Monday, September 6, 2021

Happy Birthday Knight at the Opera: A Blog Retrospective

I started this blog two years ago. At that point, many people were already saying that the OSR / DIY D&D blogosphere was dying out, but they were probably being unnecessarily bleak. Still though, I was throwing my hat into a competitive ring with a small, small audience. Attention is hard to grab, so if you aren't a Grognardia or a Jeff Rients or maybe a Patrick Stuart then your chances of catching people's eye is pretty small.

Considering all that, this blog has done much better than I ever anticipated. It's not huge or anything but waking up to see your post has gotten 1000+ views overnight is pretty damn cool. That's 1000+ people who chose to read my nonsense in their cubicle on a Monday morning over a cup of coffee instead of doing something productive. That feels pretty good.

So for this blog's 2 year anniversary (as well as a celebration of my favorite holiday, Labor Day), I wanted to reflect and share wisdom. This post will have 3 parts: 1) How to Start a Blog, 2) Things I've Learned About Successful Blogging, and 3) a Celebration of This Blog's Greatest Posts and Products.

How to Start a Blog
(Featuring: The Secret Origin Story of the Knight at the Opera!)

I used to occasionally make lengthy posts on different D&D subreddits where I'd go on and on about something inane that I felt passionately about. A few of them were incredibly well-received (check out the comments! When I made this post it was the #8 post of all time in this subreddit). I got pretty good at avoiding the age-old Reddit pitfall of typing a million words and going completely unnoticed. But I also realized eventually that Reddit is a terrible platform for putting your D&D musings out into the world. After all, I myself read lots and lots of blogs in my free time... but I couldn't say I ever found myself really reading long Reddit posts/comments about the same subjects. I certainly didn't follow any of the other many, many pontificators on Reddit, so who would really give a serious shit about me?

I talk to my brother about D&D a lot. About every day. And he suggested we start a blog together. I was immediately apprehensive at the idea. I think most people will jump into a project maybe a bit too blind and just hope that it'll all fall into place along the way. But after seeing countless friends start a podcast that inevitably dies a month or two later (some Millennial stereotypes are very true) I had to make sure I had seriously asked myself, "do I actually have anything to say that's worth reading?" A spur-of-the-moment Reddit comment or post is one thing. A dedicated blog where you're trying to cultivate a regular audience is another entirely.

So one thing I did before deciding to start a blog was brainstorm a list of blog posts I'd make first. It was essentially a test to see if this thing could actually get any momentum. I came up with 30-some ideas, which I thought was a surprisingly high number. Definitely enough fuel to keep the train going for a while. And then as practice I tried writing a handful of them on Google Docs just to see how I liked the flow and time and effort it would take to write a blog. Could I put my money where my mouth was? Sure, I wrote a fuckload when I was in college (almost every single class I took was writing-intensive) but back then there was always a grade on the line, plus instructions, a rubric, and a page limit. But after a couple of practice runs I felt pretty confident that I had what it took. And then I knew that it was a good idea and I should go ahead with it.

Funnily enough, after two years, I've only ended up using about half of those original 30-some ideas for posts. I was surprised to find out how many things I'd be inspired to write along the way, whether it came from games I've been playing in, other bloggers I'm responding to, or bits of game design I've done.

We envisioned the blog as being something kind of like the Vlog Brothers, where Hank and John take turns making posts. That obviously didn't pan out since I am much more of a natural writer than my brother, but he's contributed a few articles now and then and we talk a lot about my own posts before they come out. Also, he came up with the name of the blog, and the miniatures Instagram is his. So I still consider it to be "ours" rather than "mine."

I chose to use Blogger because... well, nearly every RPG blog I follow uses it so I assumed it must not be that bad. Some people think it sucks but I've never used anything else so I have no frame of reference. For anyone who wants a quick review: it's been fine for me so far.

