Wednesday, April 2, 2014


The last entrepreneurial venture that I embarked upon was a reader's theatre performance I organized in 2001, to raise money to cover the cost of living over that summer.  There was an internet at the time, but it was far less connected that it is today; I did not know about blogs, I don't believe even myspace existed (if it did, I never saw it) and there was definitely no you-tube.  As such, I was still doing things in the "old way," which means going with your gut, managing the meagre amount of market research you could with no money, advertising in the print media if at all, and getting people to hawk for the performance using the phone.

The old way sucks.

I cannot figure out why people continue to embrace print media.  I've earned literally more than two hundred thousand dollars working for and selling to the print media, and I don't miss it.  I haven't bought a newspaper in years, I absolutely have no intention of buying any advertising in it for this upcoming summer and I'm glad not to have to work with web presses (which I commissioned work from all through the 90s).  I had an argument with a printer just the other day who is still doing things the "old way," who got upset with me when I asked why his prices couldn't compete with Lulu and Amazon online.  He must be running his print business as a hobby.

What I really love about the present day is the marketing opportunities.  God damn, I love free marketing.  In the old days, if I had an idea for something - say, a button - I'd have to ask a few friends, a sales rep I might know, maybe an editor, people who were at least connected to sales somehow.  Now, I can just put the button idea up on face-book, or here:

DMs Do It
While Running

... and bad or good, I get instant response.

I think there's something very powerful about being able to think through everything in the public eye.  It doesn't mean you have to agree with the public, or even allow your vision to be distracted, but you can get a lot of insight - or confirmation - from others.  I wouldn't call it 'crowdsourcing,' however, since I'm not looking for the ideas to come from the crowd.  It is really more like crowdbouncing ... and I think it's the most important entrepreneurial tool that's come around with the internet.

There's just one thing, however.  You have to be prepared to 1) look stupid; and 2) get abuse.  I don't think 'take' abuse is the right word, because I'm not inclined to take it, or give it any respect, but yes, fact is the abuse is going to come.

It also means that if you're going to crowdbounce your world on your blog, you've got to be a lot more clear about what you mean to do, and how you mean to do it.  And being clear takes a lot of work.  More to the point, you're going to make a lot more errors when you try to be clear, because you're nailing down more specifically what you hope to do.  As an example, when I first put together the post that went through all my maths for my trade system (oft linked), I made something like 20 errors.  They're not errors I make in excel, but trying to write them out, and be clear, in a 4,000+ word post, I wound up getting confused and making mistakes.  Okay.  It was embarrassing, but not crippling, and as the mistakes were pointed out I went back and fixed the post and sorted each one out until people stopped finding mistakes.  I crowdbounced that puppy and now I refer back to it all the time.

The same thing goes for the occasional typos that turn up, or sentences that don't quite make sense.  I'm typing around 50 words a minute while I'm inventing, and going back to change a word or two, and errors happen.  The bullies of the internet would like to believe that pointing these errors out is proof positive that I or you or anyone is an idiot or at least a bad writer, but the fact is, pointing out my errors is editing.  Editing is a normal, healthy part of writing.  Editors are also hard to come by.  Hell, I wish I could put my entire book up on my blog and ask all the readers here to edit the living shit out of it.  Find those pesky missing words that always seem to get dropped from my text, find the errors, find the non-sequitors and mirror words like flaunt vs. flout, so I can FIX them in the text and put out a solid text in a week or so, without having to pay some freaking editor $500+ to take five weeks at it.  Unfortunately, doing that, who would then buy the book?

But my world, your world, we're not selling those things, so we should feel free to draw them out down to the silliest level, to show other people what we're doing, and get back criticism.  Sometimes I think I should just always have the camera running while I'm working on my world - provided I don't have to explain exactly what I'm doing - just to make a record of how long I am at doing this shit, and how patient I have to be.  That's a bit over the top.  I can easily spend forty hours a week working on a map or two, and that's hardly compelling video.  How hard up would the gentle readers have to be to need that?

I'm only saying, there's always room for improvement, and having the whole world at the doorstep to say how is a good thing.

Clay Shirky in the video below makes some salient points about the sort of criticism that works.  Have a look; he makes a clear distinction between what makes for valuable criticism, and what doesn't.

