My Favorite Bit: Howard Tayler talks about PLANET MERCENARY
Howard Taylor joins us today to talk about Planet Mercenary, a role-playing game (RPG) he and Alan Bahr created, set in the universe of Schlock Mercenary. Here’s the description from the RPG’s Kickstarter:
The Planet Mercenary Role Playing Game is a custom system designed for speedy play with rich storytelling. Combat goes quickly, and when it goes disastrously it’s still a lot of fun.
The core product will be a hard-bound, illustrated, 208-page, full color world book, plus a deck of 50 cards used to steer your role play in hilarious directions.
We’ve hit our first stretch goal, so we’ll also be making custom dice sets (six dice in two different colors) and a Planet Mercenary challenge coin. Further stretch goals include additional pages in the book, armory pins, and some very enticing in-universe reading material.
So what is Howard’s favorite bit?
I was pretty sure it was a terrible idea.
For thirty seconds I thought it was brilliant, and then it seemed so dumb I actually felt embarrassment for having thought of it, and I hadn’t even shared it with anyone yet.
I was at lunch with Alan Bahr, and we were trying to come up with a name for the role playing game set in the Schlock Mercenary universe. We were pretty late in the development cycle to not have a name, and we were getting desperate.
Schlock Mercenary readers have been requesting a role playing game since 2003. You’d think that would have given me enough time to dream up a name for it, but naming non-existent products didn’t seem like a good use of my time. Then, in February of 2015, Sandra, Alan, and I were finally far enough along that we needed a name, and we needed one rather immediately. We could have called it the Schlock Mercenary RPG, but that felt lackluster, and everybody agreed that it would have limited our reach in the wider RPG space.
The idea, the terrible one, had been with me for a while, and I was afraid to share it with Alan. We were brainstorming in a hotel restaurant when I finally decided that bouncing one more dumb thing off of him couldn’t possibly hurt THAT much. I shrugged aside my fear of looking stupid, and gave Alan the pitch.
“How about this: We call the game PLANET MERCENARY, naming it after an in-universe supplier of weapons and stuff.”
“There’s more.” I mimed opening a book and turning pages. “The book is an in-world artifact. The front page is a letter from the CEO.”
I adopted my Official Market-Speak Voice:
“Valued Planet Mercenary customer! Many of you have expressed concerns that the grunts in your companies are uneducated imbeciles, and you can’t get them to read briefing materials, not even to literally save their lives. We have created this old-timey pencil-and-paper role playing book to solve your problem. Your grunts will think it is just a game, but they will actually be learning about the weapons they carry, the enemies they point those weapons at, and the places where, if they read carefully, they might just NOT breathe their last breath.”
I stopped, and waited for Alan to say “Yup. That’s ridiculous.”
He did not say that.
His eyes lit up, his jaw dropped, and he began gushing about how awesome this was. He thought it was fantastic. I waited for thirty seconds, wondering if the idea would turn as dumb for him as it had for me.
It did not.
So I tried looking at my silly idea through his eyes, and I fell in love with it all over again.
We shared the in-world-artifact concept with a few others, and they reacted almost exactly like Alan had, loving it, and becoming quite excited to see the finished product. This energized me, and when I sat down to write some of the fluff in the book I adopted an in-universe voice, and the words flowed in that exhilarating way that tells writers they are geniuses and cannot be stopped.
(I should point out that this exhilaration never lasts long enough, and there’s always a slog during which we wonder whether we’re just too stupid to know how stupid we are, but imposter syndrome is a story for another day.)
Other ideas followed. In the margins on the front page there is an in-line comment from the CEO:
Who wrote this? I don’t talk like that! Also, if I make notes in here, will they get cleaned out before we print?
One of the writers assures the CEO that in-line comments will be removed, and of course they are not. The comments in the margins become their own through-line, telling several stories across 200+ pages of RPG text.
I find it a little frightening to consider that this idea, which I was afraid to share with my collaborator, is now the theme that ties the entire project together. It is not just a title and a cool hook. It is the hook, the line, the sinker, the rod, the boat, and the compass.
It is also my favorite bit—not because it’s important to the project, but because it will always serve as a reminder to me that some of the very best ideas look stupid, and I won’t be able to figure out whether they’re worthwhile without sharing them.
Howard Tayler is the writer and illustrator behind Schlock Mercenary, the Hugo-nominated science fiction comic strip. He also co-hosts the Hugo and Parsec award-winning “Writing Excuses” podcast, a weekly ‘cast for genre-fiction writers, with Mary Robinette Kowal, Brandon Sanderson, and Dan Wells. They collaborated together to create the Shadows Beneath anthology.
His most recent project is the Planet Mercenary RPG which is being funded via Kickstarter right now. Planet Mercenary is set in the universe of the Schlock Mercenary comic. You can find the comic online at schlockmercenary.com
Howard lives in Orem, Utah with his wife Sandra, their four children, and one ungrateful, archetypally imperious cat.