Lessons from a TV series bible. #1: Title

Continuing the discussion from How to write a series bible:

Righto, then. Let’s start with agenda item number one in Ury’s list:

  1. The title . You need a title that is catchy, memorable and, if at all possible, captures the essence of the show you’re proposing. If you’re an established producer, or are creating a spin-off, you can get away with titling your show after your main character (e,g., Ed, Joey, Fraizer, Abby’s), but if you’re an unknown writer with an unknown property, it’s best to get to the point (e.g., Survivor, Broad City, Supernatural, Veep.)

Do RPG campaign need titles? Do they benefit a great deal from having them? What is the function of an RPG camaign title? What makes a good one?

I didn’t use campaign titles at all until 1986. Up until then all the players I knew referred to campaigns as “<GM>'s <system> campaign”, such as “Brett’s TFT campaign”. In ’86 I moved to Canberra and joined a new community of role-players, and also started running game systems such as the HERO System and ForeSight that were a bit more general-purpose so that “<system>” got to be less communicative of campaign specifics. My campaign grew titles that were mostly attributive and that I seem to recall emerged by some sort of communal agreement after the character-players had started to settle in. An originally-nameless miniseries in late '86 became “the Survivors campaign”. “Brett’s SF campaign” turned into “The Flat Black campaign”. “Brett’s fantasy campaign” into “the Jehannum campaign” and then “The Giants of the Earth”. I didn’t start assigning official titles to campaigns at their beginnings until I think 1989, when I circulated my first written campaign prospectus¹. The campaign was called Survey; it attracted too many players, but not, I think, because of the title. From then on I started giving campaign titles mostly for the sake of having something to put at the top of the page of the prospectus and to distinguish the folder in which I kept the notes &c. The titles I chose were mostly allusions to the titles of, or lines from, plays, novels, movies, and poems. Some were oblique indications of content (e.g. The Man in the Bamboo Mask), others were just obscure little private jokes.

Anyway, Ury suggests that titles are important for TV shows, particularly when you don’t have an established reputation to bank on. Is the same true of RPG campaigns? It seems to me that you might need to “get to the point” with your campaign title if (a) you are offering a slate of possible campaigns, to help the prospective players form impressions of the alternatives among which to choose or (b) you are pitching a campaign to a group among whom you have no valuable brand as a GM and designer, such as when blurbing a game for a convention.

Do RPG campaign need titles? Do they benefit from having them? What is the function of an RPG campaign title? Is it to attract attention from the right sort of players? What makes a good one? Does that depend on your rep and to whom you are pitching?

¹ My early campaign prospectuses had a rather different character from the campaign prospectuses that @whswhs developed. His contain brief pitches for several possible campaigns, from among which his players choose. Mine were modelled more on the prospectus for a company, giving a detailed specification that investors (or players) can choose either to join or not. Apparently “prospectus” is US English for what we called “faculty handbooks” at the universities I attended.

I think I said in the podcast that I similarly progressed from “X’s game” to a specific title – partly when I was running largely the same material for two different groups and needed a way to keep track of it in my notes, and more when I joined the Cambridge Wednesday-night group in about 2002 (and started seriously playing GURPS – yes, that late), where it was necessary to refer to “the last game X ran” and “the game X plans to run next” with some frequency. The more different games one’s talking about, the more useful it is to have a short form for them: thus “I&R” rather than “Roger’s magical WWII game”.

Also handy when scheduling remotely (e.g. with Dudle) so that one can have an event title.

“next-dungeon-bash-game” doesn’t have the same ring as “Tears of the Moon”. Even if I don’t actually know why it’s called that yet, and I don’t think I’ve mentioned it to the players.

But just as I find I can develop an NPC better once I know their name (and ideally have a photo), I find that a campaign title is useful to me as campaign author, a mental hook on which to hang things.

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I’d be willing to call them something other than prospectuses, but faculty handbooks just wouldn’t do. Is there a generic word for the sort of thing I’m offering?

The first time I circulated a list of possible campaigns, it didn’t use titles; it just listed the systems I was planning to run. But that stopped being viable when I started offering different campaigns that used the same system. The name is a way of distinguishing, for example, a proposed Big Eyes Small Mouth campaign about a school for orbital vehicle pilots and a workplace drama/slice of life campaign about a small publishing firm.

I do sometimes make private jokes in campaign titles: for example, when I ran a campaign set in a small community where surreal things were happening, I titled it Whose Woods These Are as a way of alluding to my having taken the community map and some elements of the concept from The Prisoner. But I’m also trying to be evocative, in the way a television series’s title might be evocative: to compress significant facts about the campaign’s setting, theme, and/or style into a memorable short phrase that thus ideally says more than one thing—for example, Satanic Mills alludes to the historic era, as it was coined by William Blake, who died just a few years before the campaign’s start date; to the industrial setting, and specifically to its being an English one; and to the focus on vampires, demons, and the forces of darkness.

