Friday, February 21, 2014

Dead Filaments

Earlier this week I was told by a friend that one of the unique qualities of this blog is that it looks at D&D from a perspective very outside the usual echo chamber of the community.  With this I must agree.  Any time I feel - as I do now - that I haven't got anything in particular to write about, the last thing I can count on is picking up a subject somewhere else.

Looking around today, I see a review of the war game Cruel Necessity; a post about Pokemon (for gawd's sake ... still?); an ongoing debate about megadungeons; a discussion about alignment; buying stuff on Craiglist; a post about Toy Fair 2014; a post about D&D's 40th anniversary; cats posing with D&D books (which is just fucking sad); improving your kickstarter; a haiku about a ghoul (complete with original Monster Manual artwork); and - worst of all - more of this fucking Bloghop crap.

I swear, if I had to rely on this for my morning RPG fix, I think I'd kill myself now.  Happily, I don't.  I'm listening to a German professor, Armin Trost, lecture about Human Resource management ... exactly the sort of thing that would make most RPGites bleed out of their ears.  On the other hand, it is actual knowledge; it takes actual effort; and it actually tells me things I did not know previously.  After a certain point, the worst thing about reading blogs is that you come to the end of anything new that might be said - which has already happened for me.

So, when I have to look for something to write about, I can't look at blogs anymore.  That only produces the sort of post that goes, "Hey, wow, look at this really stupid thought this guy has; here's why it's stupid."

People tell me they don't want to see those posts any more.

So ... it's Friday and I need something to write about.  What occurs is the pattern that professors adopt in speaking to students, in which things must be said in the most pedantic way possible in the hopes that someone who doesn't understand the basics of intuitive thought might make the mental leap necessary.  Trost, for example, has a video on his youtube about learning facts by heart and why it fails.  His point is almost painfully obvious; I'm sure it hurts him that he has to make this point every semester.  Because even university students are painfully stupid.  I remember sitting through a lot of speeches like this in classes, thinking, "for the love of christ, just let the fuckers fail."  But then, I suppose there wouldn't be enough marketing managers in the world, would there?

The reality is that students are wallowing and looking for short-cuts to success, something that will allow them to plug in a method that's straightforward and clear, that will let them solve the problem.  People ... and not just young people ... tend to view every difficulty as though there must be a 'trick' that makes it easy.  Call it the Rubik's Cube theorem.  You get the cube, you puzzle over it for a hundred hours, and you fail to solve it.  Then you buy the book, and it gives you a step-by-step instruction, and there, solved.

The world is viewed as though there must be a book somewhere that explains this thing.  Students go at courses with that ideal:  "I'll memorize the material.  I'll write really detailed notes in class.  I'll copy my notes every night.  I'll use highlighters" ... and so on.  The result is a very ordinary student regurgitating just enough information back to the professor to produce a degree, which then fails to impress most people when the gormless ex-student finds they're not actually qualified.  But that's okay, there's lots of call for marketing managers.

D&D, DMing, roleplaying, these things are no different.  The vast majority hunts through the stores looking for the book, the game, the system, the rule, the process, the ideal, the image and what have you that will finally 'bing' like a lightbulb and make everything clear.  The endless parade of articles about alignment, weapon use, skills, characterization, dice and so on are just attempts to piece together R's Cube into some sort of sense, in the hopes that someone will step forward and say, "AHA, the solution is ..." and all will at last be clear.  Plug this into your system and your players will never have trouble with character-play again.

I wouldn't say that game design isn't worthwhile.  Obviously, it is, I do it continuously.  But the approach taken in these blogs is so ... pathetic.  It's learning how to be an artist by getting really good at Litebrite.  Wow, look at you, you were able to create images with a hexagon pattern and lively colors.  Good for you!

The depth of the world is not found in the drawing of a hex map.  You can't capture the complexities of human interaction and potential in an updated graph of the old alignment chart.  There's no intuitive thing to be learned through semantic debates on the meaning  of 'megadungeon.'  It's dead ground, covered thoroughly by people who are now dead, that's pursued in the hope that by rearranging the blocks over and over that a fourth dimensional space is suddenly going to materialize spontaneously.  Because you're convinced that's how solutions are found.  You try every filament possible and wow, you've invented the lightbulb.

The whole problem with that amazingly stupid story about Edison - and every other amazingly stupid story about an inventor who found something by chance - is that it ignores the creation of the actual glass bladder that the filiment was in, and the connection process of that bladder to the power source - the stuff that was actually difficult to produce.  The filament between the rods was already a foregone conclusion by the time anyone realized that it was necessary.  It took much, much longer to understand how the filament would be energized.

Your world is not going to materialize out of thin air.  It is not going to manifest from throwing mudball ideas at a blank wall.  You are going to have a world when you sit and think for a very long time about what your world's purpose is - and one would hope that would be to create a meaningful experience for people other than you.  You need a plan.

And we need more blog posts about plans, and less spontaneous chatter about half-constructed filaments without power to make them glow.

1 comment:

Taren said...


I like where you're going here, Alexis.

There is detail, and organization of the detail, and meta-organization of the organization...

The real game play takes place in the spaces between the filaments, to continue your sweet metaphor.

Letters of the alphabet are neat, but are not poetry until some greater mind puts them together just so. From ordinary 26 details we are given beauty.

Creating D&D worlds is like that...

I once had an epiphany in a drawing class... I was staring at the model's face and drawing her features, the arch of her hooked nose, the grooves in the lines on her weathered face, the heavy brow ridge... but it wasn't until I stopped looking with my eyes and saw with another part of my brain that I could capture her likeness. I actually defocused, squinted so everything was blurry... and then I could see the shapes that light made on the planes of her face. The features were still there, but cradled within light and shadows. Way better picture.

In the same way, I think your blogs about game design propel us into the details, so then, after we think about it, we can un-see them and create something fun and playable and human.

You're right, a great game is not going to materialize out of thin air...

Are you saying you think your blogs are of the too detailed variety?(The R's Cube analogy?)

I don't.

Because I'm really grooving on reading and re-reading your posts... many of these are the letters of the alphabet, the filaments. From these I WILL synthesize a great game.