So you wanna write a RPG blog? Part 2: How?

A few days ago I started a series where I share my views on starting and running a (hopefully successful) RPG-themed blog. Last time I tackled the “Why” which covered the reasons to start a RPG-Blog. Today I’ll tackle the “How”.

Blogging Platforms and Hosting:

The very first things you have to decide are what blogging software to use and where to host your blog.

A blog is nothing more than a website whose content gets added to in reverse-chronological order (i.e. newer entries come before older entries), with a more or less important number of side features (like links, ads and various webpage gadgets).

I won’t be talking too much about platform choices. First, because I know relatively little about them, and secondly, because Wikipedia does it better.

However, in order to write about your Risus campaign, you need to adopt a software that fits your needs and your tastes. The last thing you want is to use a blogging interface that makes you waste time or energy fighting with it, time that would be better spent writing!

It’s therefore not a good idea to rush through this part and settle on the first platform you find. Chances are you’ll be spending hours working with the software’s interface so make sure you don’t hate it.

For my part, I started out on Blogger (real simple, hosted by Google) and later moved to a self-hosted Worpress blog (harder to use, way more flexible).

What about self-hosting then? It’s a matter of choice and resources really. You can now “rent” space and server resources for a few dollars a month. This gives you your own web address (URL), private blog email account, and tons of space to store images, create forums, host your own picture galleries, etc.

I really like the liberty it gives me, but paying for 2 years upfront (about 250$) can be a barrier for newish bloggers with no revenue.

Alternatively, platforms like Blogger, WordPress, and Live Journal all offer free hosting albeit minus the email accounts and unique URL (your blog would be, for example, blogname.wordpress.com).

Bottom line: Chose the software you feel comfortable with and start posting your 1st article pronto!

Layout and Design:

While new bloggers want to dig in and start blogging right away about their latest house rules for D&D (as well they should), some time must also be spent creating the blog’s layout and design.

This can be really simple, monstrously complex, and/or expensive depending on your vision, skills in coding, “friends in the biz,” and time to sink into this.

A successful blog does not need a special theme or awesome plugins, but they can help readers recognize you and feel “at home.” I invite you to experiment with themes and layout in the early stages of your blog, while no one is watching you.

What it definitely needs is ease of reading and making the life of your readers/commenters as easy as possible. You blog because you want to be read by people, right?

In that sense, I strongly encourage you to keep things dead simple. Take a neutral background, either pale (white, or a soft color like my background) or black. Use a text color that is VERY visible on the chosen background (like white on black or the inverse). Many potential readers have impaired visibility and having yellow over a navy blue background is very bad!

I also guarantee you that you’ll go crazy with plugins and widgets (those counters, doodads and whatnots in your blog’s sidebars). I won’t tell you not to use them, but I now believe that most are useless. You want to bring attention to your content, not the sideshow freaks populating the surrounding real estate.

Consider trimming them to the bare minimum once you stop playing with them. Focus on plugins that encourage readers and commenters. Keep things like “Recent Comments” and “Subscribe to RSS Feed”, which are very useful things to have on a blog.

One of the dangers you’ll meet in this phase is that you’ll grow used to how the blog looks and you’ll stop seeing its imperfections as barriers for readers. Worse, you might even resist honest feedback by thinking that the blog’s look represents your artistic expression.

This is not a painting people, it’s an electronic newspaper!

Also, a short word on ads: Don’t.

Even at my level of readership (500+ subscribed readers), Google Ads pays peanuts and I only get a few cents a day from Project Wonderful. I’m currently having more success with Text-Link Ads, but I don’t know how long this will last and I had to wait 6 months for the 1st ad to show up.

I therefore strongly suggest that you save yourself the work (and the temptation to click your own ads, something widely frowned upon) and establish your credentials as a blogger (i.e. get readers) before you go that way. Later, if that’s a goal for you, start exploring monetization techniques by talking to the other bloggers you’ll have networked with. You can also try reading some of the gazillion “make money online” blogs, but I don’t recommend this since most are run by charlatans.

One thing that might be worth considering is to go for a unique banner to identify your blog. This is the first thing that newcomers will see and that can set your “brand” as a blogger.

Depending on you skills as a Photoshopper you can grab some RPG-themed clip art (check for copyright!) and create your own.

Once I decided to move the blog to WordPress and since I was skill-less in the graphics department, I emailed an artist whose webcomic I liked and commissioned her to create a banner. Best 80$ I ever spent if you ask me… I even got a bonus avatar!

