chaos: low mess.

Software option: MandalaChart for iOS

Document Outlines

Document outlines are a series of headings and sub-headings, and you can move them about, promote and demote headings, etc.

  • Writing: nodes are subordinates of headings. Strongly hierarchical. Furthermore, because this is written vertically, higher priority implied for the top of the sheet vs. the bottom.
  • Reviewing: again highly ordered and focused on the headings. Promote/demote headings in the outline. Holistic view is good but priority of headings is implied due to the vertical listing.
  • Chaos: low mess.

Software options: Scrivener, MS Word, OmniOutliner


Preference will dictate what each technique does for you, but in summary I feel that

  • Index Cards maximise the “blank sheet” and minimise influences of other nodes on thinking during the writing stage. Plus they’re very portable
  • Mind Maps work well to promote one central concept and allow ideas to grow organically
  • C-Maps do the same, but they’re more about meandering cognitive pathways than a central concept
  • Mandala Charts are about top-down order and starting with an holistic view of your concept (or life). But they can do interesting things by pairing up headings on opposite sides of the charts
  • Outlines are about preparing a structure for consumption by someone else (e.g. a document). I know people like making lists so they have that advantage, although I don’t care for them for brainstorming


Three Different Decks


I like cards — art cards, index cards, tarot cards. Cards are good because you can focus on a card without being distracted by other things (text, other art). And of course you can carry them around and pass them around the table if they’re a play aid. These are some not-roleplaying but definitely creative card sets.

Oblique Strategies

Very cool because Brian Eno, etc. Subtitled “One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas”. Developed in 1975 as a means for artists (and specifically musicians?) to overcome blocks. Several sets, project ended with the death of Peter Schmidt in 1980. My version is the 5th printing.

oblique 1

Each card has a terse sentence. Sometimes that sentence is telling you to do something like “Be dirty” or “Use an old idea”. Other times it’s asking you to be critical with advice like “What to increase? What to reduce?”.

oblique 2

oblique 3

No suits or groupings or context or instructions.

Uses in games? Certainly in the prep stage of a game; probably also for low-prep games where you’re responding to a miss in Apocalypse World or similar (especially when there isn’t an obvious hard move to take).

Salad’s Ericksonian Hypnosis Cards

Pete Kautz wrote Five Conversational Hypnosis Tools for MCs. He also recommended these to me as ways to insert hypnotic language into GMing.

salad 1

salad 2

Based on Ericksonian Hypnotherapy. These come as a deck of 52 playing cards, so you can learn the hypnotic language while playing patience. The language is roughly grouped by the four suits. Clubs tend to be about stimulating thought and curiosity, Hearts are often about thinking about what other people are capable of, and so forth.

Uses in games? I guess if you want to train yourself in suggestive language and then use that to encourage certain sensations or lines of thought in the players.

Roger von Oech’s Creative Whack Pack

This is a deck of inspiration cards for management types, with an endorsement from Fortune on the back. If you can stomach the corporate overtones they’re pretty interesting: four 16-card suits for a 64 card deck. Blue Explorer cards are about gathering resources (finding patterns, asking questions), orange Artist cards are about transformation (exaggerating, changing perspectives, etc.), green Judge cards are about viewing your ideas critically (“what can I take less seriously?”, “what’s lacking/doesn’t fit in?”) and red Warrior cards are about implementation (what support systems can I create, what surprising tactics can I use to reach the objective, etc.).

whack 1

These form a deliberate create-expand-critique-implement cycle. They’re like a more focused and goal-oriented Oblique Strategies.

whack 3

whack 2

Uses in games? Definitely for whole-process design from start to finish of a whole game or adventure. Possibly also for specific stages of the game where you’re blocked at a particular step or feel what you’ve got is a bit boring or obvious.

National Stationery Week Day 7: All Rolled Up!

Whoops! I missed day 7. So belatedly let’s look at All Rolled Up’s dry erase cards:


They come in two sizes.


This Staedtler Lumocolor correctable marker was the one they recommended — it comes off with a bit of elbow grease, meaning it won’t just be wiped off by mistake, and I could prepare tiles in advance.


Two packs of cards and a marker cost me a little over a fiver — great value.

National Stationery Week Day 6

Sometimes you just need a pencil.


iPad 2 and iOS 8: How to fix the slowdown

This is a public service announcement. If you love your iPad2 as I do (all those tasty, tasty game PDFs) but after updating to iOS8 found that it now has the responsiveness of a brick, here’s what you can do:

  1. Reset the network by going to Settings > General > Reset > Reset Network Settings. This will clear out all the networks and passwords remembered on your device (you do know at least your home WiFi password, don’t you?)
  2. Turn off WiFi Networking by going Settings > Privacy > Location Services > System Services > Wifi Networking and set it to Off.
  3. Reduce animations by going Settings > General > Accessibilty > Reduce Motion and set it to On.

I don’t know which of these had the biggest effect; I suspect the first one. iPad is now perfectly usable now, when previously browsing was impossible and even typing was a painful experience. YMMV, of course.

