2005-06-22 : Courage

Over at Esoteric Murmurs, Ed has a great post on the current topical topic of innovation and craft: When I Left You I Was The Learner.

What we have here on anyway when I say things like "That means that Dogs in the Vineyard is my journeyman game. That seems right to me: Dogs feels like my journeyman game," with all the implications that good games aren't good enough, that you just haven't put in enough work to be a master, the hierarchichal language, the guild langauge, all the stuff Ed's quite correctly pointing out - what we have is me bolstering my courage.

Way back in My Working Process and Red Sky A.M. I said this: "And when I finish it, I always look at it worried that inspiration will never strike again. 'Is this all the game design I have in me?' I say."

That feeling doesn't go away.

My confidence in my skills, I find, doesn't survive contact with an actual problem. Sometimes, reminding myself that I'm pretty good at what I do helps me face doing it.

I bolstered my courage at the expense of others'! That sucks. I'm'a try to knock that off.

1. On 2005-06-22, Matt Snyder said:

No, that feeling does not go away. Be wary.

First, let me make sure I'm getting what you're saying. Are you saying that, in describing, say, Dogs as "merely" journeyman work, that you're really "just" bolstering your courage to keep at it? And, at whose expense does this happen? Other creators who haven't labored? That's the part I'm missing—whose suffering (however slightly) at your words.

Now, if you'll humor me, I'll offer my related response to this business of confidence.

I bottled lightning somehow with Dust Devils. In transformed in a very few months into indie design cred for me. Did I deserve it? Looking back, it's a pretty apprentice level game that struck a chord and did right by its simplicity. In other words, I got lucky more than I was brilliant. Lucky, because I had no idea how I did what I did. It just happened that way. I didn't think I deserved genius designer of the year award, but I thought I did deserve credit for creating something, getting it out there, and giving something people to enjoy.

So, I set out for that next game, all the time doubtful I could bottle that lightning again.

Guess what? I didn't. My confidence flagged. Greatly.

It took me literally months to figure out that, you know what, Nine Worlds was actually a *better* game than Dust Devils. But, no one knew it. Part—no, most of that was my fault. (Hell! Part of that was yours, you Dog you! Heh.)

My presentation, and even my own understanding of what I had created, was flawed. (I know that sounds impossible, but it ain't.) But, it was *not* an indication that my design ability had dried up with my first game.

There was a kick-ass game in there that had something to say and created some worthwhile, fun play. But, I was doubtful. I thought, huh, I guess I'm not much of a designer after all. That was pretty stupid of me, but the frustration and doubt was human, understandable. It took a while to understand what I had created *after the fact*. Frustrating, yes. Educational, certainly. Hopeful, absolutely.

I'm saying this: Be wary. For me, that confidence is as much a part of external acclaim as it is internal creativity. I suspect I'm not alone in that regard.

What if Dogs remained wholly unchanged as a written text ... and most people thought "Mormons? Whatever ... what's this Prime Time Adventures game all about ... " ? Would you need to bolster you confidence more? Would others suffer at your expense. I admit the answer for me in a similar situation was and is "Yes."


2. On 2005-06-22, Matt Snyder said:

You know, I have a couple other more concise observations.

1) If you can do it once, you can do it again.

2) I find my own desire to publish on my own, do most of the work myself (in my case, including layout), and own my work can contradict the obvious notion that a team production has serious advantages.

Now, most of the time, we think of that in terms of production. I do, at least—layout, editing, artwork. We do that already. But, we have very few minds working together to *design* a game. Obviously, a teamwork approach has its own disadvantages. But, the indie scene, with its creator-owned mantra, has done very, very little to reap any advantages either. A pity, but I have no solutions. Like I said, there are disadvantages!

Can you actually imagine complete, published and well-designed game with this byline?

"By Vincent Baker and Clinton R. Nixon."

(For folks playing at home, insert your own fav's!)

Where do I send my hordes of cash for such a game? Does PayPal send money to Neverland?


3. On 2005-06-22, Ed H said:

Aw, Vincent, I did *not* mean to get down on you in the least.  Hope it didn't sound that way.

I think that rankings like that are fine as long as we're clear that they're the judgments of particular people in particular contexts with particular values.

On issues of confidence and all that stuff—praise and criticism can both be deadly.  They take your eyes off what you're doing and put them on what other people think of what you're doing.

Feedback is great when it's a matter of "finding out how people heard you" instead of "finding out whether people approve of you."

I've found in art that the thing that is most valuable to artists is a kind of Rogerian feedback, saying back to people what their work said to you.  Not whether you liked it or not or whether you think it's "good" or not.  What it said to you.  Cause then they can learn how their work affects other people and judge for *themselves* whether it's saying what they want it to say.

