Doubleback Again: Lessons From Vanguard

egg surreal writing creation

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

Vanguard: What Having A Shared Universe Is Like

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When Avengers: Age of Ultron came out (spoiler: he does’t look his age), some of my friends began commenting on an old photo on Facebook. The two-plus decade old photo was of a group of us who had been in a superhero-oriented writing project called Vanguard, a project we remembered fondly. Though long ago, the latest Avengers romp led to a burst of discussion of this past project – one worth exploring because it may inspire others to a similar creative endeavor.

Vanguard was a shared-universe writing project, akin to the fan-works like Elfquest Holts, or the professional works like Thieves’ World and Wild Cards. Part RPG, part collective writing project, everyone wrote inside one setting, a whole kit-and-caboodle superhero world of mutants and magic and more. Bimonthly newsletters (and eventually magazines) collected the tales, presented information, and gave us something to read – and be inspired by.

Or in short, 3 and eventually 30 people writing in the same world, with the same cast, for four and a half years of crazy fun. Also there was a mutant dolphin with a suit of armor and a shapeshifter who became the worlds least threatening dragon, so it didn’t lack for unusual characters.

I reflect back on it fondly, on the tales, the camaraderie, of what made it so . . . well, great. I love to see similar efforts, and have advised people on similar efforts over the years. Sometimes I even wonder if I’d like to start a project like it again.

But, if you wonder how it worked, and like the idea of building your own universe with a team, here’s how it went. Consider this my contribution to getting others to try something this wonderful.

Vanguard Had Two Daddies

Vanguard started at a comic shop, when my friend Dan, an imaginative fellow, and I discussed writing and comics. I mentioned how Elfquest fandom had founded “Holts,” writing about their own characters in the setting Wendy and Richard Pini had created. One thing led to another and that evening we came up with the idea of Vanguard – a diverse superhero team (Vanguard) assembled in the wake of a scandal that laid low a more “publicity-oriented” government team of superhumans.

The idea formed quickly.  People would create their own characters and setting elements, but also borrow others (with permission for more “intense” usage). Some characters and setting elements would be shared or designed by the group or the most qualified people. We’d create tales regularly and share them in a newsletter.

It grew with surprising speed.  We had it forged in rough shape in one evening.

We invited one or two more people, and then it just grew.  One friend would bring another. Gaming groups or groups from other newsletters would join via one member or another. We threw parties at conventions, we recruited. In the end it went from three people to about thirty in about two years.

If you wanted to join you submitted a character sheet (hopefully having read our world guide), and if that character was approved, you were in. I found the initial “character pre-screening” a good way to evaluate if people “got” the world. Some people (indeed, most people) just “got” the project and connect with it – and this screening is a way to tell.

Not everyone “got” the world. There were a few submissions that needed editing or were just egregious. Most, the majority, were pretty well done.  I’d say most of the cast could have carried their own series – because in the minds of writers, “their” characters were protagonists.

As you may expect, not everyone participated equally. There was a great difference in talent or time commitment. Some people came, some went. That’s the way it goes, no harm, no foul – we were having fun and growing our skills.

Though it may have been in a bit of a different form than we have in these internet days. Remember this was in the 90’s, and we had paper not pixels . . .

I Love The Smell Of Copy Shops In The Morning

Sure, a big endless creative jam sounds fun, but that jam has to produce something. Inspired by fan newsletter and shared-universe books, our goal was to produce materials that were organized and as professional as possible. A good, well-done “product” made it easier to enjoy, raised the bar, and of course didn’t look too shabby in a job interview.

We proudly produced the following:

A Bimonthly Newsletter – Then Magazine

Every two months (we’d intended every three, but that changed quickly) the staff would put out a newsletter of stories, columns, art, and more. This started as a simple 5 1/2″ by 8 1/2″ newsletter, but ballooned to a giant 8 1/2″ by 11″ magazine.

Keep in mind this was in the 90’s We had to get the files mailed to us, convert them, edit them, and get them into one document,

Then we had to format the document for printing and actually print it out.

Then we had to paste in the art.

Then we had to copy the whole thing.

Finally we had to mail the finished product out.

It wasn’t cheap (people paid about $20 a year), but it did produce a nice product for the technology of the time. Decades later I still have a pile of them on my shelves, and they’re pretty good for what is “pro-amateur work.” We also learned as we went, and you can see the improvement between issues – better formatting, better use of art, etc.  It was a hands-on classroom.

