Monday, July 24, 2017


Let me ask something: does the reader feel overwhelmed?  I've talked about a wide range of subjects regarding gamer experience: the importance of difficulty, the responsibility inherent in taking up the mantle of DM, rule-making, game structure and function, narratology, modelling, despair at venturing into new game design, reverse engineering as we play games, operational logic and the concept of game flow.

Are you lost?  This is all interesting stuff but how in hell does it set an agenda for what you're going with your world or your game?  Have you already forgotten most of it?  Has it fallen right out of your head?

Don't be surprised.  I'm finding it hard to keep it straight.  My only saving grace is that most of it has been floating around in my head for decades, without my knowing that the academic work I've been posting and deconstructing existed.  Clearly, it's hard to find; and I think that most of this content falls on deaf ears, given that it sets out to correct misunderstandings about concepts such as "fun," "reward," "rules" and "worldbuilding."  These are not concepts that common game makers or users want corrected: they have already fixed in their minds what these words mean and any effort to create a measurement thereto will be bound to encounter resistance.

Yesterday, prior to writing my post about setting, I spent a couple of hours looking for a definitive university-level book on developing a dramatic setting or a game setting, to compare with the examples that I had found online and among juvenile how-to articles.  There wasn't one, at least not that I could find.  I found plenty of books with a high complexity describing setting in Greek tragedy or in Shakespeare, or related to the Bible or other general categories of literature and drama.  Yet I could not find an authoritative, meaningful book on "choosing a setting" as more crude sources would approach the subject.  From my own academic experience with creative writing, I have to admit the matter was never approached in that manner.  I don't approach setting myself in that way.  I would never think before starting a book, "I want to create a story that takes place in such and such a setting; I will make the setting first and then decide what sort of story I want to tell there."

[I know, this seems like I'm going to go back into setting again, but I'm just going around the barn; I'll come back, I promise]

Any story I've wanted to tell has always been about something I believe or something I want to believe; substantially, the most certain sorts of thoughts that it is possible for me to have.  For example, Pete's Garage is about how a fellow approaches not being able to work and live as a musician, but only knows a life lived among musicians.  Pete still knows what he knows about music; he's wise in his manner and he's forgiving of the musician's lifestyle and the musician's quest.

I didn't want to write a story about a music agent or a music promoter, and I had minimal experience with those things.  But I knew a place, Connections, when I was 19 and 20 that rented rooms by the hour to musicians who wanted to practice, where they didn't have to worry about how loud they were.  It was a shit little building downtown that has since been ripped down and made into a parking lot (coincidentally, connected to a place where I worked on the 5th floor for five years in video-on-demand, but that's not important).  To reduce the noise between rooms, the management hung nets on the walls full of ripped up foam rubber, like one of those nets you probably fell into when doing the high jump in high school.  The carpet was old and rotten, with the wooden floors showing through, the place stank, the floors weren't level, the management were assholes and the vibe was equivalent to a meth lab.  Yet I spent hundreds of hours there, moving from room to room, talking to musicians, writing stories in the corner while they played, blasting my ears since I was about four feet from the bass and drums, and loving it.

In writing Pete's Garage, I wanted to recreate that: so in a way, it could be argued that I "invented" the setting first and then came up with a story.  But no.  In fact, I invented the story and then remembered a setting that would work with that story.  If I'd never known a place called Connections, I'd have used something else from my memory.  That's how writing works.  We begin with the idea, then we cast around for concepts that will fit that idea and make it believable and interesting.

If the idea is bad to start with, nothing we do in the way of story, characters or setting will save it.  That's important.  Most ideas are bad.  In fact, statistically speaking, all ideas are bad.  Good ideas are a non-statistical anomaly.  That is why most of the time, creators just steal good ideas.  The chances that you, as a creator, will have an honest to gawd original good idea is a statistical impossibility.

Thankfully, I'm wise enough to know that only means it's highly improbable.  People get confused about that, however.

All this comes back around to the problem of how do to set an agenda.  See, no one taught me to do this thing of reaching back into my memory for things that would fit with a recently acquired idea. It came with time.  And with the understanding that the method will serve bad ideas as well as good ones.  That's important too.  There's no real way of knowing if you have a good idea or not; this is largely what has me paralyzed with regards to The Fifth Man right now.  I go through periods where my complete lack of confidence makes me question the logic of spending any time on the book, like Marty McFly asking, "What they say, Get out of here kid. You've got no future. I mean, I just don't think I can take that kind of rejection."

When my struggle is difficult, I'm weak that way.

But you're fine, right, gentle reader?  You don't experience misgivings like that.  You don't have doubts about your campaign or your players, or about what you're doing with your game or your life.  Everything about your world's design is going exactly as you want it to and you're one hundred percent certain that when you bring in a new idea or a new adventure for your players, they will love it.  One hundred percent.