If you feel like you need help and have a few dollars to spare, I invite you to ask help from professionals.

For example, my buddies at Men with Pens are experts at doing just that.

Bottom line: Keep your design and layout dead simple so that the blog is easy to read. Posts are king! Get a nice looking banner if you can.

Writing Environment:

Even if you’re a hyperactive speed writer like I am, you will be spending countless hours writing on your blog. Thus, it’s a good idea to make your writing environment (both virtual and physical) as conducive to productivity as possible.

For example, you should set up your desktop/laptop close to your gaming books so you can reach out to reference them without interrupting your creative flow. You also need sufficient light, a comfortable chair and some way to tune out the sounds of your household (or, heaven forbid, workplace). A soundproofed game room and/or sound dampening earphones are good examples.

From a virtual standpoint, you need to set up your workspace so that all the game references (rules, forums, similar blogs, wikipedia) you need are within one click. Using a browser that supports multi-tabs (like Firefox, IE, and Opera) and putting the websites you often use in your bookmarks simplify things a lot.

Bottom line: Blogging is a lot of work, make sure that your environment fosters effective work habits.

Quality of Language and Editing:

You don’t need to be an English major or even a native speaker to be a successful blogger (I’m neither). You must, however, know how to build a sentence and formulate a thought in such a way that someone other than you can understand.

While spelling is important, you can get help by installing the Google dictionary (assuming you use Firefox) and pay attention to all those little underlined words.

If you’re not used to writing, keep sentences short and simple. You also need to keep paragraph as short as possible.  Nobody likes to read walls of texts, as soon as you said what you wanted to say about a particular topic (in two, three sentences), switch to the next paragraph.

Writing is an exercise and as you do more of it, you will get better.  For instance, my writing style has evolved tremendously in the last year. I’ve seen similar things in fellow bloggers, some so dramatic that they went from “hard to read” to “engagingly well written” in just a few months!

Finally, you’ve got to read yourself, slowly, only once before you post. If you are anything like me as a writer, you build your text as you write and focus on content more than form, leaving behind countless typos and sentences that don’t quite read as you intended. Editing your work is as important as writing it. The few extra minutes spent on this are worth it.

Bottom line: While spelling and grammar are not hyper-critical (and can be helped by online tools), writing clear sentences and ordering your thoughts in a comprehensive way is very important.

Conclusion:

So that was a very rapid (although still lengthy) pass on how to setup and start an RPG blog (or any blog really).

In the next post of this series, I’ll tackle the “What” (Game-related Content) and “Who” (target audience, forming networks and advertising) of RPG blogging.

I hope this is useful to you; it sure is fun to write.

Comments

  1. If you want, you can buy a domain name and set it up to forward to your Blogger or LiveJournal. That’s the halfway point between having a free blog and having a self-hosted one. At least your “front” URL will look professional! :) (That, and you’ll have saved the URL so you can use it when you finally do buy a hosting package.)

    My advice – go WordPress as soon as possible. It’s worth it to do it right the first time!

    Geek’s Dream Girls last blog post..Quick Note on D&D 4e Character Sheets

  2. Great continuation, Chatty!

    I have a counterpoint to your take on ads: Do. ;)

    Even if you’re not making much from them, your readers will be used to having ads in place from the get-go. If you wait until you’ve built up your blog, you run the risk of ticking off regulars who’ve grown used to your site without ads.

    While you can succeed at blogging on any platform, hosted or not, I don’t recommend starting with Blogger. Why? Because it’s a lot less configurable than WordPress, and because the comment interface really sucks. I switched away from Blogger after a short while with Treasure Tables, and never looked back.

    And if one of your RPG blogging goals is making money, or if you love to tweak settings, I recommend taking the hosting plunge. Like Chatty says, it’s pretty cheap and it sets you up for the long haul.

  3. Say it brother!

    Ad are an evil distraction that have no place on most blogs. Unless you have insane traffic, they are simply not worth the bandwidth to host. You are far better off seeking a sponsor or selling something from your blog.

    Trask, The Last Tyromancer

    Trasks last blog post..How Important to Hasbro is Wizards of the Coast?

  4. I have to second what Martin said. I ran ads for a long time, and didn’t make any money worth mentioning, so I removed them. Then I built up enough of a crowd to think it might be worthwhile to try it again, and I got a lot of negative feedback.

    Most folks seem to understand, though, that you’re giving away content for free and need to pay for bandwidth, hosting, and so forth some how and won’t gripe too much as long as the ads are relatively topical and not too distracting.