The editing and assembly I remember fondly. It was like a party, all those hours formatting, all the work, all the camaraderie. There’s nothing quite like those times. Part of what made this special was making the final product.

Maybe I’m a bit old-fashioned, but the craftsmanship made a real difference. Anyone trying this today, in electronic format, should make sure it’s as well-crafted as any magazine. That makes you take extra care.

Character Guides

You have to know who was who in the universe, so the newsletter also contained character sheets, following a given template. We’d hoped to assemble a character-only magazine with art, but never got around to it. A shame, as things were damned imaginative.


If you ever wondered where I got my fanatic worldbuilding, this was the major influence on my attitude and approach on setting-creation. Editing the world together, checking for continuity, was a big part of making the project work. This also meant that we had to produce a guidebook so people understood just what was going on.  After awhile the editors probably needed it just to remember what was going on.

The guide was also updated every issue. New characters, new revelations, new organizations had to be documented.  A few times the act of updating the guide would make editors have a “oh crap” moment as we saw a mistake.  Then it was back to the author or to reread a story.

The guide was invaluable – and I liked the terseness. It wasn’t a giant Worldbook. It was a guide. It was enough to get going. You could pick up the rest reading.

I have to wonder how crazy we could have gotten with more time . . . today of course we’d have a wiki.  But I do like to imagine a giant hundreds-of-pages-guidebook . . .

So What Was It Like To Do This?

So we made superheroes and stories, edited and printed newsletters, and recruited. What was it like to do all this?

It. Was. Awesome.

Honestly, until you’ve done something like this, it’s hard to appreciate it. To this day I can remember so many wonderful moments, from editing in the living room of an apartment I shared with four people, or selecting paper colors for covers. I can remember parties and cosplay and jokes and readings.

It Was Creative. The ideas flying around, the stories, the cross-fertilization are something you have to experience to appreciate. Totally unrelated ideas and characters would come together to make something new and unforeseen. At our best we were all working toward something greater than ourselves or our ideas.

It Was Social. You met great people and made friends. You went to events and had parties. It was a creative endeavor that connected you. People with shared goals become closer and do better.

It Was About Achievement. We took this seriously, we did our best. It was fun, but it was also great to work really hard to do it right. The sense of achievement, of understanding how to set and reach goals, sticks with me to this day.

It Was More Than Many Media. During the time Vanguard was active, I think we paid more attention to it than any other media. Vanguard was “our thing.” Vanguard was what we wanted. All of the above made it more engaging than just some other TV show or comic – it was ours.

It Stoked Ambitions. Many of us had professional ambitions of some kind. Some made it some didn’t, but it stuck with so many of us. My writing today is at least 70% due to Vanguard.

It Was Addictive. Again, you have to do something like this, throw yourself into it, to appreciate it. It was wonderfully overwhelming. At times, I wonder if it was too much – then I think “nah, it was just awesome.”

And All Things Come To An End

Vanguard lasted four and a half years. Technically we went longer than many startups of today. But it came to an end.

Of course I wish it hadn’t, but all things have their conclusions. I could have seen it go on much, much longer, but it didn’t.

When I look back on the end, you could see it happening. Some of us were exhausted. Life changes kept coming at us. People questioned the directions things should go. Relations changed. It was a hell of an effort to keep it going at the best of times.

Bitter? No. It kept petering out until at a meeting some of us decided the end was nigh. But it happens.

There’s lessons learned. In fact, I’ll be analyzing now just how it was done and how to do it better in a column after this.

But let’s ask one more question.

Was It Worth It?

Hell yes.

The people you meet are great. The relations are great. Even scattered to the winds decades later members of the crew keep in touch, if in scattered ways or social media.

We all grew so much. It was educational. It was professional. It was amazing. You could look over those newsletters and see people growing as artists and writers and, well, people.

If you want to try a project for this I may warn you to “be ready” for challenges, but there’s no reason for me not to encourage you.  If anything, in an age of internet connectivity, a good shared-universe project could literally change the world.

Forward Into The Future

So, I’ve told you the story and sung the praises of Vanguard. If someone wanted to do their own shared-universe project – as many do now, much easier in the internet age, I’ll share my advice on it next week.

The technology has changed. The lessons? They’re the same.

Maybe even more relevant in an age of internet speed.


– Steven Savage