2005-06-16 : Craft and Innovation

In his blog Yudhishthira's Dice, Brand Robins has a great post about the craft of us indie RPG designers:

The other problem this runs us into is that much of the Indie game community is so focused on innovation they never focus on craft. The quest for the new cool system that does the new cool thing has far eclipsed the work of making a good system better which makes up so much of the strength of paradigm based thought. We're so busy trying to make a new tool that we aren't getting the most out of the tools we've already made.

Read the whole post.

Now first, he's absolutely right.

Now second, it's even worse than that.

The cycle of innovation in RPG design is slow. It stretches out past 18 months toward two years. For us as designers to incorporate real innovations into our designs, we need to read, play, reflect, play, and then design - and that's like I say a couple years' work. I submit that only now do we finally understand My Life with Master (e.g.) well enough to be building on it, we can expect to see its children at GenCon this year. Primetime Adventures' children won't appear until GenCon next year - we've spent this past year being blown away by how cool screen presence is, now we're finally starting to incorporate it into our design goals, and we have the long work of realizing those goals ahead of us.

We've been doing indie RPG design as a group for four years. That means we're two innovations away from our starting position, no more, working on a third. Pursuing innovation on a month-by-month basis is pointless, but that's what we've got at the Forge. The frantic quest for the cool new system that Brand sees is sustained simply by growth in the Forge's membership, not by any development of our craft at all.

What I'm saying is that innovation unrealized by craft isn't even innovation, it's just woo-hoo.

Some time back, Ben Lehman wrote about journeyman games. (Here's the post: Great White Games at This Is My Blog.) The idea is that before you create your life's work, you should and must first create a journeyman work. Until you've learned your craft, your life's work is beyond your skill.

It's even worse than that too.

My grampa Palmer always said that it takes 5,000 hours to become competent at something. You can learn to play chess or piano, you can learn physics or computer programming, you can learn to write a poem, a short story, an essay or a novel - in 5,000 hours. 5,000 hours is a dedicated amateur's 3-4 hours a day for four years. That's why four years is how long it takes to get a college degree.

You're qualified to write your journeyman game after you've spent 5,000 hours, four years' free time, learning and practicing game design.

That means that Dogs in the Vineyard is my journeyman game. That seems right to me: Dogs feels like my journeyman game. It also means that Sorcerer is Ron Edwards' journeyman game*. I bet if you asked him he'd agree to that - it's the game that proved he's competent to create a game to meet his design goals. Ask him if it's his masterpiece and I bet he'll say he's more proud of it than we can know, but no, his masterpiece is ahead of him. (Forgive me for putting words in your mouth, Ron, and correct me as appropriate.)

So to Ben's call to set aside your Great White Game and create a game you can actually finish, I add my own dour pronouncement: the game you can actually finish is an apprentice game. Finish it and maybe another, then comes your journeyman work, and then you can begin designing in earnest.

There are some truly awesome games that I consider apprentice games. Take that for the good - there is a good, after all this "even worse":

We have no idea yet what masterpiece indie RPGs look like. But man oh man, judging from our apprentice- and journeyman work...

* I mention Sorcerer because both Ben and Brand did, and because it deserves pride of place. It is the first journeyman game, the first step away from our starting position, the single most influential indie RPG yet and probably ever. If we feel casual about it, it's only because it's the one indie RPG that we collectively have had enough time to metabolize.

1. On 2005-06-16, Jay Loomis said:

We're all talking about this, apparently. (mine's here)

My take is a little different. I agree that you have to work through your apprentice, journeyman, and then master stages. But I also think that, at the apprentice level, getting too hardcore into theory will hurt you as much as help.

The most important part of any apprentice work is getting it done. The point of an apprentice project is to prove (mostly to yourself) that you can finish a project. If you are trying too hard to get all the newest, coolest innovations into your apprentice project, you will never finish it.


2. On 2005-06-16, Ben Lehman said:

No, no, it's even worse than that.

A game, after the initial design inspiration, takes about a year of development to get into a saleable shape.  The games that people are working on right now (The IGC games for this year, say, or Keith's new project) have metabolized MLWM.  None of the new games selling at GenCon this year (caveat: that I am familiar with) have any MLWM elements in them, with the exception of the Mountain Witch, which I will note only has a tiny bit of influence (end-game) and none of the big stuff (the mathematics between the stats, the psychological effect of creating a Master together, all the stuff that Michael Miller talks about and sounds really smart and goes right over my head.)

(Also, we have already established that TMW is the 2nd coming of Christ, and thus gets to be outside of time if it wants to be.)

This time next year, we'll see all these designs that look like Dogs and PTA, but none of them will be published yet, unless they were rushed.  Finished projects that look like them are slated for 2007 GenCon at the earliest.  2008 for games that come out this year, and also for Nine Worlds, because it is harder to digest.

