Origins Awards Interview – Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple

During the Origins Awards this year Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple won the Vanguard Award. This award is significant in that it is not given every year and honors highly innovative games. I recently interviewed Dan Solis, the game designer, along with Ryan Macklin and Lillian Cohen-Moore, the editors. The following is the transcript of that interview.

Bear Weiter: Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple is both a game and an exercise in storytelling. How did you design something that balances creative writing with the use of mechanics?

Daniel Solis: Working in advertising, I often get called on to write within constraints. If it’s a TV script, I have to include certain language or disclaimers while promoting a brand. If it’s a billboard, I usually only have three or four words to communicate a much larger idea.

Then occasionally I’ll get a client who says “do anything” and I suddenly go blank. It’s the constraint that inspires creativity. Constraint is the pressure that creates heat. That is a very ancient idea, of course. It goes back to haikus and sonnets.

In Do, I designed a game that is all about constraints and writing prompts. First, the players are all writing a story together. Second, a player can only write one sentence at a time on her turn. Third, the players win by using all of the “goal words” in their story, but can only often only use one word per turn.

As you play, you may get opportunities to use more than one goal word, but at the price of your hero getting into trouble. This acts as yet another prompt for the next player’s turn, as she must decide whether she will rescue a companion even if it means taking his place.

With all these constraints, I was worried at one point that it would hinder a player’s creativity. There certainly are a lot of factors to consider in a single turn. Yet I’m always amazed at the players’ imagination during the game. They’ll come up with the zaniest ways for their heroes to get into trouble or to rescue a friend in need.

BW: As editors, how does your approach differ when you edit a game versus other kinds of manuscripts?

Ryan Macklin: I’m primarily a game editor. A game has many different contextual channels, more than fiction or even most text books. Games books need to serve as instructional text (along with examples and other methods that facilitate learning) and sources of inspiration. That means text flow is as much of a page design consideration as what’s on a given page.

Since people learn by different methods, including having others read a book and teach, a given section needs to take that into account, as well as blend in evocative tone and color to facilitate learning the context of the game and giving additional points of reference to remember a given rule or piece of advice.

Lillian Cohen-Moore: Since I’m primarily a copy editor for games, I have to pay attention to whether I’m reading something with mechanics in it. If I don’t keep that in mind while changing passages to fit a style guide or clear up unclear text, I run a risk of taking a machete to text that’s essential for understanding gameplay.

BW: What were the first games that truly grabbed you? How have your past experiences playing games motivated you to get involved in game development? How did playing games influence you as storytellers?

DS: I played a lot of D&D as a teenager, then other role-playing games in college.

In most RPGs of the time, the critical question was “Does my character succeed at the action I just described?” You rolled dice to find the answer to that question and modified the dice results in various ways to get your desired outcome. This creates very decompressed narratives that, in total, take many hours to describe very little.

My whole perspective changed thanks to two games: octaNe by Jared Sorensen and The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen by James Wallis.

In octaNe, the question was “Who gets to decide what happens next in the story?” There were some constraints on scope and character ownership, but otherwise you were given very broad license to just narrate to your heart’s content. You still used dice and still modified those results, but the meaning of those results was very different than a traditional RPG.

By the same token, Baron Munchausen gave even broader license to each player. In that game you’re simply asked to tell boastful lies about one of your amazing, heroic accomplishments. Occasionally other players may ask prying questions that poke holes in your story, to which you must respond with wit and grace. It’s a challenging game partly because you must think quickly without many prompts.

Both games put you much in the position of a writer. That’s probably what influenced me most in developing Do.

LCM: When I was a kid my parents would buy my siblings and I board games every year. We’d get bored of the regular rules and start inventing our own “hard” modes. From there I get into table-top and live-action role-playing as I grew up. Games were always a part of my social circle, but I didn’t realize I could actually get involved in games development till a few years ago. Playing games has had a very noticeable influence on my sense of pacing. Both when I’m writing and when I’m telling stories in casual settings.

RM: I used to play GURPS, back in the day. Mage: the Ascension and Unknown Armies blew my mind, and really got me thinking about writing stuff.

