Friday, June 20, 2014


"Make no mistake.  To improve, the reader will be asked to work."

- Introduction, How to Run

Throughout the book I find myself talking about work and speaking almost apologetically about it in order to make a world.  I'm not apologizing - but it is hard for some to reconcile themselves to the work needed for the project at hand.  When I ask for work, I know the resistance I will encounter.

Therefore, let us look at work and how it applies to role-playing games.  For most, work is a negative word.  We're willing expend an effort to do the things we want, but we prefer the effort be towards things that don't feel like work.

For example, I might enjoy kayaking.  I may plan to kayak several hours in an afternoon, even though I'm new to the sport, knowing my muscles will be sore afterwards.  I might plan a six-mile journey across a large lake, regardless of my exhaustion or my inexperience, simply because I wish to push myself.  Despite this, I don't think of my proposed journey as 'work.'

Yet I will say, without hesitation, that I am 'working' on my world.  I would never describe the effort expended in creating my world as 'play,' even though I may enjoy it as such and have as a good a time working on my world as I might propelling my kayak across the lake.  Where, then, is the difference between the two activities?  Why is one 'work' while the other is 'pleasure'?

For that, we'll need to examine what work is, and why we do it.

In large part, the subject of work has gotten a bad reputation because we typically associate the word with tasks performed for money.  Even if we enjoy our jobs, or do something we always dreamed of doing, we still say, "I love my work!"  We might say, "my work is my play," but there is still an inherent need to make it clear to the listener that we are talking about work.  If we were to say, "I get up every day and commute to play," people would think we were being clever.  They would think, "Oh, he means work."  We are programmed to associate the jobs we do with being work and not play, no matter how much we enjoy them.

To understand why this is fundamental, we must recognize that work serves a purpose.  It is not only that work is an effort, it provides us with something specific.  There is an end result that is separate from our sweat and diligence.  We have changed something about our circumstance, or about the world.

Suppose that I have bought a old house, and the previous owners have allowed a rock wall upon the back edge of the property to crumble and fall apart.  The wall needs rebuilding.  It does, because every time I see the wall, I am reminded that the property is in a sorry state.  I feel like I have bought a house as crumbled as the wall.  Even if I never intend to sell the house - so that rebuilding the wall won't bring me any perceived income - I am still left with the knowledge that the wall needs fixing.

I could pay someone else to do it.  If I did, the wall would look better on account of someone else's work.  They would be grateful for the income and the appearance problem would be solved.  Some people, however, would look at the wall every day and think, "That cost a lot to make it look that good."  That's not a positive thought.  It is the recognition of a loss (the money spent) in compensation for a wall that, in retrospect, may not seem like it was worth the money paid.  We might look at the wall and think, "I wish I had spent that money on something else."  If the wall needs redoing, we think, "That's going to be expensive."

The alternative is to do it myself.  I know it's going to be unpleasant, dirty work.  I know I many lightly injure myself in the process.  I know it will take the whole afternoon, or longer, and that in the end I'll be as sore as if I spent the afternoon kayaking.  I'm certainly not going to be paid for the effort - and I probably won't do as good a job as the contractor hired for the purpose.

Yet, when I finish the wall, I will look at it every day and think, "I did that."  That is something I am justly proud of doing.  I may someday think I could have done a better job, but when that day comes, I know I can always go out and do a better job.  Thus I equate 'work' with 'control' of the situation.  I wanted a remade wall, I applied myself and a wall was remade.

Where it comes to walls, we know that anyone with a good eye can stack one stone upon another in close order and make a reasonable facsimile of what's wanted.  We learn how to build walls with bricks before we go to kindergarten.  A wall is Stone Age technology and even the least competent among us have been educated enough to operate well in a Stone Age culture.  What concerns us far more would be those things which we cannot do and which no one else can do.

Tackling the first.  I cannot at the moment build a laptop from scratch.  I could, conceivably, receive education that would teach me how to do this, which would involve much of my time and effort just to become capable of making a laptop.  With enough training, I could perform the task and eventually find myself working on a laptop of my own construction.  The benefit to doing all that work - for measuring up to training is another kind of work - would surpass my ability to make laptops.  I would gain a host of new skills and abilities that might apply to a variety of electronic devices, as well as greater knowledge in buying objects that others had made.  If, on the other hand, I failed in my studies, I would lose much more than an ability to make laptops.  I would lose the chance to be a more effective and capable worker.

There are, however, many things that I cannot learn, due to time, interest, money or ability.  I am already far past the age for being a member of the military.  If I had joined when I was 19, I certainly would have had the mental acumen to keep up with what I was taught, but the effort of training demands the body of a 19-year-old.  As I am now 50 (or will be very soon), I could not expect to keep up.