One of my regular players has suggested regularly adding information about several other things to my entries: the cultural assumptions (in a 19th-century British setting, what is the cultural role of women going to be?), the scale of threat that would be a serious challenge to the PCs, the likelihood of PC death, and the key features of the rules system I plan to use. Obviously those would fit more comfortably into your sort of prospectus than into mine. Do you see some or all of these as crucial information? (One suggestion of his that I don’t think I want to include is a discussion of my goals for the campaign; it doesn’t seem to me that the players are obligated to pursue those goals—I’m offering them both a consumable entertainment and a shared creative enterprise, but the shared enterprise requires substantial player autonomy.)

Well, for example, DC Realtime is called that because it’s set in a version of the DC universe, but one where time moves forward in step with that of the real world, rather than superheroes (and -villains) as such being nearly unaging. Dragon Pass is simply taken from the original and classic setting for RuneQuest. Satanic Mills I’ve already discussed. Spindrift is named for the home base of the player characters and for the scientific research foundation that’s situated there. Water Margin is primarily an allusion to the Chinese cultural milieu and politics, secondarily to the intent to treat Western martial arts and swashbuckling as an analog of the wuxia-style martial arts action of the novel, and tertiarily a hint at the Princely State of the British Isles being strongly involved in seafaring within the Chinese world empire. But how much of any of these the players will pick up in will vary.

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As far as I can tell your usage is a perfectly valid alternative sense of the word “prospectus”, and is now better established in such roleplaying circles as are likely to read our output.

For most campaigns, indeed, I have something more appropriate.

  • Irresponsible and Right - from a (post-war) Churchill speech, “it is better to be irresponsible and right than responsible and wrong”.
  • Stroboscope - a campaign designed to be episodic.
  • Wives and Sweethearts - the Royal Navy in space.
  • Hurricane Season - monster hunting in Florida!.
  • Standard of the Man - Transhuman Space

Were I so tall to reach the pole,
Or grasp the ocean with my span,
I must be measured by my soul;
The mind’s the standard of the man.
— Isaac Watts, Horae Lyricae , Book II, False Greatness (1706)

On the other hand if I’m running a one-off, e.g. for Whartson Hall, I usually just name the notes directory after the game system or the adventure.

The British English was “prospectus” when I was applying to universities, 42 years ago. “Faculty handbook” is clearly a specific term for the university form.

These days I give my campaigns titles, although they are not the first thing that I decide on. They tend to emerge during the setup phase, or early in play. I usually only have one concept to offer players, because I’m better at elaborating on a theme than thinking of lots of different ones.

I sometimes spend some time thinking about what title best fits. For my proposed workplace drama/soap opera campaign about a publishing firm, for example, I must have thought of a title some years ago, when I first thought of it, but I no longer remember what it was; this time I struggled over a suitable title for a few days before I thought of House Style. Similarly, Satanic Mills wasn’t my first thought for a Buffyverse campaign; it emerged after I pinned down the idea of industrial Manchester as a setting (it probably helped that I’ve loved William Blake’s poetry since I first discovered it in my early teens).

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So, what does the title of an RPG campaign have to do [to be a good or effective title]? Does that depend on circumstances, and if so, how? Does a title help you pitch a game? Does it help players choose well which game they might play? Does title help to establish players’ expectations for a game and guide their character generation and play?

I have given some campaigns titles that merely distinguished them, such as “Survey III” and “Jehannum 1995”. Good enough? Or are “Voyage of Fridtfof Nansen” and “Wear a Badge, Carry a Gun” just miles better?

For me as GM, the title helps set my expectations, so I like something that has an emotional resonance for me. It helps to define the campaign’s ethos or feel: Wives and Sweethearts to me means Jackspeak and John Winton, and keeping those at the back of my mind helps achieve a consistent tone.

If the players make the same associations, so much the better.

In a long-running game the title will also build up its own emotional associations, so something distinctive that can readily be associated with a particular game is probably good.

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Finally spots that Hurricane Season referenced Hiaasen’s Tourist Season and Dorsey’s Hurricane Punch, as well as being a meaningful title in its own right.

That was more a reminder for me, really; they were both on the bibliography. (Which isn’t a thing in the Ury document, but most of my players are fairly widely read and happy to try something new, and if I list a few books and films that I think have the right kind of atmosphere there’s a decent chance that at least some of them will be familiar to some of the players.)

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I see two functions that a title can serve, beyond simple categorization (though there could be more I haven’t thought of):

For the artist, perhaps especially one working in a linguistic medium, a title can help focus their creative efforts. I certainly don’t think this is essential; it’s known, for example, that Heinlein, Rand, and Tolkien all worked either without titles (for Tolkien, it was “the new hobbit book” for a long time) or with working titles that were later discarded, sometimes after a novel was accepted. But I often find it helpful,when I’m going from the brief sketch that goes into a prospectus to the player orientation documents that I hand out the the pre-session, to have a label that reminds me of the theme.

For the audience, a title serves the function of marketing, which is a rhetorical one. It can capture their attention and get them to look closely at the short description (in effect, it’s an elevator pitch); it may suggest the intended genre (in my current list, “Omicron Polypi” pretty much has to be science fiction, and “The Gate of Horn” fantasy); it may even be emotionally evocative and make the campaign more tempting than a simple matter of fact description could do.

For either purpose, of course, it’s necessary to have a good title, though the criteria of goodness may not be the same.

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