Which is okay, really.  Maybe it is just because I am a youngin', but we have time to do this, and we have time to do it right, barring any huge disasters.



3. On 2005-06-16, Vincent said:

Ben: yeah, okay. Three years it is.

We do have time. It's pretty exciting.


4. On 2005-06-16, JasonL said:


Yeah, I agree that the sole, Indie designer's development time horizon is long.

But there is, in fact, another potential way around this that goes against the Indie RPG Deisgner Manifesto, if you will: get in bed with one of the industry giants.

Nobody who advocates for creator owned rights would be willing to do this - but one of the reasons that so much effort is thown by mid-size design imprints toward D20 is market share.

If, say, Matt Wilson want's to get PTA into every Borders Bookstore across the country, he just has to convince the folks at Wizards that it's a good idea.

I think, we need something like that, a breakaway hit that goes outside our normal channels.  That'll bring more money and resources, which can, in my estimation, shorten those design lifecycles.

Now, all we need is a volunteer...


Wow, the room sure did empty out fast...


"Oh, it's you...


5. On 2005-06-16, Vincent said:

Whoo, Jason, that's a good one.

When we go outside our normal channels, it'll be outside their normal channels too.


6. On 2005-06-16, Ben Lehman said:


Hmm... I agree that it totally has to be done, but not for the same reasons at all.  Being with a big company doesn't shorten a natural development cycle (look at the 3-year gap between D&D 3 and D&D 3.5) but there are plenty of other good reasons to do it, mainly wide distribution.

The reason why *some* (key here: SOME) companies have much shorter development cycles has more to do with the fact that they cut out big, important chunks of production, like playtest, consideration, and editing.



7. On 2005-06-16, Vincent said:

Jay: I'm a theory-head, so of course I'm going to disagree with you.

All of my apprentice work was based on choosing some modest piece of the theory and designing a game or partial game to demonstrate it. To learn a craft you have to learn both its practice and its principles.


8. On 2005-06-16, Eric Finley said:

I'll second that and add to it.  In my experience in dealing with even the semi-biggies, the cycle gets horribly slower.  Basically this is because of hierarchy expansion; the more levels in a hierarchy, the slower it responds.  The jump from one-man-indie to even the simplest cooperate-with-X arrangement will fuck you up but good, especially if you try to do it from the start - where it would seem to make sense.

So if you're going to try and piggyback onto the big boys' shoulders, do it after most of the timeconsuming work has been done, in an effort to shorten the "assimilate this" portion of the cycle.

- Eric


9. On 2005-06-16, Eric Finley said:

Edit my above - crossposted with Vincent.  I'm seconding Ben.  I agree with Vincent, too, though; keep your apprentice learning balanced as best suits you.  If we had a one-to-one master/prentice system, the master could steer you toward a proper balance of theory and practice.  As it is, this is one thing we lack, so you gotta do it yourself.  Perhaps something to consider, though... a mentoring program?

Hm.  As a journeyman, help get someone their apprentice status... that could have serious learning benefits for both.  You don't know something properly until you can teach it, and you don't know you can teach until a single student learns it.

- Eric


10. On 2005-06-16, JasonL said:

Eric & Ben:

Okay, I can see that point of view about the company red-tape getting in the way.

I was thinking more along the lines of:

1) additional creative resources to throw at a given problem
2) direct access to the 3-tier system and more mainstream, mass-market retailers

I'll shade more towards Jay a bit on whether Theory helps or not.  Frankly, 3-years of reading stuff on the Forge didn't get me much learning.

I've been a religious reader of this here blog for, what, four months now, and learned more about actual design theory than I ever did trolling the Forge.

But, that kind of hard-core theory has it's place.  It helped shake me out of rigid heart-breaker mode, which is a good thing.


"Oh, it's you...


11. On 2005-06-16, Jay Loomis said:

D-oh! Again, I am not clear enough. Me write bad.

What I mean is that trying to encorporate *all* of the theory that you learn into your game will drive you nuts and keep the game from ever happening. By all means, think about theory. And focus on an aspect or two of theory when making each game. The danger that I see is in thinking that you *must* make the most ultimate cutting-edge game your first go out. 'Cause it's not gonna happen.


12. On 2005-06-16, Michael S. Miller said:

Vincent: You're quite correct about the time lag. And also the inevitability that someone is going to fret that the time lag is a bad thing. Put "misfit AND games" or "hit AND parade" into the Forge search function to see folks like Paul Czege and Matt Snyder worrying about this and related development-time issues as far back as 2002.

Ben: Would it be rude to point out that With Great Power... will have several semi-digested chunks of juicy My Life with Master-ness, particularly of the players creating the Master, um, er, supervillain variety? Would you expect anything less?