Things I've Learned About Successful Blogging

Here are a few tricks and habits that I think have helped me a lot:
  1. Even when I got started on my blog, I still didn't start advertising it right away. Instead, I waited until I already had several decent posts up. Here's one of the original announcement posts I made where I finally shared this blog with the world, and it seems like it paid off. I constantly see people announce their new blog with no posts yet to show, except for maybe an "introduction to this blog" post. I knew better than that. You gotta give people a free sample, or better yet, a whole buffet to pick and choose from.
  2. Trying to set up a consistent post schedule for myself would have been a recipe for doom, so I never even entertained the idea. I post when I have something to post, and I take my time with the long ones. The only thing that I do to "stay on top of things" is reflect on the number of posts I've made each month. If it's 3+, that's pretty good. If it was 0-2, then I take that as a general sign to get my ass in gear the next month.
  3. At any given time I usually have 10+ articles in my drafts folder, and I do a ton of research. I've tried to get better at breaking up the blog with some nice, short, spur-of-the-moment posts in between the long ones or the series. But I've found that posting infrequently but making sure the end result is polished is almost always more successful then trying to write something in a day or two and doing it a bit sloppy.
  4. Several times throughout the editing process, and at least one last time before publishing, I run every post through, one of my favorite writing resources. The main thing I pay attention to is the reading grade level. If it's Grade 9 or less then I consider it a success. You'll find that nearly every post on this blog hits that criteria.
  5. Related, post length is a big thing I focus on. And this is going to sound ridiculous to anyone who's read my blog before but I swear it's true: I am trained in brief writing and I use those skills when writing these posts. See, the general discipline I've been taught is that "longer does not always equal worse written, although it is a general indicator." Like I said, I have a ton of experience with writing, and nearly every class I took and job I've had has specifically focused on brief writing, such as analytical stuff for drafting, like, memorandums. In those roles you usually have to condense everything to a page or less, sometimes synthesizing from sources with literally hundreds or thousands of pages. Does that sound like my blog? Probably not, but I assure you that the skills I've learned are still being applied, even if it might not seem like it on the surface. If you genuinely have a ton of worthwhile and insightful things to say, then even an exceptionally succinct and efficient writing style can still add up to a long, long article. That just means the article is dense as fuck. That's what I aim for: "using the discipline of someone who is used to editing 5+ pages of writing down to 1 or less, somehow end up achieving 10+ pages anyway because you've just got so much to say." Although I'm not actually writing a memorandum so I give myself some breathing room to elaborate anyway. Plus I want to sound like myself. Is that a good goal? Obviously the shorter the post, the more likely people will read it, and the bigger my audience will be. But again, I am continually surprised how willing people are to read long, long posts as long as they're well-written and never stop providing the goods. Apparently this approach is working.
    • One way to tell if you really are "providing the goods" is to start every post as a bullet point outline. If the list of "main points" and "core examples" is itself really long, then you know that it's not just meandering waffling that's contributing to the post's length. It's the substance. Not to throw shade, but the vast majority of posts written by the Angry GM would take me a quarter the wordcount to say, if even.
  6. Every time I write a series of connected posts, I always have the entire thing finished before I post the first article. I never, ever, ever want to start a "long-term" project that I can't finish. Nothing would piss off a reader more than eagerly following along with the first 4 posts in a series and never getting to see a 5th. Plus, I need to tie the pieces all together. As I progress through the series, I'll frequently go back and edit the earlier parts. I write with intention and forethought and structure most of the time, not just some stream-of-consciousness spitballing.
  7. I have a couple people subscribed to this blog and I'm on a few people's blogrolls, but by and large people aren't following my posts. I have to bring it to them. Advertising is the worst part of running a blog but if I didn't do it then I'd never have an audience. That said, I only ever promote posts that I think are genuinely good. About half of all the posts on this blog never got linked anywhere. Instead, I'll drop a link in the weekly r/OSR blogroll posts (first by u/sofinho1980, then by u/shuttered_room, now by u/xaosseed) if my newest post is okay, I'll drop it in the Questing Beast discord if it's specifically focused on old-school game design, and I'll go so far as to make it it's own post on the OSR subreddit and the RPG subreddit if I think it's really worth putting in front of a broader audience. Whenever I do that, it significantly boosts the views I get, but I am very wary of becoming spam on people's feeds. Luckily, I also get major traffic boosts every time one of my posts ends up on The Glatisant (Questing Beast's monthly RPG newsletter) or when I've gotten mentioned on the Thought Eater podcast. I can't really control that though so I never assume that I'll get hit by good luck like that.
  8. Related, the main posts for my RPG, Brave, have been regularly getting views since I originally made them and seem like they'll stay near the "top posts of all time" on this blog for a while. Several times now I've been reading on blogs, forums, YouTube comments, and discord communities all on my own and come across people talking about my game. That's super weird to me. I've even seen more than one "Brave hack" now, which is funny since my game is just a Knave hack itself.
