“A Good Place to Start”

Welcome back.

This was meant to be posted immediately after a series of posts about race design, but I suppose better later than never.

I want to discuss here, how a reader might best make use of this blog.

One of my favorite sayings as a person is the phrase, “this is a good place to start, but a bad place to end up.”

Here’s what I mean by that phrase:

The same ideas which can help you as a beginner can hinder you as you become more experienced. This isn’t a controversial idea; in almost any discipline, a person with experience will accumulate habits and principles which supersede the habits and principles that they had as a beginner.

The three blog posts about race design all fall under that phrase. The vast majority of my blog posts, in fact, fall under that phrase – they are good places to start, but I hope the reader evolves beyond them. They are bad places to end up.

It’s useful, for instance, to have this vocabulary I’ve given you – associative vs. dissociative, memetic weight and stability – it helps break up components of game design into digestible chunks. However, this same compartmentalization can become a limitation if you never graduate beyond it.

After all, if you actually talk to the authors of fantasy novels and games about the races they’re most excited about, you’ll find that often the answers don’t even come close being highly understandable. Creativity can push people to make things for all sorts of reasons, and the design priorities of a developer for Eclipse Phase, for example, may be such that memetic weight is an afterthought.

antology_1
Sample Character, Eclipse Phase 1st Edition 

The designers of Eclipse Phase want to create a game about transhumanism in space – they’re not going to care if an uplifted octopus isn’t the easiest “race” to understand – one could even say the challenge of playing something so outside our cultural consciousness is part of the joy of playing a game like this.

As for associative and dissociative design, while it is good to know the difference, we should acknowledge the success of games like Monsterhearts and other story games, where the mechanics of the game facilitate genre emulation.

In order to emulate a genre, the actual actions you take within the RPG are “translated” through the mechanics into particular consequences that best befit a genre – thus blurring many of the typically clear-cut boundaries between associative and dissociative design (to better grasp what sort of genre Monsterhearts is after, I recommend reading this Guardian article about the game). Using associative and dissociative too strictly to analyze story games is often an unproductive exercise, because the goal of a lot of story games is to unite the two, or at least to shorten the distance between those labels.

antology_2
Character Creation in Monsterhearts

These screenshots are purposefully teasing, by the way – if you like these games, go support the creators by purchasing the games and giving them a whirl in play. See how these “race” picks feel in their actual games!

Specific examples aside though, I did want to make this post just to remind you all to take the principles listed here as a launch pad which you’ll eventually leave behind as you head off to more ambitious design horizons. I definitely don’t want you to linger on these longer than is necessary.

Two out-of-game areas I often use to clarify the statement of “this is a good place to start, but a bad place to end up” come from physics and psychology:

  1. Newtonian physics is an good place to start when teaching physics due to its comparative simplicity, but it’s a bad place to stay. You need to move beyond the Newtonian model if you want to dive into how the world actually works – both mathematically, through mastery of the Lagrangian and Hamiltonian, and conceptually, as you understand the greater descriptive power of energy states vs. comparative forces, the theory of relativity, and the principles of quantum mechanics.
  2. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is a pretty fun space to start talking about psychology, both because it’s historically relevant and because it’s a simple ice-breaker to talk about personality traits when you lack any of the vocabulary of psychology – it’s a bad place to stay in the long run though – the model is ineffective at predicting your success or your compatibility with others and is given no credence as a good model of human personality by anyone who actually studies psychology.

Introductory game design principles, especially those described in an amateur’s blog like this one, are a good place to start, because they serve as an on-ramp of sorts for the superhighway of analytical thought about games. Serving as that on-ramp has always been my goal. But you can’t stay on the on-ramp forever. Play games. Talk to game developers. Make your own subsystems in the games you play, whether it be through a home-brewed monster, through mechanical tinkering as your campaign progresses, or through making your own random tables, subsystems, and even whole games from scratch.