    I’ve had better success with a donation button and being transparent about my expenses. “Hey folks, time to renew my hosting for another year and it’s gonna cost X. Anyone want to chip in a little?” I also have my Amazon Wishlist clearly posted, and about once a month some reader buys me something in appreciation of my efforts. A lot of folks are more comfortable giving little gifts than handing you cash outright; blogs are personal, and they want to give you something more personal in return.

  5. WordPress is definately the way to go, and if you can afford decent hosting, that’s infinately better than any of the free services out there (wordpress’s free blog hosting is okay, but prevents a lot of customization, and I have yet to find a free hosting package that has PHP and mySQL support that doesn’t suck horribly). If you have a decent enough internet connection, and a spare computer, it’s even better to install Apache, PHP, mySQL and be your own host – dyndns.org and afraid.org are the greatest things to come to dynamic IPs.

  6. Gah I hate it when a later post appears after an earlier one… dang Timestamps!

    @GDG: Thanks for the tip E.

    @Martin: I see your point. I took a different step in that I told my readers of the time why I was doing it (paying for bandwidth and prizes) and I plan on doing ‘periodic reports’ on my revenues.

    @Trask: I agree with the sponsorship, in fact I’m thinking of nuking Project Wonderful and trying to land the Wizard of the Coast/Kobolds Quarterly banner ad deal like Martin and Yax have (guys, guys?).

    @Berin: Since the Blog is self sufficient, I won’t go the donation way… but I know it’s a very valid and honest approach. I like gifts too!

    @SeiferTim: I’m not yet l337 enough to consider home-hosting. :)

  7. WordPress continues to be my top choice for blogging, not just for the reasons stated above, but because it works so well with other WordPress blogs. Trackbacks, comments, feeds, and so on work really well with other WordPress blogs, and it makes moving between them and networking all that much easier.

    Dave T. Games last blog post..YouTubes of the Week: The Conchords are Flying

  8. Excellent point Dave, since networking is a vital element of a successful blog, using the most popular (and most feature rich) software is a plus.

    (I’m still expecting the Drupal and Wiki based bloggers to chime in)

  9. This whole series is perfectly timed as I’m just starting out my own blog. Yes, I dream of it being able to at least help support me, but in reality that may be a pipe dream. Either way thought, the how-to really does help! Thanks :D

    Tomcat1066s last blog post..Good Stats Rock!

  10. Great article. I too started on Blogger and then moved to WordPress on a hosted site. One comment I will make about choosing a host is that there are two things you need to look at when picking a host: the amount of disk space you get for your site (which will factor in how many pictures and pdf’s you can host on your site), and how much bandwidth you get each month.

    If you are creating your blog to “go big”, and your provider has allowed you a small amount of bandwidth, one good article can run you out of bandwidth for the month, shutting your site down, and forcing you to increase your plan in order to get your site up and running.

    Most ISP’s offer pretty generous amounts of disk space and bandwidth, but we aware of it.

    The other comment I will say, is run your own backups of your site. Yes your host is likely making backups of your blog, but unless you have reviewed their backup policy (which I am sure most of us have not), and have 100% faith in your host’s backups, you might want to make some yourself. My host, provides me a web-based admin interface, and one of the options is to create a backup file of my site (including the database that powers the site), and copy to any location I wish. Once a month, i take a copy of my site and store it at home…just in case.

    DNAphils last blog post..Weekend Update– 21jul2008

  11. I began at Blogger and I’m still with it. Reasons: It gives me what I want with an easy to use interface. My blog is very simple, and I like it that way.

    Now and then I add a widget like the Blogroll or something similar, but funny thing, I usually add it to help *me* instead of my readers. Because my blog is really my “Home page” in a sense. Instead of using the Favorites I usually click in the links list of my blog ;).

    So I use Blogger because is easy, free, and I feel is pretty usable for the readers.

    Best regards,
    Carlos

  12. John Spencer says:

    Thanks for this series, Chatty! I have been considering starting my own Blog for quite sometime. I spend a lot of time on the computer just watching youtube and stuff, so I’m sure I have the time.

    My biggest problem is that i’m not sure people will want to read what I have to say. I’ll hold off my final decision until after I see you next couple posts on it.

  13. By the way, if anyone needs design services, the girl who did my blog is great and inexpensive! http://design.goofygirl.org/

    Geek’s Dream Girls last blog post..e on 4e: Creating a Character

  14. I approve of WordPress. It’s quite versatile (I’ve even used it for non-blog websites). You need to be technically adept enough to upload files to a webserver, or else know someone who can help. You get better control over your blog than with something like Blogger.