Beyond The Wall: Building Playbooks

I make no apologies for gushing about Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures. It’s an innovative OSR game in a field of me-toos (much as I respect the movement), it’s focused on the only fantasy genre I really care for, and the authors have paid attention to the current trend for pick-up RPGs: the playbook-style approach of *World games. And it’s eight dollars for the pdf. You should buy it.

Also like *World games it’s customisable. The authors have released several packs of playbooks and a scenario, Colin Chapman has donated the What Lies Beyond beastiary, and last month Joel Priddy published a blank playbook for custom characters.

So, after yesterday’s excess of words and theory, something of slightly more practical use. I’d like to talk about the process of writing playbooks.

Joel Priddy’s Blank Worksheet is a great resource if you want to build your own playbooks, mainly because he’s done all the hard work of crunching the numbers for us. My only complaint with it is it’s rather terse. Of course if you’re brimming over with ideas then you’ll probably fill in all those cells in a flash… but if you happened to spend the previous evening in a bottle of Tanqueray and are now suffering for it, here’s a bit of help to get your creative thoughts in order.

Since Joel’s template already has all the numbers you need, the aim is to complement with a bit of mythic structure. Unsurprisingly I’m going to use Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. If you don’t know what that is, here is the Wikipedia page. But even better, read Campbell’s book. James Wallis recommends it.

As I said earlier, I like to think that characters have already completed at least one mythic cycle before play even begins. That skill, experience and wisdom must come from somewhere. And we know from Vogler that the Hero’s Journey not only provides a useful external plot arc, it’s also good for internal character arcs too.

I’m only going to consider five stages, rather than the full twelve (or seventeen). These are:

  • The Ordinary World
  • The Call / The Mentor / Crossing The Wall
  • The Road of Trials
  • The Ordeal
  • The Reward / The Return

Here’s a nice diagram:

Playbook Cycle

I’ve already talked about the duality of Worlds — the Ordinary World and the Magical World — and the Transition between them. For this example I thought it fitting to call them The Village and Beyond The Wall respectively.

The Ordinary World and Meeting the Mentor both happen in the world of innocence, The Village; then the Road of Trials and the Ordeal happen in the world of experience, Beyond The Wall. The last stage (Reward and Return) sort of happens on the cusp of the two worlds.

Ordinary World

These are the character’s early years, expressed in the first three tables. The PC hasn’t yet realised what sort of hero they’re going to be; at this point, they have the potential to be anyone.

The stock tables from Joel’s spreadsheet are “who raised you”, “how did you distinguish yourself” and “an influential person”. Note that the influential person is not the mentor (at least not for the purposes of this cycle). Note also that “early years” are relative, and need a bit of reinterpretation for demi-human playbooks.

Call, Mentor, and Crossing

This is a combination of the stages Call to Adventure, Meeting the Mentor (a.k.a. Supernatural Aid) and Crossing the Threshold.

It’s the Mentor that inspires the character to cross the threshold (the Wall) and take the “Road of Trials” that shapes them into a warrior, initiates them into the world of magic, or teaches them to be a self-reliant rogue.

The mentor doesn’t have to be living, or human. All the mentor does is push the dithering hero over the threshold. The following could all be seen as Mentoring stages:

  • the moment you realised you were different from the others
  • finding wisdom in a book
  • having a dangerous situation forced upon you and succeeding
  • vowing revenge after something is taken from you

Most importantly this stage foreshadows the class the character is going to join in the next stage. Note that some of the playbooks reverse the order of the tables for this stage and the Road of Trials.

This table is paraphrased as “how did you come to your class?” in the worksheet. Obviously there’s a lot of implied stuff to cram into one line item in the table — but being able to cram a lot of implied history into a single line is a good skill to practice!

The Road of Trials

Now we’re into the realm of Experience, this Road of Trials is the hero’s development within her character class, and is the point where the character’s skills, spells and knacks are defined. We assume some trials happen, and the character learns and gains strength from the experience.

This table is called “a significant event, influence or specialisation relating to class” in the worksheet.

The Ordeal

The most important lesson the character learns is the value of friendship during a crisis. This is the table for “A Previous Adventure” that involves the player to the right.

These don’t have to be violent ordeals; they can just as easily be domestic events like resolving a love interest or coming to terms with one’s nature. What’s probably most important is the role of the friend in overcoming the ordeal which is otherwise too much for the character to handle alone.

Reward and Return

This is the denouement to the cycle. It’s part Reward following the Ordeal, and part Return with the Elixir. The table is “you acquired a distinctive possession, resource, or ally”.

Note that if the character acquires an ally it’s probably as a consequence of growing spiritually and forming a relationship they could not have formed had they not gone through the Ordeal. If they have formed such a relationship, this is potentially a future mentor figure.

Developing The Playbook

A Playbook complements a Character Class by providing a sort of prelude plot arc.

