June 23, 2013

Steam engine time

I occasionally read Cemetery Dance to get my short horror fiction fix. Tom Monteleone has a regular (and regularly amusing) column in the magazine called the Mothers and Fathers Italian Association (that's M.A.F.I.A. to you) and he explores the life of a writer therein, told with a healthy dose of personal experience. The most recent column talked about so-called “steam engine time.”

Steam engine time, in writing terms, refers to a situation in which a writer comes up with a “great” idea, only to find out someone else had the same great, (and often quite specific) idea earlier.

Oh man, do I suffer from Steam Engine Time (capitalized on purpose). My first SET event came when I was trying to come up with my second Dungeon Crawl Classic adventure for Goodman Games. The Scaly God has been well received, both by Joseph Goodman and the public, and I wanted a worthy successor. Scaly God really harkened in theme to early TSR stuff, so I mentally turned back to my favorite classic modules. As usual, Dwellers of the Forbidden City was on my short list. I love jungle adventures, and Zeb Cook’s work quickly jumped to mind. In addition, I had an unpublished TSR Dungeon submission with some promise sitting on the shelf—it would take some reworking, but I thought I could get a real good Crawl Classic out of it. I spent a few weeks prepping the outline, reviewing what I had written previously (and tossing about 95% of that), and getting ready to write. At the time I still didn’t know the whole Dungeon Crawl Classics line that well, so I decided to check the latest offerings ... and then I found Mike Ferguson’s Curse of the Emerald Cobra. Oh hell.
Emerald Cobra wasn’t what my new adventure would have been (especially after I read it) but the setting, plot points, and obvious homage to Dwellers was enough to slay an idea I had of a jungle adventure for a while.

I eventually got back to work, puttering with an artic adventure that involved a crashed meteor … just I time for Mike’s (then) new Talons of the Horned King to be announced. Foiled again! I became referring to Mike as my nemesis.

Eventually I read Mike’s great adventures—he’s an extremely talented writer—and sometime after that we became fast friends. Mike clearly knew nothing about my ideas and I knew nothing about his, it was pure steam engine time.

I’ve since had further moments of SET. It’s clearly a thing of mine.

I could tell you about the time I had an idea for a great new network. I was enjoying a James Bond marathon and I thought about “guy movies” and I said to some friends, over a late-night game of Risk and many beers, that a “guy’s network” was in order. (I mercifully forget the name.) The network could play Van Damme movies, and Jackie Chan and Three Stooges, and damn would it be a hit. My friends said I was nuts. A month later Spike was announced. (Insert a big sigh about here.)

My recent project is a new RPG, authored solely by yours truly. After struggling for some time with the base dice system, I spent a few weeks creating what I felt was a new dice system. The resulting system seemed to work, and playtested pretty well … with one problem. One of my playtesters said he had played an identical system while playtesting another game. The other game, penned by an acquaintance, was something I had heard about because I also became involved in the typesetting, but later took my name out of contention do to time issues. I knew little about the game besides overall theme, nothing about the dice mechanics of crunchy stuff. The game has since been released, and the dice mechanics are very close to mine. And the game author told me they were also similar to another popular RPG that I’ve never played or purchased. Double steam engine time!

What’s the moral here, besides my horrible luck? If you are a creative person, occasionally someone will have the same idea as you, and vice versa. It happens. It’s not psychic plagiarism, it’s simply the byproduct of lots of creative minds working on one planet. On to the next idea!
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