We want good ideas . . . but at best, we're working with what we have.  No one can teach you how to do that; you've got to experiment and play.  On top of that, you've got to be open to the possibility that the idea you have is bad, even if that possibility is uncomfortable and keeps you awake at night.  Even if that possibility paralyzes you for a time.  It is better that you be aware of your potential failures, of your moving down the wrong path, than blindly stumbling along, happy go lucky, until you've destroyed any and every opportunity you may have had to find your way back.

All this game stuff ~ if you're not self-aware and mindful of your game in this manner, none of this will do you any good at all.  If you're not mindful, chances are you'll never be.  Chances are you're not mindful because you're terrified of what you'll find if you look at yourself, your choices and your game too closely.  Looking at it too closely could result in your discovering that it is all shit.

Chances are, you're not ready for that.  And that you'll never be ready for it.

I envy you, a little.  But then I remember, if I were making my world or writing my book with the sort of cheerful confidence that disallowed me any misgivings that either might be shit, they would almost certainly be shit.  With statistical certainty.


  1. There is, as I believe you agree (please correct me otherwise) a large difference between storytelling and running D&D. Yes, with a story, the author has an idea for a story FIRST. Perhaps they want to discuss a social issue. Perhaps they want to explore some premise. Perhaps they just want to describe some struggle, or tell a good yard about how a character grows/develops/changes due to circumstance. Then the writing...with setting, character, action, dialogue, etc...follows. In aid of the story.

    But in running an RPG like D&D we are (hopefully) not concerned with a plot. Perhaps a situation, but certainly not in the way an author is concerned with the same.

    It feels like...and I'm pretty sure this isn't're forgetting your own mantra. And it only feels that way because you're not explicitly stating it: that the DM works in service to the players. That it doesn't matter the extraordinary awesomeness of the setting, or the cleverness of the situation/conflict presented. These things by themselves do not...CANnot...make a good game.

    I'm going to make an assumption here that I'm simply being obtuse, and that your purpose in writing these missives is in addressing specific fallacies of "DM-think" that are out there on the inter-webs. That you're tired of the same old, same old exhortations to people and are (instead) trying to pop popular balloons of misinformation and stupid-speak that are floating around. I just think the message is a little confusing (or, rather, isn't as succinct as it could be).

    But maybe I'm just being dumb. I HAVE been drinking tequila this evening.

  2. I am tired of the same old content. I've spent eons, seems like, exploding those balloons and none of it seems to be getting me anywhere, either as a person of influence or as a game designer. I want more concrete, more real arguments that produce concrete, usable results. I want to move myself from this amateur-based jargon and contention to a place where fundamentals can be established, where I can talk about the rigidity of the campaign as a design strategy and not a matter of whim or prejudice.

    But I'm not going there alone. I'm struggling to take some people with me ~ and this demands as much clarity as I can manage, given that much of this blog's communication is woefully one-way and I can't even see my listener's face to discover if their on the same page. I know that people are out there, reading this, nodding along; but like nodding on a telephone, I can't see the nod so I have zero idea if I'm getting through.

    This encourages posts like the above, to cover again, as clearly as I possibly can, in the hopes that when I move onto the next thing, the foundation is solid and the reader will "get it."

    Of course, a typical game-design academician doesn't give a shit about that; content is created for a small, select group of individuals who are prepared to teach themselves the lexicon in order to comprehend the inside-referenced incestuous gobbledygook that passes for modern technical writing ~ and if the reader is not able to stretch themselves to the degree of understanding required, all the better, there's only so much room in this ivory tower as it is.

    Stupidly, however, I fashion myself as a teacher. So I write posts like this one.


  3. I'm not sure where you're getting the idea that working in service is an element of the above post. I'd like to get that named so I can extricate it from the context. I am saying that the awesomeness of the setting can't, in itself, make a good game; but I cannot separate in my mind the "cleverness" of making a good situation and conflict and being a good DM. Is cleverness meant to be a pejorative? My dictionary says that it means quick to understand, learn, devise and apply ideas. That sounds like good DMing to me.

    I'm pretty sure that making a clever situation/conflict will, in fact, by itself, make a good game. A setting will then help. This is the point I'm making.

    I just want to support your argument that my mantra is that the DM works in service to the players. You're not wrong there. I will just take a moment and add that a Physical Therapy book was part of the content I used for How to Run, emphasizing that "tough love" is often a great service to others than sympathy and unrestrained patience. I felt it was important to state that clearly.

  4. @ Alexis:

    Ah, yes. I see now that I was missing the point of these posts (elevating the discourse to a scholarly level). Now it makes more sense.

    I'm going to put at least part of the blame on the tequila.

  5. Hi Alexis, just writing to let you know I'm one of those out there nodding along. Thanks for all of your consistently great work as it helps re-frame and re-form ideas on a regular basis.

  6. Thank you Huy. I really do appreciate you letting me know; it's great to know there are many readers out here who I've never met.


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