I am also a bit old to be a doctor.  If we may imagine that I am going to live to 150, however, due to developments in the medical field, I may have the necessary brain power to apply myself to medicine and be a doctor in eight to ten years (presuming a school would accept me).  However, I have no interest in that work, and I know it would cost me dearly to pursue that vocation.  Therefore, I don't choose to spend the money on a field that would leave me cold.

Finally, no matter how much work I put into it, I am not going to be a professional bridge player.  I have played thousands of hours of bridge, and yet I seem to be of the same basic skill level today that I was in university, twenty-five years ago.  That may be a lack of interest, but I think probably I don't have the mind for it.  I'm a competent player - but that is all I'm ever going to be.

Moreover, whatever I may be capable of doing, there will always be something I don't understand well enough to do myself.  At some point, I'm going to have to pay someone to make that thing or repair that thing that I cannot do myself.  My capacity for work is limited by what I'm able to do, or learn to do, in the space of one lifetime.  That can never be everything.

This brings us to our second problem.  There are things that no one can do for us.  This includes breathing and chewing our own food, and in the field of physics this is called work just as any other application of effort to change our surroundings.  With regards to the subject matter that concerns us, however, the one thing that no one else can do is to make our world for us.

It is true that yes, someone can make a world for us, but they can't make our world.  We can go to the local gaming shop and pick a world off the shelves, one that contains many of the features that interests us, but the world will be one that is designed for a lot of different people with different needs.  It won't be tailor-made for our purposes.  It can't be.  It is expensive to produce in quantity, and so it must be indifferent enough to the individual's values so as to be profitable.  In the long run, the world that we buy will be similar to the wall in the back yard that we had someone else rebuild for us.  We have the wall.  It looks great.  Unfortunately, we didn't make it, so to us it will always be just another rock wall.  This one happens to run along the back edge of our property, so we have the privilege of calling it 'our' rock wall . . . but in fact it has very little personal attachment for us. If we were to pay someone to tear it down later on, we wouldn't feel a pang of nostalgia, remembering the day we had dropped a rock on our thumb, forcing us to finish it the next day.  We wouldn't ache as the old rock wall came down.  We'd only be thinking of what was going to replace it.  So it would be with the world we bought.

If we want to feel a personal connection with the game world, then we will have to make it ourselves. However we may enjoy that effort, we know it is going to be 'work' and not 'play' because in the end, something tangible will result.

Part of the reason why we see our 'work day' as being something unpleasant is because, while we know that something has resulted from the work we do, we're untouched by it.  If I work in a call centre, for instance - because right now I can't think of anyone working in a place more removed from reality than someone working in a call centre - I will have to deal all day long with unhappy people complaining about a product that they have recently bought.  It is horrible work.  I would know inherently that I was helping the company handle their customers, and I might get a sense of purpose in knowing I was calming down a certain percentage of complainers - but there would always be more complainers.  In the end, I would feel that all the work I was doing was futile.  The people who benefited tangibly from my efforts would be far away and completely removed from my experience. They would also be benefitting from the efforts of hundreds of people like me, so that I could only claim a tiny imaginary reward for my efforts, one that was received by a person who would feel, probably, very superior to me.  To them, I am the lowest form of life.  I work in a call centre.

This lack of tangibility in our day-job relationships is what makes work seem like something we hate to do.  In fact, we are encouraged to work much, much harder than we do day-to-day when the work offers some immediate, identifiable reward that results directly to our efforts.  The happiest workers are those who can see the immediate results of their work, particularly when that result lacks any sort of doubt or conflict.  The fellow who builds my wall must worry that I won't like his work, and deals all day long with people who argue, negotiate or lapse upon every payment they're meant to make.  A doctor who heals me receives gratitude, but that is mitigated by the doctor's limitations, so that not every 'healed' patient remains healthy and there are many, many patients for whom treatment fails.

On the other hand, every word I work to write tangibly comes into existence the moment I write it.  I find tremendous satisfaction in that.  I may later change the words, or lament a failure of words, but the actual writing of words is a phenomenal compensation.  That is why I had done it for so long before actually being paid for doing so.  Having been paid for writing done, I can attest that money only improves the experience.

The work that I bring about through writing is certainly something that I feel no one else can do. Another person may write a similar book, but it will never be my book.  My book is unique.  This is why so very often artists who speak about their work equate the process to breathing.  No one in the world can breathe for my body except me.  No one else can produce my work.

My world, likewise, is a manufacture of my personal will.  The manifestation of my world is the immediate gratification for the work I apply to that world.  The result denies any possibility that my work is 'play.'  Play is pleasant and enjoyable, but apart from an enjoyable afternoon, along with a few memories, play is short-lived.  I cannot take out my afternoon spent kayaking and demonstrate my accomplishment to others.  I may show a few pictures - but the pictures will only depict my appearance on that day.  The pictures will not inspire in the viewer the same emotion inspired in me.

