2011-01-20 : RPG Design, Craft and Discipline

or, Social Context Begins at Home

It comes to me that I won't be able to explain this well.

From my early childhood my experience is of projects. My dad was an architect and I used to play under his drafting table while he worked. The rhythm of projects undertaken, developed, seen through and delivered is as much a part of my life as the seasons are.

Everybody I know loves to make things. I go over to a friend's house at random and I find them busy:
Daphne - kanzashi style silk fascinator with vintage brass leaves
Humanoid, Finished!
A Walk in the Woods
Endless Rivers of Kombucha

I'm hard-pressed to think of a friend who doesn't have a garage, a darkroom, a controlled growing environment, skilled labor, a junkyard of raw materials, a truck or van, weird-ass electronica, machining tools, transmitters & receivers, a proving range, a relic of the golden age past, and booby traps, or at least their non-apocalyptic equivalents.

My kids are growing up thinking that publishing a book is appropriate and reasonable behavior.

Here's more from Ben:

Your ability to design a good game is totally reliant on your ability to understand, overcome, and express your personal failures.

This is also true for other kinds of art, I imagine.

(from April 28, 2005: A thought about game design)

Now, I don't remember now whether Ben was talking about your personal failures as an artist, or your, you know, personal failures. It doesn't matter; as far as I can tell, it's true both ways.

I also don't get excited about the differences between art and craft. When you make a thing, you reveal yourself. You put your personal failures before your audience's eyes along with all the rest. Becoming better at making things, whatever they are, means forming a productive relationship with your own personal failures.

I don't remember where I read this, or what it was about - writing a novel? software user interfaces? - but it's stuck with me as good advice:

If someone tells you that there's something wrong with your game, they're almost certainly right. If they tell you what it is and how to fix it, they're almost certainly wrong.

Internal playtesting is for testing and refining your game's design. External playtesting is for testing and refining your game's text, its presentation. Don't jump too soon from one to the other. You need to see your players' faces and read their body language and stuff in order to know whether your game design is sound. When external playtesters tell you that something didn't work, you need to be able to read between the lines and see what really didn't work, and that means a rock-solid foundation in first-hand play and observation.

Cultivate in yourself the ability to recognize, by feel, when you're wrong about something. Practice being wrong, being correctable, withholding your ego from your ideas. Notice how it feels to have a sound idea, versus an unsound idea; notice how the latter demands a sense of conviction to make up for itself, and the former instead invites exploration. Conviction is laziness; curiosity, exploration, discovery - the fundamental components of creating anything - can't coexist with the feeling that you're right.

Notice how your friends express it when they think you're wrong about something but don't want to just out and say so. (Arguing about movies is good practice for this.) Wanting real working critique - which we are all, sadly, wanting - you have to depend on reading how your friends really feel, not what they say.

You have to be able to see clearly in order to create. If being wrong hurts you, you'll blind yourself to it.

Here's something I wrote a long, long time ago:

On the day that I make peace with religion, I take my muse by the hair and drown her in the mill pond.

Just a thought.

Which I did, and I did, and that was fine. It's not like making peace with religion left me without personal failures. There was a new muse waiting.

Pursue your craft. Better yourself in it with all discipline and humility. When you create, you serve your creation, it doesn't serve you.

1. On 2011-01-20, Vincent said:

Real working critique! I learned it from my dad, on those rare occasions when I could get my child ego out of the way, and then in both art and writing classes in college. I don't know where else you can learn it. It's certainly not part of our general discourse, being both too rigorous and too generous for everyday life.

It IS available, occasionally, in little bubbles when the world aligns for you. The best places I know to look are the Forge and Joshua's Game Design Studio, but even in those excellent places, even when you yourself rise to the demands / the demands, it can fail to materialize.


2. On 2011-01-20, Elizabeth said:

I knew Josh and Casey were ideal people to discuss and playtest games with after a few months of dinner parties together that ended in thorough post-mortems of the food.


3. On 2011-01-20, Paul T. said:

I think this is one of your best posts, Vincent.

I, too, learned a lot about discipline, humility, and hard work due to working on various projects with my father as a kid.

And it's just as true of art, whether that's game design or engraving.


4. On 2011-01-21, Simon C said:

This is good stuff.

I remember a playtest I ran for a cyberpunk game back in 2008 or so that used proto-"moves". There was a thing I was trying to get at with the design, a way of making a game work, and I couldn't make it happen.

The playtest was an awful failure, not just because it was no fun at all, but because I had zero idea where to go to make it better.

How do you strike that balance between admitting your failures, killing your darlings, and moving on, and on the other hand holding onto your vision, chiseling new ways of having fun out of stone, and damning the critics because you [i]know[/i] there's something good in there if you can just get to it?


5. On 2011-01-21, Matt Machell said:

"If someone tells you that there's something wrong with your game, they're almost certainly right. If they tell you what it is and how to fix it, they're almost certainly wrong."

That definitely sounds like an interface design quote. With interfaces it's always a case that people see the consequences of a problem and want to fix those, not the actual problem that really happened two steps back. And what are games if not interfaces of a sort?

Every time I do user testing for work, I'm struck by how playtesting could learn a lot from the techniques used, and the inverse is true too. Gamification is a hot topic in User Experience circles at the moment, but the ideas proposed always seem to take a very cosmetic approach to game design "hey let's give people points and that'll make it FUN!" and so on.


6. On 2011-01-21, eruditus said:

Thanks for that, Vincent.  I definitely see value in this stuff, not just individually but as part of the game design culture.  We all feed on it, not only as game designers but as playtesters too (no doubt we all have to wear both hats often enough).


7. On 2011-01-22, Bret said:

I've seen that quote. I think Neil Gaiman said it about writing. I'm glad you're writing this stuff and I'm glad I'm reading it. I wish I'd gotten a chance to talk with you about game design stuff while you were here! Well, I had the chance. More accurately I wish I was better at bringing it up.


8. On 2011-01-22, Josh W said:

Something nags me as wrong about that conviction thing; I've had ideas that I've taken both ways, with worried fear that they might be wrong, and then, after I no longer needed them, exploration and critique and finding that they /were/ right.

I'd say that a certain sort of conviction is a clue that you don't know how good something is. Either because you're like "this is right because it's the only way things can be" or "this must be right or I must start again from nothing"; you can't compare it to alternatives or you won't.

Another kind of conviction is like the feeling after having eaten too much chilli; this stuff is burning you and you have to get it out. Not a perfect picture, but it's somewhere between that and sending links internet links to your freinds. "I need to tell you this people!!"

Does that mean it's right? Not all of it, but there's usually some kernal of truth in there.


9. On 2011-01-23, Josh W said:

Also, although it's easier to say criticism than support in these kinds of comments:

You're gently expanding beyond good design here, to good human be-ing:

"Building a playtest group" is good for more than playtesting, people you trust to tell the truth (even without meaning to), are good for all kinds of development.

Treating stuff seriously even though it's silly, respecting what you do enough to let it be a project even though it's personal and fun, and a project with edges so it's not just an obsession...

You can't ever really hide yourself from people, get used to being seen, and learning to change/work with what you don't like...

There's a lot of good stuff here.

I suspect you can give some good advice on how to put a project together, digging some of that old dad-experience, I'd be interested to hear it if you want to.


10. On 2011-01-25, Vincent said:

Josh: Well, sure. You never know for certain whether an idea is sound, after all. Cultivating a sense for it just means improving your guesses, not ever knowing for positive.

"I suspect you can give some good advice on how to put a project together, digging some of that old dad-experience, I'd be interested to hear it if you want to."

That's a great question! I'm thinking about that.


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