I want to emphasize this statement from Shirky, however: "The most important resource you've got is your own ability to change your mind."  To do that, you have to create opportunities for your mind to be changed.  In the old days, that meant going to the library, opening books, and reading.  And while the internet has removed the first part of that sequence, and made the opening part easier, and increased the likelihood of finding a book that will change your mind, you're still limited by that process to what you happen to read.  If the page title isn't something that compels you, then you'll never read that page, and your mind will never be changed by that article.

The benefit to having the internet is that ANYONE can butt their way into your consciousness and say, "You're wrong, let me tell you why."  It also means that there will be a lot of people who will butt in and say, "You're wrong, stop what you're doing."  This second group of people have to be ignored for the sake of the first group.  You want people to grab you by the collar, you want people to slap you and say, HEY, what the hell were you thinking when you wrote this - don't you know about [blank]?  So long as the second part of the statement is there, so long as they have [blank] to show you, then there's a real possibility that you'll realize you have been wrong ... AND you know what you have to follow up with and what you have to read in order to be right.

The problem with criticism is that all too often, the critics understand the first part, but they don't have the second.  They know you're wrong, but they don't know how or why or where you have to go in order to get the right answer.  Some of them will try to explain why you're wrong, but without a logical argument, it soon becomes clear they're talking from feelings or anecdotal results they've gotten, which has a lot more to do with who they are than it does with what they know.

Parsing though cloudbounced comments isn't easy, but it is definitely worth it.  Particularly if you're not wrong.  I put up that button idea on my facebook, and four people responded with liking it.  Facebook is terrific that way.  It understands that people want to be able to 'like' something without committing themselves to a comment.  Just as people on this blog often write, "I don't have anything to add, and I feel silly just saying I like a thing."

I tell you, I have come to a lot of understandings in the last six years of blogging.  I've had my wars with bullies, I've been a bully, I've made enemies, I've made friends, I've been the monkey dancing and my writing has improved vastly, mostly from having to again and again explain my thoughts as clearly as possible.  I've gotten older, too, in that time, and I've had the opportunity to speak to more really smart people in the last six years than I had in the 16 before that.  I have a little more wisdom than I had.

I am less sure that I'm right.  Often, I think I must be, but I am realizing that getting further and further from what books can tell me about this game, or anything else I might write, I'm less and less sure of myself.  This recent Advanced Guide; there is nothing like it out there.  I can't find it, at any rate.  So I feel like I'm ... out in space, if that makes any sense.  I try to talk to people about it, and I find I can't even do that.  Each of the excerpts I've compiled on the blog say much more in context ... but I can't begin to explain the context without pushing the book out and saying read this.

Researching it, writing it, defending parts of it, is making ME a better DM.  There's no question about that. I'm far more conscious about things I do, than I was before.

An argument I've been making, largely off line, is that we do address criticism or explanations in all the wrong ways.  Something I've become acutely conscious of in creating the book isn't in saying, "You're doing it wrong, do it this way."  Inherently, some will read large parts of the book that way, but it's not the direction I'm taking.  The bigger problem in explaining how to DM better, I think, is that we have no idea why what we're doing is working.

I think most DMs with experience, who are still at it after eight to ten years, have adjusted and figured out how to run a good game.  I believe that's got to be true, or else there just isn't a reason for them to still be doing it.  There are too many distractions in the world that pull people away from play; if a game is out there, and it's been ongoing for a year, that's an incredible achievement in a world where just about everything that's out there is a distraction.  I think we have to acknowledge that, and think along lines that incorporate that reality into what's doing in the game world.

At the same time, I would wager that most of those DMs can't really explain what they're doing well enough to make it valuable for someone else.  I believe that the constant argument, "there's no one right way to play D&D" is really an expression of our mutual frustration at not feeling that we're able to learn much from the way someone else plays.  Not because we can't - but because there's no format, no framework, no language that yet exists to tell us HOW to learn.  Without that positive frame, what we have is a belief in confrontation ... far too much emphasis on being told that we're doing something wrong, and too little emphasis on what we're doing right, and how easy it is to change our minds and fix things when that's crowdbounced back at us.

It isn't just a question of saying, "You run a good world."  What's needed is to be able to explain, "You run a good world, and here's why I think what you're doing is working."  That isn't there.  I don't see that anywhere on the net.  I don't hear anyone making that argument.