Jason: I'm not seeing the connection between wider distribution and faster development. If anything, wouldn't the business hassles eat into development time? What am I missing?


13. On 2005-06-16, Sydney Freedberg said:

Good stuff. But! (of course) - two counterarguments:

A two-year cycle of innovation is "slow"? Are you kidding?

It's as fast as the Moore's Law period for computer processing speed to double, and even in computers all that does directly is allow flashier graphics and, often, really sloppy programming that relies on sheer power instead of good design to run at reasonable speeds. How big an advance is the latest Microsoft Windows/Explorer combo compared to that of 2003?

And outside the field of computers, two years is an eyeblink. In my field, national security, it takes two years to put a Pentagon budget together, 10-15 years to field a major weapons system, and anywhere from a year to a generation to shift strategic thinking.

So two years? Wow!


Yes, screwing around with new mechanics purely for the sake of being innovative is Not So Great. But! Ever heard of the Burgess Shale? It's a particular rock formation that has a staggering variety of fossils in it—more fundamentally different ways of arranging the body (phyla) than exist in all subsequent evolution. (I'm cribbing shamelessly from Stephen J. Gould's Wonderful Life here; I'm no paleontologist). The key thing about the Burgess Shale is that it preserves fossils from the "Cambrian Explosion," a very early period AFTER the basic principles of organizing a multi-cellular life form were evolved but BEFORE there had been a mass extinction to weed out the designs.

Now, combined with the fact that two years is a fast cycle time—D&D splits off from miniatures gaming say, circa 1974-1975? That's only 30 years ago—one generation! ANd much of that time was spent, as it had to be, thrashing out "uh, what is this new thing anyway?" and running basic variations on the original wargaming structures, rather like Precambrian evolution throwing out lots of slightly different ways to be a single-celled organism.

I don't know the hobby history too well, but the earliest conflict resolution/fortune in the middle design I know of is Story Engine from, what, the mid-nineties? (There are probably earlier examples). By analogy, roleplaying game design is hitting its "Burgess Shale" period: We've got the basics, we've just opened up to some radically different ways of playing with them, so now it's time to try a zillion crazy combinations. Most of which won't work, true. But it's worth exploring the entire space of what's possible.


14. On 2005-06-16, Vincent said:

In fact, when I said "My Life with Master's children at GenCon this year" I was specifically thinking of With Great Power...


15. On 2005-06-16, Ben Lehman said:

Okay, fair enough, "With Great Power..."

In my defense, I haven't read it.  (Does that count as a defense?  Probably not.)

Nonetheless, I think we're beginning to see seriously MLWM influence in *a great deal* of games being designed right now, rather than just freakish early outliers.



16. On 2005-06-16, Eric Finley said:



17. On 2005-06-16, Vincent said:

Okay there, Eric? What's up?


18. On 2005-06-16, Eric Provost said:

Very inspiring Vincent.

In that light, I see myself as the journeyman designer.  I've learned the basic lessons and now I'm onto a basic project.  I'm excited about it.

And I'm going to agree and disagree with Jay's first post up top there.  Too much theory is distracting, confusing, and disheartening to a novice.  Like throwing an advanced calc book at a kid learning fractions.  But, there are some lessons the novice really has to learn before they can be considered a journeyman.

The most important lesson that comes to mind is that you've got discover what you really want from gaming before you can design a game that can give you what you want.

Some Forgites, theory-heads, and other denizens of the Ivory Tower tend to forget this early lesson as a given then turn about and get confused and frustrated by the novices that answer the basic question with "I want a game that's realistic!"  An answer that only demonstrates how many budding game designers there are that not only don't know how to answer that basic question, but don't even know that it exists to be answered.

I had some other gibberish about the indie-designers that follow the theory-heads, but it got out of hand without a solid point.  So I scrapped it.



19. On 2005-06-16, Eric Finley said:

(Just teasing Ben for his choice of words.  Read that with a big-ass grin all over it.  I definitely include myself as well.)

So, here's an on-thread question in atonement:

How do we better help out the first-time designers... the new apprentices, too raw yet to know not to grab the hot irons of verisimilitude without the tongs of No Myth?  Seriously, right now the system we have for that sucks eggs.  The Forge and anyway have been our answer to date, but I get the feeling that between those who turn away out of prejudice, those who go into theory overdose, and those who try and try and sorta kinda get it... we've burned far more fingers than we've saved.  This isn't to say that it hasn't helped.  But using the blacksmith analogy, we've got a crowd out in the yard yelling "Oh, and by the way, don't grab those irons without yer gloves on!" in cacaphony with a hundred other things at all levels of sophistication.  We don't have a master smith in the room to see you reaching for burnt fingers and point you to the tongs hanging by the fire.  We don't even have a well-intentioned journeyman working on his own stuff on the other side of the room, looking over once in a while to head off theoryitis and GNSquabblia.

