Thursday, June 21, 2018

The Story Behind the Senex Rewrite

This post is about business.  Perhaps someday you'll be where I am, and have to parse out something like this yourself.  I have been a tortured soul for several days now, looking for the ethical path.

Some months ago, with inspiration I wrote a post deconstructing the actions of players in my online world, carefully explaining my methodology as a DM, my motivation and expectations from the players, and why I thought the players reacted as they did.  I had never written a post like this.  I had not conceived of the idea until a few hours before writing the post.

The post was 5,600 words and was a lot of effort to write.  It was detailed, finicky work, with lots of consideration for providing a fair and faithful representation of my own feelings at the time and the desire not to offend.  I was thoroughly exhausted at the end of it.

The post was immediately very popular.  The first four comments on the post all said MORE.  And the fourth comment, from Samuel Kernan, suggested pledging for more such content, at a $3-$5 range.

So I wrote another post, similar to the first.  And that was very popular, too.  So it occurred to me to take Samuel up on his suggestion and set up a schedule for writing these posts, relating it to Patreon and putting it behind a paywall.  And as a matter of fact that also worked.  My Patreon account jumped more than a hundred dollars a month in pledges.

Good.  But I'm no dummy.  I saw immediately that there would be two problems that were going to arise.

First, the posts were burdensome to write.  Two a month, with a set minimum of 3,000 words, was going to be a heavy workload and they have been.  No complaints, but I have had to account for the time and ensure that both those posts have been completed before the end of each month.  Without question, after writing 13 of them now, it is work, no different than any other job might be ~ and in the short run, not at a high pay grade.

Second, I was utterly dependent on the existence of the campaign blogs having already been written.  Without that content, in the Senex and Juvenis campaigns, there was no "great new idea" for Patreon.  I relied on those campaigns to make the plan work.

However, I had never made a secret of the fact that I was running those online campaigns for the sake of my reputation and ultimately as a means of drumming up financial support.  Before I could tell people how to run D&D, I had to be SEEN running D&D, and well enough to justify people in believing what I had to say.  And it worked.  In nine years of running online games, I haven't seen anyone online argue that the campaigns proved I was a bad DM.

Which brings us to last month, when I discovered that the names on character contributions had been replaced with "anonymous," effectively sabotaging the value of those campaigns as readable commodities.  Whatever the reason, this was a massive threat to my new business model.  Without the campaign in existence, I was sunk.  So I took action.  I removed the Senex campaign from the public, placing it into private to protect the content.

I explained online what I thought was happening: that two players had deliberately sought out to disrupt the content by deleting their nicks, specifically Andrej and Delfig.  I immediately got push back from James Clark, who played Andrej, denying having taken any action.  He explained that he had lost the original Andrej account, etc., as a possible explanation.  The only thing is ... all of those accounts had been there 14 days before.  I know.  I had read them.  I was not prepared to believe this sudden change was coincidental.  I'm still not.

One commenter, Daniel Oliveira, suggested a possible explanation: and that might be the case.  I did not see that, however, as something that changed the threat level.  I had created something good, which the readers were decidedly supporting.  I was not going to risk that on the explanation of a stranger on the internet.

Still, Daniel's final words rang my conscience and I did not forget it:
"Hope that you put the Campaign Senex blog back online. I've found your blog 40-something days ago and I'm reading it all, chronologically, from the very start. So I'm fucking curious to finish reading the campaign."

And I did not like writing the second post of the masterclass blog last month without having that Senex campaign to link up with for reference.  So I ruminated.  And ruminated.  And considered what I could do about it.

So at 4:30 PM, lying in a cool bath on a hot day, I reasoned with myself that I could rewrite the whole campaign, editing it, so that it could be preserved without any worry that someone with a grudge might someday come in and delete comments they had made six years ago, because I had misrepresented them in some way.  I didn't like that.  I worked damn hard on those campaigns.  I feel, rightly or wrongly, possessive of them.

At 5:00 PM on Monday, I started editing the first post of the first campaign, which I originally published on this blog, before ultimately creating a new blog just for the campaign.  I set myself a blog size of at least 10,000 words for each "campaign post."  Six hours later, I was still putting the posts together, managing to edit, organize, format and parse out a little more than half of one such post.

The work, I found, despite my zeal in undertaking the task as soon as I had conceived it, was excessively nit-picky.  Players were chucking all sorts of garbage into their game comments, jokes, odd bits of grammar and punctuation that had to be puzzled over, stating things out of character or excessively in character, all the usual things players do in a game.  I was anxious to be true to the material and yet to make the material more relevant to my fundamental needs: to have a resource that I could count on for further deconstruction essays, for those loving such essays.

As the work went on, however, soaking up more and more time, I could not help wondering, "Why the hell am I doing all this work?  Does anyone even care?"  It was pretty easy to go back and see that none of those old posts are getting much attention these days.  One page view a week is a big deal.  And so in the midst of the work, I found myself questioning the work ... which is perfectly normal for any monumental task.  Particularly as I discovered that it took no more than five campaign posts on the blog to fill out 11,500 words.

There are 467 posts on the Senex blog.  Think about that a moment.

Editing the whole campaign is a GIANT task.

So I began to wonder.  Do I post this on the Tao of D&D blog, where it can be read by anyone, for free ... or do I post it on the Master Class blog, behind a $3 paywall?  I hemmed and hawed about it all through Tuesday.  I shut my online Juvenis campaign down early on Tuesday because I was so tired from the work and the thinking that I had to crash that afternoon.  I talked the question over with my partner.  I talked the question over with my daughter.