We've got to start by looking at ourselves and trying to look past the strategy, the planning and tactics, the tools or our technology or our overall vision, and at the base structure of what we're doing.  How are we addressing other people at the table.  How are we modifying our voice to make things better understood. How are we helping new players or answering questions or making concessions about our visions for the greater good, and most importantly how are we communicating those things to others.

People need to stop being fearful or embarrassed or uncertain or polite about giving positive comments. Positive comments aren't about feeding ego, they're not about being sycophantic or approving - they are about providing road signs that say, "You're going the right direction."  Most of us out here aren't sure we are.  We're spinning out the words and the points in the "old way," without the marketing feedback we want, that makes blogging worthwhile, hoping we're hitting our target and not knowing if we are.

There are easy ways to help.  If you liked the post, say why.  If the idea seems right, say that the writer is going in the right direction.  If that's too much, google+ the damn page.  Yes, google is an evil empire, but its a tool if you're too embarrassed to say why you like something.  We all hate the negativity of the internet. You have a simple set of resources to inject positivity.  Use them.


Alexis Smolensk said...

Coincidentally, having written the post, I'm relaxing by listening to Slavoj Zizek; if the reader is up to it, the post above corresponds quite closely to something Zizek calls "unknown knowns" with this address ... somewhere about 32:30 - but of course, the whole thing must be heard.

James said...

Fine - I like this post because I like the structure (start with the idea of using the internet as a crucible to test your ideas and get feedback, then discuss what sort of criticism is useful and which isn't, ending with what amounts to you saying "please let me know what I am doing right occasionally, just to help me out," which is an opinion I understand). So there is that.

Is there really an objective standard for a good DM, though? While there is clearly much that translates from group to group, isn't it entirely possible that the reason no one really knows what makes a good DM is that the standard is different to each specific gaming group?

Alexis Smolensk said...


I think from my research, I don't think that the 'standard' for good DMing comes from someone making standards. We already know that people respond better in situations where everyone is feels safe and appreciated, where they believe their voice is being heard; we know that we react to stress in similar ways, and that while being overwhelmed by handling a lot of details, we have to recognize why we're getting angry and upset, and why its important to move the game back to where everyone feels safe. These are universal things, not because they come from objective standards, but because we're all human and we react to our environment in human ways.

What matters, then, isn't what game you run, or how complex it is (though more complex is going to increase stress levels), but in how empathic we are towards one another while interacting at the table, how patient, how reasonable and so on ... and ultimately, the best DMs will be those who design for that interaction, who promote it, who make the players feel comfortable, who test the comfort levels with presentation to make something exciting and not, etc.

We're not pointing to how that is important, and we're not talking about how we personally manage it. My players play my game not because its a sandbox, not because its AD&D, not because of my house rules, not because I'm imaginative, not because my world is fun or exciting, but because my players feel safe in my house, and appreciated. This has completely been lost in all the rhetoric.

Because it has been lost, perfectly good DMs who play radically different games can't understand why they're being persecuted when they know they HAVE a good game - because we're using nonsensical standards to define 'good.'

James said...

This is why I look forward to purchasing your book. It didn't even occur to me you would take it in that direction.

The idea of "safety" in terms of assessing a DM has never occurred to me. You are right that this gets lost in the rhetoric around what makes someone good at DMing.

Vlad Malkav said...

I like this post, a lot, for different reasons :

- Well written, a pleasure to read.

- A very nice "old way / new way" comparison, leading to the subject while teaching us.

- It give a welcome and simple image of "constructive criticism" (not sure it's the correct english word), and why other kinds are to be ignored (mostly those that are on the negative side. Positive but "anecdotal / from guts" criticism are welcome, but still lack the "This is why" that is so worthwhile.

- Crowdbouncing, how, what it means, what you get, ... Very useful in our day and age.

- How committing your ideas to text, defending them, culling errors, doing your researches and all the other things you've done made you a better GM, your ideas better, more accurate. It's work, but it works.

- Introspection, communication, evolution. You weight on those, on how we are to look at us, how we are toward others, and how all this can bring us forward. Maybe it's old stuff, I saw that sometimes in different places on the internet, but not much in the RPG world. You're not the only one on this, but it's always worth it to remind us of it. That's important.

- The comments : "My players play my game [...] because my players feel safe in my house, and appreciated". Wow. I also got lost sometimes in the "How to have a 'good' game", thinking the rules, world, sandbox or whatever had any link to why the players play.

So : very good writing, teachings, and ways to developp / pursue our progress.

Can't wait the book...