Is open-source, open-community necessarily the best way to do this?  It's freewheeling but, I suspect, pretty inefficient.  Go to work at a company and you won't find education of the new hire being left to "if you have any problems just post 'em to the intranet and someone'll answer you eventually."

One could make a case for the IGC being a slightly more focused attempt at something of the sort... but it's still pretty diffuse, innit?

- Eric


20. On 2005-06-16, Meguey said:

(Just popping in to say I really dig (ha!) Sydney's post about the Burgess Shale of gaming, and I like what that means for my kid's future games. The rest is all good, too.)


21. On 2005-06-16, luke said:

yay! It's a small press rpg pep-rally! rah, rah, rah!

I'm with you Vincent. (can I call you "Vinnie"? Please?) ;)

I want to crack kids upside the head who tell me about their be-all-end-all 400 page rpg that they have been working on for years.

Contrary to what it may seem, I spent years and years noodling with mechanics and designing other little games afore I published BW. Even so, it still shades between apprentice and journeyman. There's stuff in BWC that I'm really proud of, and stuff that's plain ol' embarrassing.

But BW benefitted mightily from stepping into the evolutionary cycle begun at the Forge. BWR is simply a higher order of game than BWC. It's got its ducks in a row. But it sure ain't my masterpiece. At least I hope not. I've got so many other ideas!

So to all you I say, work diligently and constantly. Work with goals in mind. Publish your games, even if it's only 3 copies! And keep designing for the now.



22. On 2005-06-17, Avram said:

Eighteen months? Jeez!

The web was invented in 1992, the first betas of Netscape Navigator were released in 1994, CSS became an official web standard in 1996, and just this past year or so we've finally got good, mostly standards-compliant web browsers.

I once (15-20 years ago) read a bunch of stuff by Buckminster Fuller, who said that each industry has a time scale over which it can accomodate major new ideas. He suggested that for housing (he was trying to develop cheap pre-fab houses) that time scale was, I think, something like 75 years.

Don't let me catch you whining over an eighteen-month evolutionary cycle.


23. On 2005-06-17, Michael S. Miller said:

Eric: You're right that much indie game design is currently taught by the swimming pool method—push 'em in a see who doesn't drown. There is

some mentoring going on, but you just can't see it. It's done mosly over e-mail and PM since "mentoring in public" is rather oxymoronic.

One of the horns of the dilemma are that those who've got a good grasp on what they're doing and could teach are really busy designing games. Teaching takes away from that. How do we balance the demands of designing with teaching design?

The other horn is the commitment-level of those who would learn. I recall Paul Czege telling me of one aspiring designer with whom he corresponded in depth for quite a while about his project—showing him the ropes. And then one day the guy just decided he didn't want to follow through any more and left. It's his decision, of course, but think of all the time & energy Paul spent for no reason. It's discouraging. How do we separate the earnest, committed "apprentices" from the dilletants?

I've got no answers for either. But any new instructional system would have to address both.


24. On 2005-06-17, Eric Finley said:

Mike - Those are good points.  Thing is, those are also points which are by no means unique to the game design field; anything that tries to teach a high degree of craft (which term I now use in a slightly different manner than is in Brand's screwdrivers thing, though they may be related) will have had the same roadblocks.

About the only useful thing I can say about the first one is that more games should feature this balancing act within them.  Might work really well in a multigenerational RPG, a Pendragon or Aria knockoff, where the master smith must choose between a commitment to his masterwork and a commitment to his students - with the latter half made real because in not too many sessions, those students are gonna be the PCs.  Back out in the world of game design, about the only thing you can say to this is "Yup, dangit, that sucks."  Or invoke (falsely and perniciously IMO) the old adage - those who can, do, and those who can't, teach.

The second horn you cite has a little better handle, I think.  In other trades and historically, there are three things keeping the apprentices showing up to slog the trenches.  Number one is the promise of reward.  Master machinists make a silly wage, if they're being properly paid; those guys are wizards.  Other areas may not quite have the same gleam, but nonetheless in context they're usually the promise of a good living - either a solid, reliable lifetime income (carpenter, electrician) or an unreliable but high-potential one (painter, sculptor).  Number two, which requires number one to be in place first, is a financial commitment.  Dunno how common this is these days; but in days gone, as I understand it, your father paid big money to apprentice you to the right master.  As with paying for art up front, you're committed now, backing out has a price.  And number three is the joy of craft, the commitment that we all have to our labours of love.

Working with just one out of three, I'm not surprised Paul's friend had trouble staying the course.