My world is quite different in that regard.  When I conceive of a part of my world, then set out to produce it, I am stunned at the final result of my efforts.  It is often hard to accept that I am the perpetrator of the final result.  The Greeks understood this.  Having created great works, and felt the same disconnect for those works that I feel for my world, they invented muses, that would take possession of the artist in order to create the work.  So many artists felt that their memories had somehow lapsed in the making process that this seemed logical.  They could remember working, but they could not remember the isolated moment when the work had come into being.  I have experienced this feeling.  I relate very strongly to it.

When I work, I am focused.  This is different from when I appreciate my work.  Appreciation is very different.  Appreciation is the evaluation of my work, the means by which I determine it's value to me. When I show valued work to others, it is very different from showing pictures of me kayaking.  When others see my work, they experience the same evaluation process as me.  It may not be their work, but they can see the value.  This is my perception while looking at the rock wall in the back yard that someone else made.  I can see the skill necessary to make a very pleasant rock wall.  I can appreciate the work done.

Were I a player, looking through the work that someone exactly like me had done on a world that had turned out exactly like mine - supposing that we were in another universe - then I would be impressed. I would want to run in that world.  That said, however, I must stress that the situation is unchanged from having someone else build the rock wall in my yard.  It would still be someone else's world.  It wouldn't be work I had done myself.  I could appreciate the work done, but I couldn't view it as mine. That is why I am a 'player.'  I don't make the world.  I play in it.

If only there were some means of increasing that involvement, however.  Suppose that we were to relate the world that I make to the real world that sprang of its own accord.  How could players view that world differently than as people who merely 'played' in the world.

That is very simple.  The reader has no doubt guessed it.  We allow the player to 'work' in our world.

In fact, from the beginning, we set out to construct the world specifically so that it can be worked in.  That is fundamental to the world's structure.  While we do create facets of the world that exist as amusement rides, services, distractions and so on, we also manipulate the greater concept of the world so that it can be made to produce tangible results for the players who choose to work in that world.  In other words, we don't just make a world for players, we make a world for workers.

Once the workers in my world cotton to this idea and seize it, there is then no end to the fascination they will bear for the games I run.  There is no degree of fanaticism that limits how they will feel about the world or what they will want to do when I am the DM.  The worker/players will be unrestrained in their obsessiveness about my campaign.  Having tasted that potion, they will find any other game unreasonable in its limitation.

Work is the key.  Not only the work that I do, but also the work the players are allowed to do.  Until we let them work, we haven't let them play at all.


  1. The work can be fun. I like mowing the grass, cutting firewood, and cooking. I love the feeling I get when I finish a piece of art and realize I actually did it. The right work is fun, it even goes beyond "this is fun" because it enables more fun.
    I'm sometimes surprised when my fellow players get so into planning for an expedition getting all the bits and pieces together, making sure there's enough food for the way there and the way back (or the means to process and store new grub)it all seems to be the sort of work some of them go cray for.
    You'll here many voices on the web complaining about "the end game" where politics and planning take the place of action and has so much fiddly paperwork but again that's the sort of work some folks just love. Players that don't DM will show up one night with the detailed floor-plans of the townhouse or castle they want to build, I've had more then one player's code of Hammurabi handed to me; if that's not fun work...what is?

  2. I'm a musician. I also teach music. I say to my students, "You play an instrument, you don't work an instrument."

    I believe if you really enjoy something you are doing, you won't notice time passing. That being said, I then encourage my students to do three things:

    1. Imagine. If they can see themselves as musicians, they are off to a great start.
    2. Practice (daily). Playing regularly, even ten minutes a day, is better than an hour the night before next week's lesson.
    3. Slowly. Getting the technique right first, in slow easy steps, before playing at speed results in a better performance.

    I'm a big fan of fun. The students that follow the above suggestions are a joy to teach. The others? They are there to remind me it's a job. I do my best to inspire but I can't do the 'work' for them.

    Tomorrow I have a group of gamers coming over to play. I know the five (or so) hours of gaming is going to fly by. I doubt any of them is expecting to work. As the DM, I'm expecting to have fun.

    Then again, I play D&D, I don't work D&D.

  3. I appreciate that, Darcy. And it is interesting. As a musician, you ought to read my book, Pete's Garage. It is humour, it is all about being a musician. It was edited by a musician. I was once married to a musician who was a music teacher, who's father was a high school band teacher. I know musicians well.

    But as far as your comment. To write it, you had to ignore every definition I used in the post.

  4. Alexis,

    Thanks for this post. I've been struggling with my relationship to "work" recently, and I was delighted to read your take on it, given how much you're offered to the community, all of which looks suspiciously like "work", to me...

    Eric (ESR / Zrog)


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