Doubleback Again: Lessons From Vanguard

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Last week I discussed Vanguard, a shared-universe writing project that I’d been involved in some two decades ago. It was an amazing experience, four and a half years of shared world-building and writing. Many others have tried such projects, and I can certainly see why they did.

Since you might be interested in running such a project, I think I can share some wisdom from my own pre-internet experience.

So, let’s look at Steve’s Lessons From Vanguard.

Start With A Good Core Team. Keep It All Good

You have to start with a good core team. A good team of people who are committed and get along is vital to start and maintain the effort. Coherence and cooperation is key because they set the foundation and set the tone.

Note I don’t say “talented.” Bluntly, just because you’re talented doesn’t mean you can work well with others. Talent can be learned.

You also want to be selective in who you let in. This isn’t an elitist statement (see the “talent” comment), but simply because some people are suited to such effort and others are not. In addition, others may not be suited to your specific group, audience, genre, etc.

In fact . . .

Not Everyone Has To Join

Not everyone has to join. Not everyone’s friends have to join, not everyone has to be part of it It’s not just OK to turn people down, it’s OK to admit it’s not for everyone.  It’s not some elite club, it’s a group suited for working together to do a thing.

This can be more challenging than you’d think as such an effort can be adsorbing. If you’re not careful, it draws people in and relationships can become just about “the work” and not about, well, the relationships. It is something people may join for the wrong reasons because everyone is doing it.

Diversity Is Needed

Everyone should not be alike. You want different people, different voices. You should be open minded to who tries to get in – just specific and careful otherwise.

Creative ferment needs different people to play off of each other. Sameness leads to sameness.

Yes, that requires a balancing act.  I didn’t say this would be easy.

Good Work Is Core

The group has to be dedicated to doing a good job first and foremost. Good writing, good characters, good continuity. I find when things become about one-upsmanship or game-playing or pet ideas then good work falters.  This is why having a dedicated group, and adding dedicated people, matters – it keeps the focus on good work.

It’s kind of a profesional dedication. If everyone wants to do well, thats a barrier to the stupid things we’re all capable of.

Everyone Has Different Capabilities

Not everyone is the same level of skill, talent, interest, what have you. Its OK.

Unless your goal is a strictly professional effort, then go easy on people that need to learn. Train them up. Help them out. If it becomes a job application, then suddenly this is a lot less fun.

Dont’ Let Things Interfere

People come and go. People enter and exit, people get involved and slack off. Learn to ride out the personal issues and changes – and be sympathetic.

Remember, good work first. If someone has to take time for college and can’t contribute give them a break. If someone has to leave, let them use a good “exit strategy” and don’ take it hard.

Set Boundaries

A shared-universe project is time-consuming and life-consuming. Everyone needs to set boundaries on their time, involvement, and what they do. Otherwise it can be life-devouring – and because it’s so fun people may not notice.

Despite my emphasis on doing things right, you can easily become too obsessed witha project like this. It makes it less fun, less interesting, remoes play, makes it drudging. If it becomes too much work and less fun, you’re losing something.

Just like any really good job. Ironically.

It’s Not An RPG – Just Close

A shared universe project can be like an RPG – it can be spawned by an RPG. But it’s not an RPG.

Keeping this in mind is important. In RPGs people often play just one character, and RPGs can get a bit competitive as players compete with each other – or the gamemaster. Competition isn’t the point here.

The point of these efforts is being both creative and creative as a group. People should be willing to “play” more than one character, to let characters “loose,” to move on, to let things change. People should be willing to let other participants “win” or “have the spotlight” or whatever.

The point is a good universe and good story that everyone “wins” in delivering.

Have A Guidebook

Always, always, always build a guide to the world and its characters and update it regularly. You’ll need that reference becomes said world and characters will probably expand very quickly. With that inevitable expansion, you want to keep new people and old members up on what’s going on.

I recommend devising a guidebook design before you start just so you have a template. Me, I too mine from the old Elfquest Holts, along with a guide to Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom (an updated version is here, for your interest).  RPG books may also provide good templates.

Everyone Should Have An Exit Plan

There’s a chance people will leave, and want to take their ideas with them. Everyone coming on board should at least have an idea of how they could step out – ad what happens to their characters and their ideas.

This may sound awful, but it could happen. So at least have an idea in mind of how to “soft reboot” certain elements.

Though I also recommend people involved in these projects use ideas they’re willing to let “stay” or be “used by agreement” just for the sake of politeness – and not getting overly attached.

Spell Out Legal Rights

Just trust me on this. Spell out the legal rights on what people have just in case. These days its easier than ever to create a commercial work, and I’ve used many “non-profit” efforts to hone ideas with commercial potential.

In our case it was assumed you pretty much owned your ideas, and if you left people would figure out how to “remove” your ideas and concepts from their stories. Simple, but effective – but we thought of it.

Set Up Regular Works And Deadlines

“Deadline means dead,” my co-founder Dan used to say and that philosophy kept us focused. In fact, setting up regular events, publishing, newsletters, etc. was an important factor in making this all work. Boundaries and goals help you do better.

So whatever publishing format you engage in for your effort, I would have it involve regular, edited, releases delivered at regular times in your given medium.

This helps in several ways:

  • People stay on deadline and get things done – which also makes it easier to keep track of timelines.
  • You have a set time to edit works. Trust me, you’ll need to edit works.
  • People have a timeframe in which to cooperate and work together.
  • You release in a given format like a newsletter or web archive or what have you.
  • It keeps things from getting sloppy.

Pick A Medium But Evolve It

In the “old days” our medium was simple – a newsletter. You’ve got a few more choices today, but the fact is when you picked a medium the delivery was easier as you focused on being good at one thing.

So pick a method, and use it. You may change your mind, but it’s a way to start.  Newsletter, email, webpage, whatever.  Pick one.

A solid medium means:

  • You can leverage existing skillsets – like web design.
  • You have a a specific set of skills people can develop to support that medium.
  • A single “method of delivery” allows you to pick the best way to get information out (and encourages and supports good deadlines, above).

Have Fun And Jam

Really. Jam away, get creative, brainstorm, party, whatever.

Get together and exchange ideas, Have fun. Meet on line.  Met off-line Throw events at conventions. Go nuts with this, because that’s when it gets good.

This shared effort is better – and is more rewarding – when everyone PLAYS with it and has fun with each other. So if you’re going to do this, yes, be professional, be organized.  Then cut loose

The Vanguard group had brainstorms and round robin sessions and role-playing and more. We tossed ideas around like tennis balls. From all this fun and effort and late-night rambling came four and a half years of fun.

Go Forth, My Worldbuilders

So, I hope this advice helps. It’s from decades past, it’s during a time many people are doing shared universe projects. But I think the “old view” shows foundational elements of such an effort.


– Steven Savage