Posts Tagged ‘game writing’
I’m loving Apocalypse World right now. I should just get that out of the way. I’ve played it a few times, sadly just as one-shots or really short games. I’ve run it once, as a con game. And I’m even now starting to make notes for a hack, where I marry AW’s play style with the sweet, sexy stylings of Unknown Armies. (Forum post about it on Story-Games, in one of the sections that for some reason requires you to have an account to view. Easily enough done, though.)
I was talking about AW with folks at PAX this past weekend, and one thing that came up was how I don’t like how History is explained — in that it’s poorly explained and confusing as hell. Things made more sense when John Harper talked about how that was Vincent’s intent, how he sees frustrations a group has to overcome as a bonding experience. (Hopefully someone on the Internet can point me to an actual discussion, as while I totally hear what John’s saying, I’m curious to read Vincent’s own words about it. Thus, the rest of this post is about what John said rather than anything else. EDIT: See the first comment for actual text.) I flippantly replied with something like “Yeah, and Stockholm Syndrome is a great way to meet women.”
That decision to inject frustration there for the point of the experience sort of bothers the fuck out of me, and sort of doesn’t in the least. Yay for ambivalence. I wanted to take a moment to unpack my thoughts on that.
How it doesn’t:
- Shared experience is the heart and soul of RPGs, both in the direct sense (my group did this thing, and we can keep talking about it) and the indirect (my group did the same scenario your group did, and it’s neat to compare/contrast).
- We should admit that game design is mind control. There are tools and techniques at our disposal, and as game designers we play the role of amateur practical psychologists. We already do it with reward mechanics, so why should this feel different?
How it does:
- You can come off looking fucking incompetent — either as a designer or as a writer. Remember, those are different skills. And if you don’t communicate your intent to frustrate in even a roundabout way, well, it just looks like shitty text. I personally give Vincent credit in this arena, but if some designer I was completely unaware of pulled the same trick, I would throw the book across the room and use impolite terms to refer to his or her parentage. So one really only gets a pass if their readers know you enough to, well, give you a pass. (Edit: I should also note that I didn’t realize it was intentional until John said something.)
- It might not work. I’m frequently in unequal states of mastery at a table, and AW is no different. When I ran a con game last month, I walked them through Hx saying “Yeah, it’s confusing. Here’s what you do.” I overcame the frustration for them, because I didn’t have the time to deal with it nor the desire to make my players hostile against the game.
- I see little benefit in turning the players against me and questioning the confidence in my text. Especially as early as character creation. If they get past this frustration without realizing that was the point of the exercise, any later legitimate frustrations they’ll have will be colored by that earlier experience, and could lead to judgement calls that go against the game and break it.
I’m not trying to say that Vincent’s call is bad. Really. It is fucking interesting. And as I always do, I applaud those who try interesting shit because it gives the community more data and more thinking points. Of course, AW is working for a shitton of people, including me and the folks I’m going to keep running it with. But contact with this idea makes me better understand where my own lines as a designer & writer are.
And I’m not against frustration in games per se. Overcoming adversity, including in frustration, is the hallmark of adventure design. Keep on the Borderlands, man. Shoot, it’s a hallmark of much of computer gaming. So I’m not at all knocking that as an idea. But I better understand now why it’s a writing choice that’s alien to me.
Still, I’m glad Vincent did it. I learn more from people who present very different experiences and viewpoints than when I live in a damned echo chamber. And now I’m left wondering how to achieve that effect while minimizing those issues of mine mentioned above.
(Now let’s see how flamey the responses get as people assume the tone of voice I’m using is harsh. Yay for inflectionless text!)
 Those who know me know the highest praise I can give a game is “I think I want to use this to play Unknown Armies.”
 Doing posts of PAX recaps seem to be all the rage. Perhaps I will as well.
 Responses that don’t get this will be deleted. Fair warning.
 My lines as an editor are, funnily enough, somewhat different.
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!