So "this game is the best thing EVER!" and "This game sucks ROCKS!" are both about equally worthless and dangerous.

"This game gave my players a lot of say in how the story turned out.  This game made it easy for me to cause conflicts which escalated dangerously.  This game made me think hard about right and wrong.  That's why I hated this game, and it sucks—I think the GM should control the story, I don't game to think about right and wrong, but for some fun release, and I would rather not have people feeling worried about how a conflict is going to turn out.  Stupid game!"

You see how the first few paragraphs are pure feedback, and after that comes judgment—and the feedback is immensely useful and the judgment is totally irrelevant because the person doing the judging doesn't share your values about what "good" is?

So—opening oneself up to *feedback* but not making oneself a slave to other's *judgments* because your locus of judgment is internal—that's the ticket, eh?

Babbling again.  I don't know how to talk about this stuff without babbling and tangenting.  I apologize.


4. On 2005-06-22, Ed H said:

Matt, I agree with you that I would throw big money at a game with that byline.  :)  Or even more crazy ones, like "By Matt Snyder and James West."  Now THAT would be a mindblowing design—I love both your work but it's damned different. :)


5. On 2005-06-22, Clinton R. Nixon said:


They found us out. Abort. I repeat, abort.

Seriously, for me, it's not "will I think of something else to design?" It's "will I finish this? Will I actually go through all the effort to write it all down and publish it?" That fear, the thought that I won't or can't, or am not good enough to (a common worry) - those suck so hard.


6. On 2005-06-22, Meguey said:

Y'all, this is so completely the quandry of pretty much any artist I know, including myself. The medium may change, but the self-doubt, the fear that inspiration may never strike agian, that nothing more will ever be finished - I'd hazarad to say universal. There's this huge stack of Un-Finished Objects hovering around in my mental space and sometimes I feel like I'm going to get crushed.


7. On 2005-06-22, Adam Dray said:

I'm with you, Clinton, except I'm all "Will I get bored of this midway and ditch it like I ditched college?" I am my baggage.

I'm pretty sure that I have lots of cool ideas. But I lose sleep over issues of my own endurance, my own ability to keep going when the fun part of the design is done and I'm left with boring details and the hard stuff.

Vincent, when you call Dogs your journeyman game, it does give me chills. I hope my "master" game is as good as that. But if that bolsters your courage, go for it. My insecurities are not your problem, and you're not doing anything at my expense. Bolster your courage and produce your next game. We're waiting for it and we'll learn from it.


8. On 2005-06-22, Eric Finley said:

Y'know, so far in the 'craft' language, one of the things that's missing is any definition of mastery.

I submit that a masterwork is a game whose quality is so clear to you, through even your most pessimistic self-judgment filters, that it overcomes that doubt.  Whether this is actually possible or not remains to be seen.  To be sure, if you have any sense at all of theory, then to reach this point you would need to (a) be damn sure you own the theory, all of it, up to that point, and (b) be damn certain that this game hits all of that, bullseye and square-on.  You have to know that your criteria are appropriate, and then you have to know that your game satisfies them to master quality.

I don't mean that it'll be a magical cure-all for self-doubt... but I do mean that a master craftsman, by demonstrating his masterwork (to himself in this case), has a rational basis for saying "I'm bloody amazing at this."  Just as a journeyman work serves as a rational basis for saying "I'm damn good at this."  To me, this is precisely the way in which Dogs is IMO a fine example.  Because Vincent knows he has cause to say so - and then says so.

- Eric


9. On 2005-06-22, Jay Loomis said:

I've been privileged to meet or talk to one or two masters of their trade in my life. People whose work makes your eyes bug out. The thing that strikes me about true masters is that they don't think much about their work.

The true master is so confident in her work that she doesn't have all the hang-ups that would make her insecure, hesitant, or even boastful. She does what she does and is peaceful in that state of being.

My point is that I'm not sure there is a master of the RPG design arts yet. The craft is young. The participants don't fully understand it yet. That's not a dis or anything, but a statement of perspective. When someone proves themselves a journeyman, they are proving that they have what it takes to practice their craft in the world at large without lots of support. It's a good thing.

So if Vincent's journeyman effort is Dogs, that doesn't diminish the value of Dogs as a game—it's a competently designed game that is worthy of (quite favorable, IMHO)comparison to games of other practicing designers.

Nor do I think that a designer should expect to produce Master quality work after producing a journeyman game. It takes a long time to become a master, even in a field where there are few variables. For a fledgling craft, the road is even longer. Go on making journeyman quality games. If people play them and have fun, you're doing better than most.


10. On 2005-06-22, Eric Provost said:

I'd just like to raise a mug to what Jay had to say.



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