  9. I rarely hit the publish button the moment a post is finished. I typically wait until the next Monday morning and post between 10 AM and noon, because my amateur understanding of web traffic patterns and things like the Reddit feed algorithm make it the optimal time to do so. A lot of people read blogs while at work, and a lot of them need something to wake up their brain on a Monday morning. Americans especially are active on the internet in that timeframe. Posting in the middle of the night is a sure-fire way to kill your chances of anyone seeing your stuff before the algorithm sweeps it away for the next thing.
  10. I have learned a lot about how to title my posts well. I have to think about what the title will be both on the blog and when I link it on Reddit, where audiences are most fickle about this sort of thing. I made a mistake once when I titled a post "Game Design vs Level Design" and put it on the RPG subreddit, because I got downvoted into oblivion and a mod messaged me to let me know that they had been bombarded by reports on my post for being about "video game content." The post is one of my better ones I've ever written and it's pretty short, but if you just looked at the title and the image, you could definitely mistake it for being about video games instead of tabletop games. That said, one of the most reliable ways to title your posts is to just make them the thesis statement. "The Points Don't Matter!" "Not All Crunch is the Same" "How Do You Handle the 'Inside' of a Hex?" "An Incomplete History of Mazes in RPGs"
  11. If the post is going to be long, then do the reader a few favors to make it easier to read your post. Split it up into sections, separated by section titles. If it's long enough, provide a "table of contents" of all the sections at the beginning of the article so they can get an overview of what all will be covered. Maybe they'll even skip straight to the part they're interested in (think of a Wikipedia article). Pictures are great for demonstrating a point or idea more clearly than words can manage. But also, be sure to include occasional pictures just for flavor sometimes, since it makes the reading experience more interesting and also helps the reader keep track of their place in a big wall of text.
    • Whenever you embed a picture, save a copy on your hard drive and embed it from there, rather than from a URL or something. I cannot tell you how many classic RPG blogs are full, full of dead links in their old posts because they didn't do this. There are entire art-focused blogs I'd follow that I can no longer read the old posts from because every image they're discussing is gone.
  12. I always try to show my research, provide links, give people other stuff to look at, and plant myself in "the community." I consider the research phase to be a part of the writing process, so all the time I spend reading other people's blogs posts and watching YouTube videos, that's all part of "working on my next blog post."
    • The flipside to this is that you also have to assume that whoever is reading the post will not open the link you provide to the thingy which you're referencing. Like, if you want to respond to someone else's post, or maybe build off of an idea they had, or even just reference some game's rules, then yes, you should provide a link. But you should also briefly, briefly summarize the important and relevant part as well, just in case the reader doesn't feel like opening that link.
  13. I also generally operate under the assumption that, for any given blog post, the person reading it has never read any of my previous works before. I mean, I have a few regular readers. But the majority are outsiders stopping by for a quick look, so I have to assume that they aren't familiar with any of my previous takes or my personal campaign setting or game or whatever. I imagine it may even be annoying to my few regular readers to have to keep re-reading the same explanations again and again, but hey. I'm playing to the bigger audience. And even a couple times now I've actually stopped writing a long post so that I can go quickly write a shorter post succinctly explaining one crucial concept I return back to again and again. That way, my "take" has been solidified once and for all, and whenever I need to refer to that idea again in future articles I can just link to that one. That's where the "Game Design vs Level Design" post came from, among others.
    • The exception, of course, is when I'm working on a connected series of posts. But those are usually obvious because if the title of a post is "XYZ Part 3" then the reader knows they should go catch up.
  14. Eat up as much feedback as possible and work to improve. Almost all the advice I just laid out was learned slowly over time, through trial and error.
  15. Related, engage with good-faith comments and be ready to turn any monologue into a dialogue. Don't be afraid to revise your work accordingly. But also, don't feed the trolls. You can learn to tell pretty easily who actually read your post and who didn't, and there's no point engaging with people who are commenting just to hear themselves speak.
  16. Build connections to other creators. I'm not great at networking and I'm certainly not as "plugged in" as many of my readers, but I still make an effort to read the blogs belonging to the little guys in addition to the old greats. Comment on their stuff, make a response post, give them a shout-out on other sites as free advertising, etc.
But the most important thing I've learned from doing this blog is that apparently I'm really into game design?? I mean, sure, I set out to make a game design blog. But I more envisioned it as, "amateur DM gives his occasional thoughts/kvetching about how he runs his game." Now I think about game design all the time. In fact, I think about it enough that I found myself doing something I never in a million years would have predicted: making my own RPG.