Now, we can hope that the Burgess shale model implies that in ten years, Vincent and Clinton and Paul can quit their day jobs and make huge bags of cash doing what they love.  Which would address number one and enable access to number two.  Until then, however, we're somewhat stuck.  One lesson to take away from that, though - working to get indie games into the public eye and generally raise their profiles should be considered a service not only to those who currently love it, but to those who someday may want to stick it through an apprenticeship but for whom (as it is for most of us) love is just not enough.  Kudos to Andy Kitkowski, for instance.

But let's turn the observation that these are not unique dilemmas around.  So, given that every other trade in the history of man has had to work through these two impediments in its inception, can we find any good resources to tell us how they did it?  Off to the library, perhaps...

- Eric


25. On 2005-06-17, ludisto said:

I work in publishing, specifically high school textbooks, and the development and production schedules for a new edition of a current book are usually around two to three years.  A new book (when it's not being fast-tracked for timeliness, like our E-Commerce title) is usually five or six years in the making.

If anything, the best thing I learned coming here is to stop thinking of my own writing in such short timelines as I was: not "Get this written this month and published in three" but "Get this published in 2007."

Now you could also think of RPGs in terms of genre (broadly, broadly considered).  How long did it take to develop the novel as we know it today?  I'm sure the speed of communication (shortening the writer-publisher-reader feedback loop) will make the development of RPGs take a little less than the hundred years it took the novel, but still—we're not in any hurry!


26. On 2005-06-17, JasonL said:


"—we're not in any hurry!"

Well, that depends.  This is such a niche industry these days, it's possible that without a significant breakthrough success beyond D20, that the rpg design industry might die out.


"Oh, it's you...


27. On 2005-06-17, Ben Lehman said:

Jason L—


Are the players just going to up and disappear?  Are the designers going to somehow stop designing?

The strange, incestuous, sometimes-larcenous, often-exploitive set of companies and distributors that make up the present "RPG industry" might die out, but that means pretty much nothing for guys like Vincent and myself.  I'm going to keep making games as long as I enjoy doing it, and selling them to whomever wants to buy them.



28. On 2005-06-17, JasonL said:


I know that guys like you, and Vincent, Ron probably, me maybe, will continue to make games, and in some cases try to sell them.

I guess what I'm saying is, who is gonna be on the ohter side of that equation?

I'm not saying the current industry is cool, you'll have to look for the RPGPundit for that.

I'm saying that I'm not convinced there's a critical mass of newcomers to the hobby, and that would be helped by an honest to gosh, well designed, breakthrough game.*

If the twisted industry such as it is dies out, our chances of seeing that are reduced.

I'm not being bleak - I'm trying point out some potential reasons why we might light more speed in our development cycle, not saying they are destined to happen.


"Oh, it's you...

*I so want to be able to walk into my local Wal-Mart and see a shelf devoted to games like Dogs, Sorcerer, MLWM, Dust Devils.  That'd be cool, is all I'm sayin'.


29. On 2005-06-17, Emily Care said:

How long did it take to develop the novel as we know it today?

If you date it back to Murasaki Shikibu, it's been a thousand years.

The Burgess shale example made me think about the fact that there were so many more species at that time than before or in the past. That means that there was also a huge die out period. I am put in mind of the huge proliferation of collectable card games after the first huge success of Magic: the Gathering.  Am I correct in thinking that most of that huge influx are no longer around?  So what caused that? Selection based on availablity of resources.

What is fueling the diversity of innovation currently are the low entry costs, and therefore a relatively large pool of potential resources.  It's similar to the explosion of independent & experimental film makers when super 8 was created, people like Maya Deren started doing amazing things with film because they could have access to the technology at a reasonable cost.  Its the huge cost of creation and the choke-hold on distribution lines that make hollywood's fare so lukewarm, and it's likely the same thing that keeps most mainstream games low on the innovation end. Until some new innovation gets proven (ie becomes a huge enough hit) the big names won't go there. After it becomes trendy, everyone would start imitating it and so the initial creativity would get watered down.  (I've often imagined something like what went down with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles happening to Puppies. Guess we've got to wait a bit to see the movie, though. :)

But right now, the risk of innovating is really low. People can pop something on the web, essentially for free.  We'll see what develops with the indie game field, but for now, I'm grateful to be able to be here now witnessing some amazing stuff.



30. On 2005-06-18, ludisto said:

I'm saying that I'm not convinced there's a critical mass of newcomers to the hobby, and that would be helped by an honest to gosh, well designed, breakthrough game.*
*I so want to be able to walk into my local Wal-Mart and see a shelf devoted to games like Dogs, Sorcerer, MLWM, Dust Devils.  That'd be cool, is all I'm sayin'.

—Jason L

Ever seen the How to Host a Murder series of games?  They're roleplaying—actually LARPing, really—and found a very successful following for a space of five years or so.  The people who bought and played these games weren't gamers: they were people like my Mom.  Potential customers need not already be gamers to buy and play that breakthrough game when it comes—if it's really that good, Joe Anybody off the street will be able (and willing and interested) to pick it up off the shelf.