I have a mild reading disability, so looking at the old-school roleplaying games and how they just throw walls of text at you was frustrating. So I started looking to how other books presented information, and have been using that as a guide to developing games I’ve been involved with.

I can’t really answer how games have influenced me as a storyteller. I know that they have, but games are an integral part of my personality DNA. I can’t really remove that to tell you how it’s impacted my life.

BW: You created another game before this – Happy Birthday, Robot! – that is also a mix of storytelling and gameplay. Are there more games to come that feature storytelling so prominently? Do you do any other kind of creative writing?

DS: The irony of all this is that I consider myself more of a board game designer. I just happened to find success with these odd little storytelling games that apply simple board game mechanics to the ephemeral world of creative writing.

I explore this space a bit more with some side projects like the Writer’s Dice. These are dice with the words AND, SO, BUT, IF, AS, and OR on each face. The idea is that as you outline a story, you’ll roll a die between each story-beat to keep the story moving in unexpected directions. You can buy Writer’s Dice from my etsy store at

At the moment, I’m developing two new story games using these dice. The first is Pop and Locke’s Last Heist, a storytelling game about a father/daughter heist team recovering supernatural objects from their family of supervillains. The second is tentatively titled Rulers, which is a cross between Fullmetal Alchemist and Hunger Games.

BW: How did you get involved with the project? What were your official roles and were there other aspects you were involved with along the way?

RM: This is the world of game bookmaking; there isn’t much in the way of official roles on small projects. I was the guy who challenged Daniel when he needed challenging on rules presentation, and played clean-up on the text.

It was a collaborative arrangement, not an equal pairing but one of a friend helping another friend make a vision come to life. Daniel had many such folks; I just happened to also be his editor.

LCM: Ryan and I knew each other before working on Do together as co-editors, and was who brought me in to work on the editing with him. Since I was doing copy edits, the bulk of what I did was making sure things looked good after Ryan had come in and kicked the tires.

BW: How do writers who are interested in writing for games get into the business?

LCM: Pay attention to games publishers and industry publications. There’s regular calls for pitches and openings. Just like fiction, those submissions practices are spelled out very clearly. Outside that familiar process, you should be exhibiting the same qualities you do writing fiction. Make your deadlines and don’t be a dick.

RM: This isn’t like the world of fiction. Roleplaying games are a niche market, and you get into the business by doing stuff and being loud. Sometimes, larger companies hold contests or open calls for submissions, always for their established games. But if you have an idea for a game system or setting, just do it and put it out there. Then network. Go to conventions and get to know folks.

Being an independent publisher in the RPG world doesn’t have the dirty stink on it that it seems to have in the world of fiction. There aren’t Big Publishers that will take your new idea. Their resources are stretched working on their own properties. So if you’re going to get out there, you should strike on your own.

That said, places often look for freelancers, but they’ll mostly go with people they know or have met.

Many thanks to Daniel, Ryan, and Lillian for their time, and congratulations on winning the Vanguard Award!

More information about Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple can be found at

By day, Daniel Solis is associate creative director at Third Degree Advertising. By night, he’s an award-winning designer of storytelling games and board games. He designs in public at Follow @DanielSolis on Twitter.

Ryan Macklin is a freelance game designer, writer & editor, and frequently blogs about the creative process at

Lillian Cohen-Moore is a freelance writer, editor and journalist. Part of the proofing team for “Attitude” from Catalyst Game Labs, Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple was her first project as a game editor. She blogs at She is also assistant editor here at Booklife Now.

First Readers

A First Reader is a person you go to first—before you send the story off to an editor, before you even know what it is you have on your hands.  This is a person you trust almost as much as yourself.  In a pinch, you might even trust him or her more than yourself.

A First Reader inhabits the inner circle of your creative space; he or she is separate enough from you to have a fresh perspective and honest enough to actually give it.  He or she knows your ticks, tricks, and hang-ups.  You have a history together—a history that is not all cheese puffs and roses—and you are still speaking to each other despite or even because of that history.