Each stage of the plot arc corresponds to a stage in the monomyth cycle as discussed above. When we come to design the playbook we already know what the outcome of each stage is. For example for the Apprentice Sorcerer the outcomes for each stage are:

  • Ordinary World: growing up with nobility (common with other playbooks)
  • Call / Mentor / Threshold: your mentor was a magic user
  • Road of Trials: you learned a style of magic from him
  • Ordeal: you witnessed something happen to him
  • Reward / Return: you found something in his lab

Or the Reformed Bully, which raises interesting questions about who the mentor is:

  • Ordinary World: early childhood (common with other playbooks)
  • Call / Mentor / Threshold: you turned into a bully
  • Road of Trials: you were a particular kind of bully
  • Ordeal: you realised you didn’t want to be a bully any more
  • Reward / Return: you were forgiven

To complete the tables we need the details of exactly how these outcomes happened, and a question that reflects the outcome — our question assumes that the outcome will happen. Sometimes the question needs to be phrases as a statement to set the scene, and then a question.

Hacking Existing Playbooks

I believe Vincent Baker said the Apocalypse World playbooks came about from hacking the Brainer playbook.

While I can use the cycle to create arcs from whole cloth, there’s already so many examples provided in the existing playbooks that it should be straightforward to tweak the existing books. Let’s say I want to create a new playbook called The Silver Spoon. This character is a favourite son or daughter who has always had their way. Their cycle will be one of fall and redemption through friendship.

That sounds a lot like the Bully, so I’ll just tweak that. The outcomes I want are:

  • Ordinary World: childhood cycle, as per other books (substitute nobles cycle if it suits)
  • Call, Mentor, Threshold: rather than being a bully, the character is scheming and manipulative.
  • Road of Trials: we learn exactly how this character has put their manipulative nature to evil use. Crime? Forcing others to do terrible things?
  • Ordeal: the point at which the character sees the harm their selfishness has caused.
  • Reward and Return: forgiveness.

I’m going to have to pick the right questions and then populate the table, but it’s clear that I can take a lot of inspiration from the Bully (clearly this character is just a bully by another name, possibly in richer clothes).

Names For New Playbooks

You could do worse for new character inspiration than pick a name like “The adjective noun”, e.g.

  • The Reluctant Knight
  • The Reckless Priest
  • The Vengeful Shepherd


Here are some adjectives I thought I might turn into playbooks:

reluctant, reckless, aspiring, solitary, uncouth, unruly, vengeful, rebellious, silent

And here are a few nouns:

princeling, knight, priest, apprentice, miller

OK, that’s it for this post. The next one will discuss how to tackle developing scenario packs.

Markdown Enabled

I am pleased to announce that this blog supports Markdown. Specifically it’s Markdown Extra, which has a few extra features (like inline HTML support). I’m posting in Markdown via MarsEdit (configuration for MarsEdit is here) using iA Writer for writing the actual text first.

Markdown is enabled in the comments field, too. Try it out!

If you’re a Windows user and you’re interested, I’d like to draw your attention to the excellent WriteMonkey which is just fantastic, even without the extras activated (via donation). There are other Markdown apps on Windows, but this is far and away my preferred Windows editor. It can even jump to different headings (similar to MS Word) and will let you hoist/focus on a piece of text.


I’ve been having fun with Tesseract, an open source OCR engine. It works from the command line, taking image files (TIFF and JPEG work for me) and outputting plain text.

That’s all. It doesn’t do anything fancy overlay text on an image to generate a searchable pdf (it does output hOCR and handles multiple columns, so I assume that the output can be processed, although I’ve not looked into that). I assume most people who want to scan a document with OCR will want a facsimile of that document, just with searchable text.

That makes Tesseract’s usefulness a bit marginal. But on the other hand, I am a marginal usage case. I just want the text, nothing fancy. Why? Because (awful hipster that I am) I typed this on a typewriter.


Tesseract is very good at doing what it does. I’ve trialled other commercial OCR software and the accuracy when scanning single column text from my typewriter doesn’t come close to Tesseract’s output. It’s not perfect, but it’s something I can live with, and typing on the Olympia beats staring at a screen.

So, if by chance you’re also a filthy typewriter fetishist who wants to use their machine more often but is held back by the need to get text in electronic format, give it a try. I can’t comment on Windows, but the Macports version installed just fine on both Snow Leopard and Tiger.

Scanning settings are not something I’ve looked into too much; the best results seem to be using high contrast B&W for photographs, rather than default settings for documents. I confess however that I’ve not been too adventurous with my scanner, sticking with the default Canon drivers because I couldn’t get SANE to work just yet.


Tesseract does require a bit of post-processing. I’m happy to say the above text was produced with 100% accuracy (including typos); however it did insert the odd line or two. The main frustration is the hard line breaks, e.g.

Blog Tesseract Crop

will output as

So, if by chance you’re also a filthy typewriter fetishist who
wants to use their machine more often but is held back by the
need to get text in electronic format, give it a try. I can’t
comment on Windows, but the Macports version installed just fine
on both Snow Leopard and Tiger.

The quickest way is probably to shove it into Word and do a special Find/Replace to swap paragraph marks (^p; the OpenOffice equivalent is n) with spaces.

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