    Google Adsense can be a nice earner, but not for a roleplaying blog. Adsense thrives on high-traffic sites about high-value topics (law, medicine, business), and generally pays poorly for D&D websites.

    If I have one piece of advice, it’s this: Remember the difference between a journal, and a blog. A journal is something you write. A blog is something other people read. The best way to keep your readers coming back for more is to write what people are interested in reading.

    Jonathan Drains last blog post..Atomic Array: New Gaming Podcast

  15. Excellent article as always, Chatty. I am really in the beginning stages of my blog as well and took your advice to start out on WordPress. My theme is still a basic theme that I haven’t customized for myself yet but I like the idea of having someone with some real skills putting a theme together. I think I can put a banner together but the CSS stuff stymies me.

    Looking forward to the rest of your series!

    Deadshots last blog post..Friday Night Ptolus

  16. @Tomcat, John and Deadshot: I’m happy that the timing was so right for you guys.

    @Deadshot: I think you need to stop worrying about what people want to read and you need to get what’s inside come put. There are readers for your type of content, I guarantee it… provided you write it well, engagingly and package it neatly!

    @DNAPHil: 6$ monthly Hosting gives me gigs of space and a few terabytes of bandwidth… I’m not worried. Excellent Idea on the Backup front. I need to follow my own SOPs!

    @Carlos: Agreed 100%, if it works for your needs, stay there!

    @Jonathan Drain: Good advice… it’s also a divide I tend to see on LJ blogs vs other platforms as you mentioned a few weeks ago.

  17. Making me want to blog, though I have no idea what the frick to say, and I have commitment issues…

    Not like relationship comitment issues.. but time devotion commitment issues. That and instant gratification issues. And mental issues.

    Maybe I should have just left it at I have issues… XD

  18. I’m one of those newbies who went for a free/mildly paid blog setup, but it seems to be working decently well for me.

    I find deadlines also help. There’s something about “I have to get this thing done by a certain time” that seems to bring out determination and good ideas I didn’t even know I had; one piece that seemed to go over pretty well, a riff on characterizing cultures by how they view water, was something like the third idea I’d had that evening and was cutting it rather close to my self-imposed midnight the previous day deadline. (The advantage to “midnight the previous day” is that even if I’m running late, it’s still highly unlikely that I’m going to actually miss a day–it’s worked wonders for me.)

  19. @Jonathan Drain -

    And the best way to write what other people want to read is to write what you would want to read.

  20. If you would like to establish an internet presence, the 2 things you need to focus on are:

    1 – Adding value to your readers’ games, gaming life
    2 – Being and looking professional

    That’s my 2 cents

    Yaxs last blog post..D&D Monday morning speedlinking

  21. I think Yax left out one of his secrets:

    3 – Change your blog layout/theme like 4 times a week.
    :D

    Bartoneuss last blog post..YouTubes of the Week: The Conchords are Flying

  22. I find WordPress’s hosting fairly good, and would recommend it with very few reservations. It doesn’t offer quite as much freedom as I’d like, but it’s easy to use, offers a decent amount of flexibility, and seems rock solid.

    That said, the limitations do chafe me enough that I’m looking into acquiring hosting services.

    For anyone in a similar position who’s not familiar with hosting, I offer the following advice. In a way it’s tangential to the blog itself, but it’s also probably the single most important decision you’ll make. Awful hosting can torpedo a blog.

    1. Ignore hosting-company rating sites, especially “top 10″ sites. Many of them are biased either through payola-style schemes or through artificial positive reviews planted by hosting company employees.

    2. Do research, though. Look for forums or other discussion sites. Ask people you know. Do a Google search for the name of the prospective hosting company +”downtime” or +”problems” or +”complaints”. Check the company’s website; you want one that’s written in a professional manner, not littered with mistakes, and that’s laid out clearly and cleanly, not confusing or overwhelmingly flashy. Find out how long the company’s been in business. Check WHOIS; if the company’s domain name was registered more recently than they claim to have been in business, that’s a red flag. If contact info in WHOIS doesn’t match what’s on the company’s site, that’s not good either. If the company gives no contact info other than a single email address, that’s probably not a good sign.

    3. Be wary of providers that offer “unlimited” bandwidth or storage. They cannot provide it. Check the Terms of Service and the Acceptable Use Policy; these will usually reveal that if you use too many resources, you’ll have to either scale back or upgrade to a private server. This is not necessarily bad if numbers are provided — but those numbers are the actual bandwidth/storage you’re getting. If numbers aren’t provided, then it’s at the host’s discretion, so make sure you’re okay with that before signing up.