I have two First Readers—my wife who is a professor of religious studies at Wofford College and John Jeter who is a novelist, memoirist, and co-owner of a music venue in Greenville, SC.  Both of my First Readers have an uncanny ability to look at a tangled ball of prose and see the threads of meaning, to stare chaos in the eye and she what that chaos aspires to be some day.  Both are damn good editors, great writers, and even better friends.

John and I met a few years ago when I interviewed him about his then newly published novel, The Plunder Room.  Instead of a straight ahead interview, John and I sat at The Handlebar and talked about writing and writers, music and the music business, and indulged in our mutual fondness for moderately inappropriate humor.  I left with four and a half hours of tape for an 800-word column and a new friend.

The other morning, John and I found ourselves at our respective computers at the same time.  John was still buzzing from having just turned in the “final final draft” of his memoir Rockin’ a Hard Place and I was struggling with writing about First Readers.  So, I did what I do in a pinch—what journalists do when they have a topic and a deadline—I asked someone else some questions about the topic.

This is the first time John and I have talked about reading each others work.  It’s usually just something we do—something that starts with “Help!” in the subject line or “Hey, you got a minute to read something?”  But there’s more to it than that.

Why read someone else’s work?

John Jeter:  Because he asked. No, really. Like Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man In The World, I don’t often read what someone else asks me to read, but when I do, it’s usually because I either like the person who asks me (and I really like to help those folks I happen to like a lot) or I find that his subject or piece is compelling—preferably both. Generally, I find that the person who asks genuinely wants what I may have to say and seeks a perspective that he perhaps hadn’t considered during or after his writing.

What is your editorial approach when reading a friend’s writing?

John Jeter:  The first thing I do is try my hardest to keep from ripping the entire thing apart without first reading it all the way through, and then I try to keep from rewriting it the way I would have written it because, of course, I would have written it much better, though the story wasn’t mine to begin with and I may, in fact, have limited knowledge about the subject matter, even though the writer who asked me to read his piece suspected that perhaps I did.

In any event, I actually do read the piece all the way through first and try to take mental notes on the places where I stop or the places where I flinch or the places that I would just cut out all together. I also keep a sharp eye for the “babies,” those flashy bits (or stretches) of precious prose that scream out: “Look at what a brilliant writer I am!”

As soon as I’ve made those notes mentally, I then go back and try to give a lot of thought to the writer’s original intention and voice, and then try to guide him back to those things. In other words: The distance between the head (and/or heart) and the fingers is often as far apart as the Sun is from Pluto, which isn’t even a planet anymore. My job, then, is to figure out a way to close the gap. As an outside observer invited in, I can often see what the writer’s brain is doing and what his fingers did, and, again, with a more-objective perspective, I can determine where the artistic spaceship went adrift and try to act as Ground Control to get the damn thing pointed in the direction the pilot originally wanted to fly.

That said, once I read the piece, get a feel for voice and intent, and decide once and for all what the writer’s real message, theme and structure are, I work to show that a little nudge here, a little push there, a little extra boost here and there might make a difference in the power and quality of the project.

Is it easier or harder to read something written by someone you know?

John Jeter:  I prefer to read something by someone I know. I also prefer to read something by someone who knows me and knows me really well. If I wind up being too heavy-handed with a piece and have this sense that the entire thing should be rewritten top to bottom, I prefer to be working with someone I can say that to honestly. And if I do actually want to entirely rejigger the piece, but my friend would rather keep it the way it is—despite how bad I think it might be—I would rather that he has the freedom to tell me he appreciates my edits, etc., but doesn’t happen to agree with any of them. Honest friendship makes for honest editing. At least, that’s how I feel about it.

Would you rather get edits from a friend or an editor you don’t know?

John Jeter:  I tend to think of editors as friends, so I’m not sure that an editor who buys or wants to work on a project of mine isn’t already a friend, if that makes any sense.

Here’s where that comes from: I came up in newspapers. Writing one or two or even three stories a day on deadline required some fast thinking and quick writing, and then just turning all those words over to a city editor, who then turned them all over to a copy editor. These were all colleagues, people I respected, trusted and appreciated. Most of them were terribly smart, often a lot smarter and, usually, more accomplished, talented or experienced than I was. I worked to make them friends, too, as much as they were colleagues. That way, I could assure myself that they treated me and my output with discretion and some amount of generosity, because nobody wants to truly piss off a friend. Most editors, especially the best ones, the ones who also want to be a friend of the writer, prefer to be constructive, not paragraph-shredders.

