Jason L. Blair: Five Things I Learned Writing Full Deck Roleplaying

A bit of a preamble, if Chuck will allow it, for those who may be wondering, “Full Deck Roleplaying? Is this a book? A game? Weird title for a novel.”

Full Deck Roleplaying is a book. And a game. It’s a tabletop roleplaying game or RPG, kinda sorta like Dungeons & Dragons which is everywhere these days. I’ve been making RPGs for almost twenty years. They’ve done well for me. They, in no small part, are responsible for my career in making video games.

Now, RPGs run the gamut as far as how they’re played and what they do. D&D is a dungeon crawl. You get together with friends and another person, the Dungeon Master, sets out challenges the players have to overcome to be heroes and get loot. Some RPGs are story engines. They are all about giving people the tools to tell engaging narratives. Some RPGs have lots of rules and some have very few. And there’s tons of options in the middle and all over the place. Tabletop roleplaying is a vast and varied landscape.

Full Deck Roleplaying is built around telling stories which might be why Chuck invited me to write something for his blog. Stories are my passion. Games are one of the ways I tell them.

In Full Deck Roleplaying, players create characters, create worlds, and create drama through the use of standard playing cards. But the cards are not just there to do your bidding. They influence the game by narrowing your choices and adding new details, forcing you to adapt to the hand that life—or at least the game—has dealt you.

You can try out Full Deck Roleplaying for absolutely free or you can kick in a few bucks if you want, no pressure. The beautifully-illustrated 66-page PDF contains the core Full Deck Roleplaying game system—setting creation, character creation, and the rules of play including handy reference sheets so you don’t have to dig for information during a session.

Full Deck Roleplaying puts the story in your hands.

What follows are five things I learned while writing this game, my first major game release in over eight years.

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Write Where the Comfort Is

The past four years of my life have been defined by terrible things. I lost my brother and my father almost a year apart. (My brother died after a long battle with sepsis. I found out my dad had cancer on Christmas of that same year, he died only months later.) The top of my left femur literally started decaying and I had to have my hip replaced. I pulled up roots and yanked my family across the country away from friends and an established community for a bad career move. My recently-widowed mother relocated to be closer to us just as the studio I was at and I decided to part ways and just as I was told I was being divorced after almost 26 years. Soon after, my two kids—the light of my entire life, folks—moved back to Illinois and far far away from me.

It’s been a bad ride, friends.

Now, there have been bright spots. Even though the job didn’t work out, I met some good people there. I got to hang out with friends in the area and get to know them better. After that job and I shook hands for the final time, I was offered an opportunity at a great studio working with some fantastic people—and it’s only three hours from my kids. Plus I’m near a Trader Joe’s and that’s always nice.

But. Still. I have never carried this much pain in my life. It weighs on me every day. I feel its shadow over me in the morning and its breath on my neck at night. I never thought my life would so utterly implode. I’m still trying to find stuff amidst the debris.

I let the feelings of the past four years—all of which culminated in the greatest middle finger from the universe I’ve ever seen—keep me run into the ground for months. But one good thing came from it. Well, one good thing in regards to writing. I stopped caring about market trends and zeitgeist. I stopped caring about marketability. I started to just write. For me. I started to write where the comfort was.

In February, I wrote a Middle Grade novel that I’m currently shopping to agents. In March, I wrote a new roleplaying game that I just released in May. Those two projects may not seem to have much in common but the link there is that I wrote what I wanted. I wrote to comfort myself. In the novel, I wrote the story that came to me after my father’s passing. With the game, I wrote a system that I’d like to play. I didn’t know if anyone else would connect with it or not but it’s what I wanted. Those projects, well, I won’t say they “made me happy” but they gave me a joy I hadn’t felt in a long time.

I found a lot of comfort in both them. They were cathartic in different ways. In the novel, I got to see my father again. In the game, I got to see myself again. My younger self who took more risks and swung harder for the fences. I found a fire again. And it wasn’t the crackling embers of Hell at my feet. It was flames in my belly giving me the strength to pick up and move.

Editing is Alright

You could fill a book with chestnuts and platitudes comparing writing versus editing—and people have. Some writers love the editing process. To me, it was a necessary evil. I did it. Like I said, it’s necessary. But I didn’t enjoy it. It was rushing up river, it was playing in traffic.

But now, for whatever reason, I have found enjoyment in editing. Maybe it’s just narcissism but I like reading what I’ve written. I like rethinking how a chapter is constructed, how something is worded. I like making sure all the right seeds are planted throughout the text so, when the tree sprouts at the end, you want to sit in its shade.

I honestly don’t know what happened there. I don’t know what switch got flipped. Maybe it’s because, for the first time in ages, I feel connected to the material so revisiting it and making it stronger isn’t a chore. It’s helping a friend get better.

Routine is Nothing; Routine is Everything

I wrote the entirety of both that novel and that game in Google docs on my phone. 30,000 words on the novel. 8,000 on the game. I’m currently writing these words in a Google doc on my phone. It’s how I’ve been writing for the past eight months. I’ve written this way on my couch, in my car during lunch or in the parking lot of a grocery store, on a lumpy half-broken bed way too late at night, on the floor, on my back, on my stomach, on my side.

Which to say, anything I thought I needed to write—a comfy chair, the perfect software, the right atmosphere, the proper routine—were all excuses. What I needed was to write.

That said, the intimacy of being inches from my phone, the familiar motion of tapping letters on a screen with my thumbs became my routine. When I think of writing anymore, that’s what I think of. It’s comforting. And, most importantly, it gets the writing done.

This method didn’t come about as a personal challenge or a deliberate means to break some unhealthy writing barrier—

Actually. Well.