Like many I always use the term "RPG Industry" in scare-quotes.  It isn't an industry any more than personal computing was an industry in 1980.  Sure, there are some companies that are barely making a living off of it, and lots and lots of hobbyists, but until S John Ross doing full-time freelance game design isn't an experiment, we do not constitute an industry.  Losing the handful of companies and their ten or twelve full-timers would not be a crippling blow to the hobby any more than losing sword replicator companies would end the SCA.


31. On 2005-06-18, Paul Kimmel said:

Vincent, the bit you wrote about the number of hours it takes to develop your craft rings true for me as well. I read the same kind of thing in Michael de la Maza's book, Rapid Chess Improvement—but his estimate was 2400 hours. Let me use de la Maza's book to make a few observations:

I was a little shocked that de la Maza's program includes zero theory—no strategy, no opening study, no pawn structure analyses—nothing. His "program" is based on one very simple idea: if you practice seeing how pieces move and interact on the board, you will discover more great moves and make fewer bad moves in your games.

But by "practice" he means, "practice in a structured program designed to improve these skills". And it assumes that there is already an established body of chess knowledge out there for you to draw upon. This is really important. You can't teach yourself to play chess really well. You can only teach yourself to be a patzer.

And the purely practical exercises he suggests that will help you reach your goal are mind-numbingly, excruciatingly boring. Chess players are drawn to theory because they think it will give them a shortcut past this kind of practice. But there is no shortcut. 2400 hours of progressively more intense tactics puzzles and board vision exercises will get you there, but it will also make your eyes bleed.

And the last connection I'd draw to de la Maza's program is that it includes the element of saturation. On the last day of the program, for example, you do what you initially did in 64 days in 24 hours. But still, this is just the study plan—the same old boring stuff—and you go through it seven times in five months.

And all of this also reminds me of something I read in Don Fogg's Way of Bladesmithing: "The apprentice in a Japanese sword smithy spends the first year chopping charcoal." Discipline. Repetition. These are the things that are necessary.

To improve my craft at anything, I don't need to study theory and I don't need to innovate, I need to practice the basics until they become second nature. The question is, "What are the basics of this craft?"


32. On 2005-06-18, xenopulse said:

That's a lot of time investment. Certainly something I can't reasonably do within a couple of years.

Many people, including myself, like to do design as a recreative activity. It tickles my mind, it allows me to come up with things I like to play, it improves my actual play. Maybe that's why I don't see myself actually publishing anything anytime soon, though a couple of my ideas seem worthwhile to pursue.

It's the same with my music, really. I've been making songs on the computer since 1996 (on my Amiga), and many of them turn out good enough to share or listen to. But they're not worthwhile selling; I can't find hundreds of hours for mixing, editing, fine tuning, etc.

I'm an ideas person, not a details person, and I only have so much time to work on the details of anything. So I guess I save that time up for my writing.

I still do the other creative things for fun, though. And maybe some idea I throw out somewhere sparks something else, and that alone makes it worthwhile for me.

- Christian


33. On 2005-06-18, Ben Lehman said:

I'd like to note that the numbers that we are throwing around (2400 hours, 5000 hours) are

1) Minimums
2) With competent instruction

We don't have competent instruction in game design yet.  Any field of it.

I have been designing games all my life.  I have been seriously designing RPGs for fourteen years.

I'm still not very good.



34. On 2005-06-18, Paul said:

The question is, "What are the basics of this craft?"

Actual play. Lots and lots of it. Your goal is to get to where there's a high incidence of fun in your game sessions relative to time spent. (And not fun from side conversations. Or shared enjoyment of your group's individual subculture. But from the actual gaming.) And to where you have a developed awareness of the social architecture of consistently fun gaming. Play some excellent games. But also lurk the design forum at The Forge, find games in development that interest you, play them with your group (or assemble a group for this purpose) and offer feedback to the designer.

This is a hobby. All of us, no matter how long we've been gaming, thinks like a designer during play. You become a designer-to-be-reckoned-with when you get to where you're so much better aware of the architecture of fun play than average, and so much more consistent, that you can teach it to others.


35. On 2005-06-18, Paul Kimmel said:

Paul, I think that's an excellent suggestion. But I'm going to stick with the de la Maza analogy a while longer, because it hasn't run out of steam yet.

Actual play is a big part of de la Maza's program as well. But here's the thing about learning from playing games. Playing lots of games will slowly, gradually help me improve my game, but it will never enable me to overcome my blind spots. Nor will it help me overcome the quirks of my little circle of friends.