Seriously, I have never been the kind of guy who wants another fantasy heartbreaker out there. I totally envisioned all my RPG-related activities for the foreseeable future to revolve around 5E D&D, because that's the game I played every week for years and it was my favorite. In fact, it's still the game I play every week and it still might be my favorite. All of my early homebrew stuff, my own campaign setting, and all my planned adventures and products and whatnot were all assumed to be for 5E D&D when I got started.

But I dabble in other games sometimes, and at my co-writer's recommendation I tried Knave one day, and I liked it. And then I tried it some more because it was really convenient for a lot of reasons, and every time I did, I made changes. And eventually those changes piled up, and one day I was inspired with an idea for a novel design choice that I thought had potential.

One thing led to another and eventually Brave was born. Or rather, Brave the project was born. It's not even finished! And yet, here I am with a rough timeline of what books will comprise the system, the contents of each one, the order in which I'll be working on things and releasing them, and so on. It's this expansive-yet-modular DIY beast where I either use all my favorite houserules from other peoples' games or I employ my own best attempts at game design instead.

And people play it! There are people out there in this world of ours who are playing my fucking game! That is goddamn coconuts!

A Celebration of This Blog's Greatest Posts and Products

So obviously the biggest thing to come out of this is Brave. I just linked that, and at some point I'll add a whole extra page on the blog that contains all the Brave-related posts and materials. As for everything else on this blog, I'll put some links below to different posts that you might enjoy if you've never read them before, from the old and unnoticed posts to the big hits. You will notice a stark contrast in quality going from older posts to newer ones, since the above "lessons learned" I described had to all be, well... learned. But I left out any posts I didn't think were worth reading.