Ultimately, the decision was made on this basis.  The rewrite had one relevant purpose: to sustain the content that was going to be appearing on the Master Class blog.  Therefore, it effectively IS the Master Class.  Given the amount of work it was going to be to edit it, I felt it fair to support the paywall ~ however people might feel about paywalls.  I was working.  I felt it was fair that it should increase the value that people who were supporting me on Patreon would get for their money.  With this reasoning, I published the post Tuesday night.

Wednesday morning, I got a message from James C., who ran the character Andrej, one of those that went anonymous.  The message was not sent to my email, it was posted as a comment on google+:
"So as if publicly accusing your former players (me among them) of inexplicably deleting their names from countless old posts wasn't bat-shit crazy enough, you've now decided to edit the content they helped to create without checking in with them (again) and put it all behind your paywall? It's your blog, and you can do what you want with it, but my advice to you, moving forward and for the sake of both yourself and your current players & collaborators (Juvenis campaign), is to treat them better..."

Okay, there's anger there.  I concede that there was public accusation.  I concede that I am probably bat-shit crazy.  I don't think either is necessarily unfounded, considering this is the Internet, and that I've had some genuine, sustained online hate directed at my thoughts and decisions.  But I'll grant that I am operating without certain information and it has been for that reason that I took some of the more egregious accusations I made off my blog.

However ... I did not "check in" with this player before taking action because this player was in no way connected with any of the material that I posted on Tuesday.  He had not joined the campaign as yet, and therefore was not relevant to the decision I had to make Tuesday.  Granted, if I follow through with my plan, I will eventually add the content he helped create, and I am sure this is how he saw it.  So he has a reasonable expectation that I am bound to edit ... mmm ... around 80,000 words of campaign content first, so that I can then start to edit the content that included him.

I'm also sure that he isn't considering the amount of work involved with painstakingly and accurately re-editing the content of multiple contributors, as opposed to one contributor who wrote ten comments without much long-term consideration about how those comments might someday be used to educate others.  Which I am doing.  Which may, or may not, be my privilege.  It's a grey area.  Someone could, I suppose, sue for a % of my Patreon.  I don't know.  I know that I'm not going to restore the Senex campaign as a public platform and I know I'm not going to edit this much content for free.  I have limits on how generous I'm prepared to be with my time and my expertise.

I suspect that the mere fact of the publication Tuesday, and the lack of comments about it, has some people ... questioning my motivation here.  So I have tried to write a post explaining my position, and why more of these Senex rewrites are bound to appear in the future.


connor mckay said...

While I haven't bought access to the Master Class blog, I support what you are doing. Taking a given work and editing it down to a more relevant example is an extremely common practice when trying to teach anything. Having "case studies" with extraneous material simply distracts from the lesson.

If people are that upset about the pay wall, you could easily put the original Senex blog back into existence and then still edit the posts relevant to your Master Class blog and put them there so that the information is all in one place and easy to access. Then its really just paying for the convenience and not the content per se.

Either way I think you are doing good work.

Embla Strand said...

I agree with your choices here. And when you get around to the Juvenis campaign, I don't see any problem with you putting the rewrite behind the paywall, either - while my labor was used in the creation of that content, you worked far harder, both during play and post-play.

In the distant future when the Senex campaign has been fully edited and you begin working on the Juvenis game, I'd just ask that you leave some amount of play content freely available, since I'm pointing my players to the online game to show what D&D can be (to counter stuff like Critical Role and the like).

Ozymandias said...

I have this idea to make a video series showing what D&D games can be, much as Embla says, in opposition to the accepted standard.

Since it would be videos instead of essays, I would need to go into it with an understanding among the players, that their contribution would be comparable to participants in a documentary.

Given that your campaigns have been freely visible for as long as they have and that participants have the benefit of anonymity, I don't see how anyone could be upset about your decision.

James said...

I think the lack of comments, at least for me, was that you had already deconstructed much of what you edited in previous masterclass posts. Also, you didn't really deconstruct anything in that post.

As for the ethical quandry, I think it was inevitable feathers were going to get ruffled. It was clear some of your former players bristled at the masterclass deconstructions; this certainly wasn't going to go over any better.

Sterling Blake said...

Alexis, I agree with your choice as well, and I have put my money where my mouth is. For me the true value is in your deconstructions more than the campaign itself. That is, your interpretations of the player's words, not their words, and not really your words in the campaign either.

The value is in your analysis and commentary. As such, my suggestion would be to limit the editorial burden of cleaning the posts up--just cut and paste--and apply your effort to the analysis between the lines.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Hah, Sterling! You might as well ask me to stop being me.

I think you'll see greater value as the text rolls on. And there are many who have never properly read it.

Maximillian Boii said...

I have to say I was more than a bit puzzled by Tuesdays post. It seemed to me that you stray a bit into the deep end at times, and undertaking to re edit the entire campaign is one of those. What value does it add? If we are reading your blog to better understand the game, isn't it better to see the game as it truly is?

I can completely understand your fear when seeing what you thought might be defacement and you are completely right in your desire to preserve the campaign as it was, which is no doubt still a larger undertaking. Further, I highly doubt that taking the blog private protects you from the sort of loss that has already occurred. For example, I just renamed my profile, I'd guess that has propagated through to any post that I've ever made.

I have long ago realized that neither you nor I benefit from me giving you advice, but nonetheless, I must. WAKE UP! How can you not see that James is your true friend, if ever you had one. He was right to call you out for mistreating him.

Alexis Smolensk said...

You may feel that spelling errors, time-saving abbreviations, dropped words and typos, asks to see who is presently online, apologies for not being online, out of campaign references to being at lunch or having to attend a meeting, the confusing temporal disjointedness of people not answering questions, sometimes ever, confusions and such are "the game as it truly is."

I don't.

James Clark said...
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James Clark said...
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