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Doing The Work, Part I

Let’s talk a moment about something near and dear to my heart: the act of game writing.

Or, to be crude (and those who have listened to my recent appearance on The Podge Cast know, I can be pretty damned crude), the act of fucking it up by procrastinating and other bullshit.

Now, if you’re going to write a role-playing game — and I mean really write, not just tinker with mechanics and wank around with your friends eternally brainstorming — you’re going to have to do a lot of work. That work is daunting. I know, because I’ve spent years avoiding the hardest part of the work.

The problem is deceptively simple: there’s no handbook on making a game. Just like there’s no handbook on writing a novel or any other intensely creative affair that is both lengthy and lone in nature. And while I won’t be able to make one in a series of blog posts, I can talk a bit about what I’ve discovered. (My academic findings, if you will.)

Doing The Work, Part I: Learning to Fail

The hardest part for me is the idea that whatever I do will suck. Podcasts, game writing, even this damned blog post — all of them fill me with the dread of failure, private and public. I could have been a freelancer for years now, if I got off my ass and actually did the work. But I didn’t, because of the fear of failure.

“So how did I deal with the fear of failure?” you might ask. Well, first of all the past tense doesn’t apply. I constantly deal with a fear of failure. In spite of having all these people trusting me to make their games better and saying that they’re eagerly awaiting my game being out, I have a shitton of fear remaining. Since that fear doesn’t seem to be packing its bags anytime soon, I had to learn to accept it.

Accepting it means dealing with something I’ve taken as a truth: I will fail. There’s no question. But it’s not like my life depends on my being perfect — if I fail, if I fall down, I’m here to fix the failure and get back up. Even if it’s published, like if I fuck up on my show and don’t catch it until someone tells me post-publication, it’s not the end of the world. (And since that has happened, so I know for sure it isn’t the end.)

So, if I’m “doomed” to fail, what does that mean? Well, I try to take it as a relief. I give myself permission to fail, to write complete shit, if it means getting me to do the work in the first place. After all, the way I see it, my options are:

  • Be forever perfect by never writing
  • Show my flaws — to myself, to others — by writing

“Be perfect in my writing” isn’t a third option, even though I spent five years of myself avoiding significant writing projects because I thought it was. After all, it’s easy to look into a book that inspires us, that we admire, and damn ourselves by believing we’re talentness hacks because we can’t write like what we read in those books. Those edited, revised, polished books.

(Thus the crisis that most writers face: we cannot ourselves immediately produce what we see. Well, writers, and musicians, painters, etc.)

I digress. My point: I give myself permission to suck in order to give myself permission to write.

But you might wonder what the point is, if whatever I’m going to write is a failure? Therein lies the other major lesson with failure: understanding that it’s not absolute.

At this point in the post, I have written just over 600 words. Some of it is crap. And that crap is, in a sense, failure — unclear metaphor, meaningless tangents, confusing prose, etc. But failure isn’t absolute — some of this is (I think) decent material. So, even if I fuck it up by encasing that decent material in a cocoon of failure, it doesn’t mean this was a complete waste of time. Partial failure also means partial success.

That’s what keeps me on this whole “writing” thing — knowing that even though I’m destined to keep failing over and over, there’s something worth preserving and working on amidst The Suck. And the only way I’m going to get to any of that is to keep sucking. So I do, like wading through shit for gold.

Doing The Work means failing, failing often, learning from it and working with it. And the only way you can do the latter two is if you do the former, over and over again.

(Oh, and if it sounds like I’m neurotic, well, maybe I don’t — I don’t know. But I’m sure I’m not the only one with doubts like these, and I’m happy to expose that to the world if it helps someone else Do The Work.)

Part II will happen when it does — I don’t blog to a schedule, and GenCon is nigh. But, hey, that sounds like a great segue to remind people about This Just In From GenCon!

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3 Responses to Doing The Work, Part I

  1. Eric J. Boyd says:

    It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who feels this way : )

    Because I know that a lot of what I write or design sucks, I am soooo thankful that there are people in this community eager to read things over, swap ideas, etc. Of course, the signal to noise ratio out there means that you actually have to do a lot of the work and have the courage to put it out there in all its suckitude to reap the benefits of other people’s input. No risk, no reward.

    Needless to say, we’re eager to see a Mythender draft in all its suckage and help you hammer it into a weapon of awesome.

  2. I agree 100% with you on this.

    I’ve generated the kernel of a hundred games, maybe more. But actually doing the work of generating something playable out of them takes work, maybe a quarter of my ideas have actually been developed enough to be playable. Maybe a quarter of those developed ideas actually make it to my own game table for a bit of additional refinement, and only a fraction of them do I consider worthy of extra work and eventual (possible) publishing.

    But every one of my ideas provides something of benefit, even if it’s just a new way of looking at an existing game or a new method to invoke a specific reaction from my players. Design’s pretty scattershot the way I do it. Sometimes I hit, but more often I’m just laying covering fire.

  3. Micah says:

    Really great article Ryan. Fantastic (and difficult to follow) advice. What you are describing is along the lines of a manifesto written by the graphic designer Bruce Mau. It’s packed with lots of good advice about the graphic design process but most of it can be applied to game design as well.

    Specifically, your post reminds me of this principle: “Process is more important than outcome. When the outcome drives the process we will only ever go to where we’ve already been. If process drives outcome we may not know where we’re going, but we will know we want to be there.”

    The rest of the manifesto is here if you are interested: http://www.brucemaudesign.com/manifesto.html