That’s a lie.

It came about because I was deep deep in the thrall of depression and would spend my entire evening staring at my phone, watching YouTube, checking Facebook, texting friends, and, of course, reading TerribleMinds.com, RELIGIOUSLY. I couldn’t watch TV much less sit in front of a computer and write.

But I knew I needed to do something, to distract myself if nothing else. So I gave myself a project—a book for adults about a cult deprogrammer on his last assignment. Which is weird because I see myself more as a kid lit author but I also knew I had some stuff to work through that was better suited for an adult audience. Anyway. I figured since I was staring at my phone all evening anyway, I may as well put that to use. One night, I opened up the Google docs app and started tapping away. The next night, again. The third night, the same. Then every night for a month. Multiple sprints every evening. Anywhere from 500-2000 words a night. Day after day. I didn’t want to break the streak.

I started to feel that rush. I was building momentum, chapter after chapter, and I would be up until 2a some nights writing away. The dopamine hits started coming. I was writing. After years of not doing much of nothing for myself, I was getting words down and building a story.

The routine came from that. And, y’know, writing on a phone isn’t hard. Jean-Dominique Bauby wrote The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by blinking his left eyelid. Tapping a screen is cake.

Sure, it has its frustrations. App notifications, text messages, the dreaded phone call, making sure you have enough battery, autocorrect’s helpful edits but all that can be managed. And I don’t find myself switching apps to check Twitter or Facebook but I do switch apps to quickly open Wikipedia or to Google something. I love it. Anymore, I can’t imagine writing any other way.

You Are Building Towards Something

I’ve been making games for almost twenty years. My first published effort, Little Fears, was a great setting with an okay system. In the years since, I’ve released other game books—some entirely of my own creation, some based on established systems and lines. With every release, every project, I strove to make the best book I could. There’s something different about Full Deck Roleplaying. I don’t mean that as ad-speak. There was something different in how I wrote it. Not just that I was writing for comfort, like I said above, but I felt like all the little lessons I’d learned in my years as a game designer were coming together. Full Deck Roleplaying is the culmination of everything I know about making tabletop games. And there was incredible freedom that came with that. I knew what I wanted this to be. I scrutinized every rule to make sure it was doing what it needed to do. I stripped out anything that didn’t belong. It was the first time, if not ever then in a long while, where I felt strong. A musician nailing a solo. A surgeon intuiting a procedure. It gave me a level of confidence and clarity that I had been missing for years. I didn’t feel meek. I didn’t second-guess and compromise. I had a vision and I worked hard to make something that fit that vision.

Full Deck Roleplaying is what I’ve been building towards as a game designer. And the plans I have for it are what I want to do. I see a road where nothing was before. It’s an amazing feeling.

All this is to say that, whatever it is you’re doing, you’re growing. In skill, in endurance, in wisdom. Even the work you look at it and spit on has given you something. If that something doesn’t manifest soon, it will eventually. Just keep going.

I Have the Best Friends

Okay, maybe I didn’t learn this while writing Full Deck Roleplaying. Maybe I knew it way before. But it’s certainly been made evident in the days following the game’s release.

I was blown away when Chuck asked if I wanted to do a Five Things about this little self-published game book of mine. I’ve known Chuck for about a decade now and we both come from the tabletop mines but he is all National Bestseller and Awesome Writing Advice Guy and he wrote a book that maybe caused the pandemic? I dunno. I skimmed the headline. But he’s Chuck Wendig, y’know? He’s someone that I feel awkward mentioning in the list of people I know because it sounds like a name drop. I’ve read his work. Turns out? It’s really really good. You might say he’s a Kick-Ass Writer. [ed — goddamnit, blair — c.w.]

Me, I make my living as a game designer. I make video games during the day and tabletop games at night. Sure, I have aspirations to be a novelist—and I’ve self-published a novel—but I’ve yet to make that transition to Writer With Books at Barnes & Noble or Author With a Respectable Amazon Ranking.

Still though, I was totally gonna take him up on the offer. I’d be an idiot not to. Which, I mean, I’m an idiot—but not that kind of idiot. Chuck was doing me a real solid—and he wasn’t the only one.

My friends have been spreading the word about this new game of mine, retweeting and sharing posts, talking it up to people. In 20 years of working in games—and 40+ years of working at life—I’ve made some amazing friends who have my back.

Full Deck Roleplaying may seem like just another game book. Easily made and easily ignored. Plenty of RPGs come out every day. But this game means a lot to me. It’s an attempt to crawl back from total life failure in some way that I own and control completely. I cannot overstate how wonderful my friends have been. Maybe they sensed something special in this game. Maybe they’ve kept up with what’s been going on in my life and just want to help. It doesn’t matter why. It just matters they are. I know it and I see it.

Thank you to Chuck, for the platform to reach more people and just to talk about things I usually only talk about in filtered groups on Facebook. Thank you to all my friends who have helped make navigating the River Styx that much easier. Thank you to my mom and aunt for the immeasurable support. Thank you to my kids for knowing how hard this has all been. I can’t even imagine how it’s all been for you.

Finally, thank you—YOU—for reading. I hope your friends are as wonderful as mine are. You deserve it.

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Jason L Blair makes video games by day and tabletop games by night. A recent transplant to the Chicago area, he is currently enjoying the confines of his tiny apartment and longing for IKEA to reopen. In what time is left over, he likes to write Middle Grade novels and chapter books that he hopes, one day, kids of all ages will get to read. You can keep tabs on him over at JasonLBlair.com and see what kinda games he’s cooking up at FunSizedGames.com.

Jason L. Blair: Website | FunSizedGames | Twitter

Full Deck Roleplaying: DriveThruRPG