All in all, what are the pros and cons of having a “first reader”? 

John Jeter:  My wife has almost always been my first reader; that is, outside the newspaper business and in my life as a professional writer. The pros are that she’s generous and honest, never mind that she’s immensely capable, talented and damned good at editing. The cons are that she’s right just about all the time, and that can be either humbling or humiliating, depending on my mood.

I prefer to have a first reader I know rather than one I don’t. I recently had a “first reader” that was given to me by an editor, a first reader I didn’t and still don’t know and have never met. I didn’t have any idea of the reader’s credibility, but since my editor was the one who decided on that person, well, I felt okay about the judgment(s) that went into my work. At the same time, I knew I could also simply disregard that person’s comments. But that kind of speaks to my point: If you’re sleeping with your first reader and she happens to be right all the time, you kind of understand that credibility’s already a given.

Lastly, what do you look for in a “first reader”?

John Jeter:  Great looks, a nice body . . . Actually, in some seriousness, I prefer a first reader who’s like the writer I would someday like to be: a reader/editor with a generosity of spirit whose purpose isn’t so much to serve the writer’s ego as it is to serve the story. Once the story is served, the writer’s ego gets served, too. The process usually doesn’t work so well when both parties – reader and writer – go at it the other way around. So my first reader needs to care about the story as much as she cares about me, but with the generosity of spirit that communicates this one truth: I care about you enough to make you want to produce the very best story you can, and if I (we) can do that, why, you’ll wind up feeling pretty good, too. That’s a good first reader.

Liz Gorinsky on Her Hugo Nomination, Interview by Jeff VanderMeer

Recently, Jeff VanderMeer interviewed Liz Gorinsky about her recent Hugo nomination for Best Editor, Long Form.

Jeff VanderMeer: What does it mean to you to be up for a Hugo in the long form editor
category, given that book editors rarely get any public honors?

Liz Gorinsky: It is incredibly weird, though now that it’s happened a few times, it’s beginning to feel slightly less unreal. On one hand, editing is an odd thing to get acclaim for, given that the meat of the editorial process — as removed from the publishing process, which is considerably more public — is done in private: It’s you and the manuscript you’re deciding whether to buy, or you and the author and a pile of tracked changes, both of which are invisible to the reader if you’ve done your job right. On the other hand, once you accept that Hugo voters are interested in giving an award for that work, there are so many people who have been at it for decades longer than me that I’m amazed (and slightly baffled, and immensely grateful) that so many people thought to put my name down.

JVM: What do you think excellence in long-form editing means? In terms of what qualities must an acquiring editor who handles developmental edits have?

LG: Given the aforementioned invisibility, I have to presume that most of the Hugo nominating population is basing their selection on the merits of the books an editor has acquired, or on the editor’s public works and persona. These are both important parts of the job, but they
constitute a tiny fraction of an in-house editor’s day-to-day workload. Then there’s the actual claws-out editing of books, which is just another small section of the job, but–since it’s my favorite part — I like to pretend is what all the hubub is about. But I don’t think there’s a concrete set of qualities an editor must have. Every book is different, and every book teaches you what it needs, be it a large swath of developmental edits or a meticulous line-by-line polish. And at least half the trick of editing is knowing what to leave alone.

JVM: Are there any role models or other editors you have found particularly inspirational personally?

LG: Obviously most of my mentors are the folks I’ve worked for and with at Tor: Anna Genoese and Jim Minz, who ran the internship program that introduced me to book editing and answered countless questions; Jim Frenkel, who I assisted for six or seven years; Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who I still do; and Tom Doherty, who’s made an immeasurable diference to the way the field looks today. In terms of inspiration, though, I’d cite Juliet Ulman, whose sensibilities are eerily close to mine, and Gavin Grant and Kelly Link, whose Small Beer Press seems to me like a fantasy storybook version of what a publishing house should be.

Many thanks to Liz Gorinsky for her time, and congratulations on her well-deserved nomination!