"The basics" refers to the foundational elements of the craft. In chess, it comes down to seeing where the pieces can go. In drawing, it comes down to rendering line, value and negative space. So, what I'm talking about is what comes before and in between the times spent doing the activity in question (i.e., playing rated games, making finished drawings). It's the board vision drills (in chess) or the series of figure studies (in drawing). Until a person masters the basics, they can only become so competent—an accomplished patzer, if you will. It's the same no matter what the craft.

The experience of gaming is too complex—and allows for too many interpretations—to serve as a drill or training exercise. But it's precisely through drills and training exercises that a person learns to master their craft.


36. On 2005-06-19, Vincent said:

Paul K: "The experience of gaming is too complex—and allows for too many interpretations—to serve as a drill or training exercise. But it's precisely through drills and training exercises that a person learns to master their craft."

I taught myself to cook. It took, oh, about five years to get consistent, and another two or three to get any good at it. I didn't have any (live) instructors, I just read dozens of cookbooks, cooked hundreds of meals, and ate critically whenever I ate. I didn't drill, as such.

It seems to me that you can teach yourself game design the same way.

There's something Paul non-K is getting at that nobody should dismiss, but I don't think that any of us have managed to articulate it yet. There comes a moment where you stop thinking about "how does this rule work?" and you start thinking about "how are people going to relate to this rule?" You develop a sense, like developing a taste in cooking, you develop a sense for what rules people are going to relate to well, vs. what rules people are going to relate to as intrusions, what rules are going to seem too fiddly or vulgar or dull, even if they work.

Lots of appretice-work games have this quality where the rules work, but they aren't, y'know, sweet. They leave you going "yeah, that worked okay, but I bet there's a more tasty way to do it..."


37. On 2005-06-19, Paul Kimmel said:

Vincent, I'm not dismissing Paul's suggestion. But I think we're talking about two different things here. When you say, "It seems to me that you can teach yourself game design the same way." I'd have to say, "Sure." But if we're talking about taking the craft of RPG design to the next level, I'd have to say, "No way."

Or, to put it another way: you taught yourself to cook very well in eight years by fumbling around. But I bet you could have done it in two years had you been working with a proven system of chef training.

An art example: I enjoy American "primitive" paintings. They have a directness and "honesty" that's appealing to me. But the artists who painted them made them look that way because they had no choice. I can love these paintings in spite of their limitations or even because of their limitations, but I can't deny that they have limitations. These artists never learned to overcome their blind spots.

It might come off that I think the situation's hopeless—I don't. In fact, I think we're very close to getting the kind of competent instruction that will allow RPG design to blossom as an art form. And perhaps this is the issue: RPG designers at this point in time are all self-taught. Do they resist the implication that there is a better way to learn?


38. On 2005-06-19, Vincent said:

Paul K: "And perhaps this is the issue: RPG designers at this point in time are all self-taught. Do they resist the implication that there is a better way to learn?"

Oh, of course not.

We aren't even disagreeing, we just kind of sound like we are.

"In fact, I think we're very close to getting the kind of competent instruction that will allow RPG design to blossom as an art form."

You may well be right... But if we need a body of masterwork-level designers to draw competent instruction from, "very close" means still many years off. The best we can hope for today is pointers from our fellow self-taughts.

Is there some way we can get competent instruction without a body of self-taught masters? I don't see one, but maybe there is.


39. On 2005-06-19, Paul Kimmel said:

Vincent asked: "Is there some way we can get competent instruction without a body of self-taught masters?"

Oh yes, that's my question too. I just take it as a given that the answer is "Yes." I don't think we need "master designers" in whose footsteps we follow. I think we need to analyze and break down the process by which good designers design.

The answer might be found in similarities to other creative processes (freewriting, for example). I think how quickly we get there depends largely upon whether we see RPGs as "new and different", or "marginally divergent" from existing disciplines.

But hey, I don't want to hog this space any more than I already have. It's just that this has been a burning issue for me since I started working on my own RPG designs. I have years of training in art that has served me well. Fumbling around in RPG design is a frustrating way to go.


40. On 2005-06-19, Meguey said:

Even if there was a body of master-desingers from which to learn, thus resulting in 'the John Jones style of game design' and 'the Sue Smith school of role-playing' etc, we'd all have to keep actually playing RPGs, critically and   consistantly. And there would still be huge new areas of innovation as yet undreamed. And it might be a self-taught designer who gets to that new innovation first. (This is not a reason to avoid learning from each other and from studying the games you respect, of course.)

When I watch my kids game/play pretend, it is clear to me that it is informed by reading/hearing a ton of stories from all over, playing lots of games of various kinds from tag to board games, and determining what rules and systems (see Vincent's threads on same) they want to use. If, as an RPG player or designer, we approach ALL PLAY as part of the research, it seems to me the result will be a more synergistic understanding of the endevor. What do I love about playing Frizbee? How can I get that into my gaming? What do I love about playing Uno? How can I get that into my gaming? What about Risk? Clue? SimCity3000?