The Three Best Posts on This Blog
  1. "How to Make Problems for Your Players" - the first post on this blog is still literally the best DMing/game design advice I've ever written. It was talking about 5E D&D but it still applies to all gaming types, so read it anyway.
  2. "Oh God There Are So Many RPGs (A Guide)" - the most popular post in this blog's history. A good introduction to all the big (and some small) RPGs out there for someone new to the hobby.
  3. "A Thorough Look at Urban Gameplay in D&D" - "city adventures" are due for a reckoning and I am the only one brave enough to question the gods. There are important takeaways in here that need to be spread far and wide. I developed on these ideas further in my design notes for the settlement rules in Brave.
Galaxy Brain 3000 IQ Game Design Theorizing and DMing Advice
  1. "Not All Crunch is the Same"
  2. "Game Design vs Level Design"
  3. "An Incomplete History of Mazes in RPGs"
  4. "People, Power, and Land" - picture heavy and easy to read!
  5. "Unity vs Division" - a followup to "People, Power, and Land"
  6. "Princess Mononoke and 'DM-Prepared Plots' in Old School Games"
  7. "Would 'X' Be a Good Idea for a New Class?"
  8. "Running On Empty" - about "exhaustion" mechanics and a way to reinterpret HP as such
  9. "Getting Classy With Equipment"
  10. "On Dungeon Size"
  11. "Splitting the Party Isn't That Bad"
  12. "How Do You Handle the 'Inside' of a Hex?" - okay this one isn't actually that good or brilliant or anything but I still want people to read it so I can see if they know what I'm talking about and we can all get on the same page about this thing which has bothered me for awhile but which no one ever acknowledges.
Mercifully Short:
Houserules You Should Steal (and others you definitely shouldn't):

(These are also oftentimes mercifully short)
  1. "Electrum is Underdark Money"
  2. "Advanced Darkness"
  3. "Fumbles Can Be Great if you Just Make the Perfect Rule" - after spending a while using this one, I only recommend it to 5E DMs who can stick this table on their DM screen easily. Otherwise it's not worth it. But when it's viable, it's great!
  4. "Magic Metals and Stuff" - a must-have for Knave players
  5. "Talking Statues: The Ultimate Quest Dealer"
  6. "Potent Potables" - a fun mechanic for drinking (both alcohol and potions)
  7. "Fifth Edition Downtime"
  8. "Decent Rules to Make Languages Fun"
  1. "The Differences in Mystara, Greyhawk, and Forgotten Realms" - because a lot of people couldn't really tell you the major differences between the three traditional "vanilla" settings of D&D, I thought I'd point out the highlights. Could probably use a re-write to be honest. I have a couple more things I'd add to Forgotten Realms now. But not much.
  2. "Campaign-Level Play" - this is a series about a nebulously-defined topic that has to do with downtime, sandboxing, "treating the game world as though it were real," and freeform mechanics. But it's really good stuff, especially the third part.
Hedonistic Worldbuilding Garbage:
Fun and/or Stupid:
  1. "Flatter Me, Mortals" - a visual essay about the ways in which "the Dungeon Master" is depicted in any art where they get included as an in-universe entity, and a demand for something better.
  2. "Hollow Advice" - go read Watchmen if you haven't yet.
  3. "The Points Don't Matter!" - my substitution for Inspiration systems.
Non-Gaming Related But Still Excellent for Fans of Fantasy:
  1. "Violence as Magic" - an essay about the way violence is depicted in fantasy fiction media, like, thematically speaking.
  2. "I Want to Talk About the Green Knight" - an essay all about medievalism, Arthurian mythology, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the A24 film adaptation of it.


Thanks for reading my blog. This thing isn't my job and I neither want it to be one nor think it should be. I won't ever make something like a Patreon just because it feels weird and unreasonable for me to ask people for money for this. I think they call that "hubris." But during the pandemic, I was able to put time and effort into this blog like it was my job and it's really helped me keep going and also fall deeper in love with this hobby.

I hope it lasts a while longer, and that I continue to offer good shit for you. Whether you're here for the game theory stuff or the Brave content or, I don't know, my charm and wit (God help me) then stick around.



  1. Really great post, thank you for that. If you allow me a follow up question: How 'Tech savy' one has to be to start their own blog? Are there a lot of prompts? Is it mostly "click-and-drag?" (for images, layout, etc.)
    Thank you beforehand, and keep blogging!

    1. Not much at all. The back-end of Blogger makes it pretty simple. There's no "click and drag" unfortunately, but you can add "gadgets" of various types on the layout page. I often looked at other blogs to see what kind of stuff they had and how it works for reference.

  2. Congrats! Lots of insights, and a few posts I had missed

  3. It feels like this blog is from the golden age of OSR blogging. I can't believe how much content you flipping produce. You're a machine. Keep up the good work.