    4. Actually, make sure you read the TOS and AUP before signing up anyway. Yeah, those things people never read. You don’t want a surprise in the form of waking up to find your account suspended.

    5. Send a ticket in via their listed support address, if it’s feasible. You might ask, for instance, whether the uptime rate they claim (usually over 99%) is based on server uptime or network uptime, and whether they can provide you with independent corroboration of that statistic. This is not only to get more information — it’s also to see how their response time is. If you wait three days for a reply, then you can expect that their technical support will be lacking when your site goes down or you have problems getting your script to load. (On the other hand, remember that some providers might treat you better as a prospective customer than they might as an actual customer… so a lightning-quick response time, while a good sign, is not necessarily indicative.)

    6. Remember that price isn’t everything. The cheapest hosts probably don’t provide the best service. (Good tech support costs money.) On the other hand, the most expensive host doesn’t necessarily provide the best service, either. Figure out a price range your budget can bear, and go looking within that range.

    7. If your prospective host offers a “free” domain name with their hosting plan, look into it carefully before you decide to register your domain name that way. Make sure that it will be registered in your name, rather than the host’s. Otherwise you could run into problems if you need to change hosts for whatever reason.

    8. If your prospective host doesn’t offer a money-back guarantee, think very carefully before signing on. Most hosts do. Along the same lines, though less commonly, some hosts will offer monthly service. It’s typically more expensive in the long run, but might be very worthwhile to test out a new host before committing to a year or more of service.

    I realize a lot of that sounds pretty basic, but they’re the kind of things I’ve seen overlooked — it can be easy to do when your mind is focused on the blog itself, and it can be rather detrimental in the long run.

    Ninetails last blog post..Forgotten Realms preview

  23. @Ninetail: Excellent advice. To which I will add

    9. Or ask a Friend/Network contact what service they use. Graham set me up with HostMonster and I’ve been very very happy with the move. Low price, decent bandwidth and rapid customer support (including online support chat that actually sounds like they want to help us)

  24. WOW! Thanks Ninetail! You answered questions I hadn’t even thought about asking just yet, but figure I will soon enough!

    Toms last blog post..So…where are you from?

  25. @Deadshot: I taught myself enough CSS with Visual QuickStart Guide: HTML for the World Wide Web to be pretty comfortable using it — not a bad route if you have a bit of spare time.

  26. @Chatty:
    There really isn’t much to it:
    http://www.php-mysql-tutorial.com/install-apache-php-mysql.php
    The only problem that most people have is that they have a dynamic IP – but that’s easily circumvented with either dyndns.com or afraid.org, depending on your preference.
    I recommend trying it out for yourself (even if it’s just for practice). If nothing else, it gives you some decent insight into the inner workings of a web server, among other things.

    SeiferTims last blog post..Shut Up! Sit Your Ass Down in That Chair and Drink Your GODDAMN Tea!

  27. @Bartoneus – I almost shot soda out of my nose. Thank you. Hahahhahaha….

    Geek’s Dream Girls last blog post..e’s Feed Favorites – 7/23/08

  28. I use Netfirms for my hosting. Check out http://www.netfirms.com/max for a great deal on a hosting package: $10 for your first year with 2 domain name registrations, 250gb of space, 2TB of data transfer, WordPress/MediaWiki/Joomla installations, FTP/ssh access, SQL databases, and 500 e-mail accounts. Not too bad. :-)

  29. Yeah, but after 1 year, Netfirms is $10/month, while the place Chatty and I use is $6/month and offers more.

    After 2 years of service, we’re about the same in costs, and mine will be lower after that.

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  1. [...] So you wanna write a RPG blog? Part 2: How? The very first things you have to decide are what blogging software to use and where to host your blog. (tags: rpg blog) [...]

  2. [...] running a series on starting an RPG blog.  So far, it’s covered three questions: Why?, How?, and What?.  Or more verbosely, Why should I start a blog?, How do I start a blog?, and What [...]

  3. [...] continues his series about RPG blogging. He starts of with why you’d want to, wanders on to how you do it and what you might write about. He’s up to who you write for. Other than me. I make [...]

  4. [...] running a series on starting an RPG blog.  So far, it’s covered three questions: Why?, How?, and What?.  Or more verbosely, Why should I start a blog?, How do I start a blog?, and What [...]