41. On 2005-06-19, xenopulse said:

I think we're very close to getting the kind of competent instruction that will allow RPG design to blossom as an art form.

I've seen some very quick learning by newcomers over at the Forge recently, because finally, those people who are self-taught are beginning to understand how to teach it better; mostly by asking the right questions, presenting options, etc.

- Christian


42. On 2005-06-19, Brand Robins said:

Funny enough, if you combine Vincent, Paul, and Meguuey's posts in various combinations (constant interaction with the material, growth of experts, and analysis of learned material) you pretty much get the history of the university/academy as it developed in the western world. The constant, consistent, and systematic accumulation, analysis, and passing of knowledge is a far more potent method of learning than the individual genius model (especially as it can enfold the genius and increase their ability to effect change and growth), and I think we're starting to move that way in game design.

My post in Yud's dice was really about the fact that I think we're still weak in the 'building upon what we've already learned' part of the formula. Now I've since been schooled a little bit on the ways in which there is more of that dynamic that I was originally allowing for, but I think the point still stands. Let us not forget Newton's "standing on the shoulders of giants" aphorism. Yes we need innovation, yes we need constant interaction and systematic analysis of all play, but we also desperately need the ability to build upon each others works in a more solid and consistent manner.

With no real masters in the picture (yet, though I think a few are getting damn close on to it) the journeymen need to help each other and build off of each others' work. They need to bring in those on the outside with sharp new ideas and integrate those ideas. And they all need to constantly return to the field to make sure they are not building castles in the air. I do think that the Forge, and budded journals like this one and Ben's journal, are moving in that direction and away from the splintered individual genius model that has dominated game design for the past 30 years. And I know it will be a slow process, but its one that I think can be speeded up more than a bit if we consciously think about what we are doing and try to build it deliberately rather than waiting for random chance to bring it together.

Plus, I'm just the impatient type.


43. On 2005-06-19, Brand Robins said:

Wow, my apostrophes and quotes went the way of the dodo. Stupid Word.


44. On 2005-06-20, Vincent said:

I took the liberty of fixing 'em.

Soon, perhaps, I'll make it so you all can edit your own comments!


45. On 2005-06-20, Troy_Costisick said:


Great post, Brand.  I have always felt that altruistically helping each other with constructive criticism and positive feedback will greatly aid in developing what we've got.  If each person commits to kindly lending a hand to each new design and especially to each new designer, I think we can greatly improve on each game as it comes out of the pipe.

I think we can already see evidence of people doing this from what Xeno said in his post.  I would say that I have noticed the same thing in others and in myself as well.  We're getting better at distilling the thousands of posts we've learned from into better questions and suggestions for the newcomers.  That is a very good thing.




46. On 2005-06-21, Ninja Hunter J said:

Geez, you don't check up on a thread for a couple of days...

Anyone who thinks the RPG industry is going to collapse isn't paying attention. There's WotC selling D&D, WoD selling their things, whatever the hell they are, and that's, what, like 30 people? And they come out with a couple of books a year? And how many people does Steve Jackson employ? Like 4?

I am assured by the proprietor of my FLGS (a freelance writer for D20 stuff and frequent Pyramid contributor) that no one's making more than stale peanuts, and usually losing even that, writing RPGs with a D20 license.

And how many indie games are being sold at GenCon at the Forge Booth? Isn't it like 15? And how many of them are good at what they do? Let's say 1/3 are good. That's 5 good games this year, more next year.

We have resources that didn't exist when those companies started. To think that that's insignificant is to stare into the face of the whirlwind and wonder why there's no breeze.

Independent publishing - in any medium - is a huge thing right now, and it will become huger because people like Vincent don't need to sell 10,000 copies of something to make a profit with the model we're using. There are so many fewer people involved in the process, the dollars actually start to look good.

I'm hoping to break even at GenCon with Under The Bed. If anyone wants to help me toward that goal, awesome. I don't have too much doubt that I'll break even within a month or so of the end of the Con, and I'm sure I'll turn a profit over the course of the year. This on my first game, which is flawed but at least innovative and, I'm assured by my female, non-gamer friends, is fun to play.

We have tremendous power at our fingertips. Graphic designers, Print On Demand, and Judd all contribute to our viability as a source of revenue (which, if anyone tells you isn't what it's about, doesn't ever have to worry about eating and paying rent). If we're selling enough to make money, that's all we need. If we're selling enough to make a whole living, that's excellent. Getting rich, well, I'll leave that to those of greater design talent and marketing savvy than have I.


direct link

This makes...
Judd go "Me? Ha!"

47. On 2005-07-12, haiiro said:

I don't know what I can add to this, except to say that this post is exactly why I read this site!


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