If you never get your feet wet and instead treat my observations as a replacement for that experience, you’re making a mistake. My blog is a good place to start, but a bad place to end up.

…but that’s not a very satisfying note to end on, is it? I want to talk a bit more about three questions that usually come up when I start talking about “A Good Place to Start, a Bad Place to End Up”.

Future blog posts will also sometimes be tagged as GPTS (Good Place to Start) exercises, in order to really hit home the ways of consuming content on a blog.


F.A.Q.

Q: These are just elf-games, and I just want to have fun. What’s all this about needing to grow beyond that?

A: So, I tend to believe that becoming a GM has a relatively low bar of entry, but that becoming a good GM is a lifelong pursuit. You’re always going to have new players with new desires, and you yourself are constantly growing as a person. Your increased experiences both in terms of your information diet and your real life pursuits will hopefully translate into your games, giving them more depth as time passes.

Not everybody believes this. Some people just view the whole GMing deal as a fairly easy task, not worth expanding upon except for people who are trying way too hard. Others don’t so much disbelieve this as they are satisfied with being good enough by their own metrics.

Wherever you fall on this subject is fine. The idea of “a good place to start, a bad place to end up” is predicated on the idea that you think the infinite pursuit of knowledge is both valid and also worth going on. This whole blog is sort of predicated on that. When it comes to something like elf-games, though, it makes total sense to prioritize your energy elsewhere.

Q: Okay, what if I start at the Best Place to End Up, without spending wasted time on these Good Places to Start that I’m supposed to graduate away from?

A: Two answers.

The simpler way of answering this is “you have to crawl before you can walk”. Nobody is going to run a masterpiece game on their first go-round, and nobody is going to make a masterpiece game without play-testing and iteration.

The more complicated answer is that in practice, trying to find the Best Place to End Up usually just paralyzes you and prevents you from running your game or writing your brew or testing your system. There’s always going to be someone out there who is better than you at something, be it their ability to run hex-crawls or their eloquence when talking about monster design. If you keep trying to be good enough by the metrics of the so-called “best”, even if it’s just the “best” in your own opinion, it’s very easy to be paralyzed and unable to ever work up the confidence to actually do anything. So, take to heart that there are many good places to start off. If your very first tabletop RPG ends up being a bit of a disappointment, or the first tabletop RPG YouTube video you watch ends up being a bit garbage, that is still an excellent place to start, because you are developing opinions and conclusions in response to that. You won’t end up there. You’re growing.

Q: Is there a particular model of progression, when reading a blog, so as not to simply act as a passive consumer? You talk about playing games and talking to people and making things, but is there a more regimented way of thinking about “not staying where you started”?

A: I tend to subscribe to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs when I think formally about how designers and GMs can grow.

Maslow

You could argue, especially if you’re a manager or psychologist, that maybe Broadwell’s Conscious Competence Model works better, or that Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development work better. That’s…fine. There’s no wrong answer, it’s just that having a structure can help more than me just saying “hey don’t stagnate”.

Within Maslow’s hierarchy, I’d say these are the rough ways I look at behavior:

At Stage 1, the physiological needs of a new GM or designer basically are those of comprehension. Can you read a blog post and actually understand it – is it food you can actually consume, or is it inedible to you? When you’re new to a hobby, even reading these blogs can feel like a daunting and confusing task. This is a stage most of my readership is likely already beyond, but I do want to acknowledge that we were all here once. You evolve past this stage by asking questions, by reading more, and through actual play.

At Stage 2, the safety needs of a new GM or designer are, to me, the confidence to begin to challenge others on their beliefs. Not “what does this mean” but rather “why do you believe this”. Doing this and not feeling like a fool is an active moment of growth, and it’s an important step. The more secure you feel in your own beliefs, the stronger your foundation for further growth.

At Stage 3, we have belonging. What this means is that you join a community. This can be the Critical Role community, this can be various home-brewing communities, this can be a 30-person fan-group for a particular FATE setting, this can be Chris McDowall’s OSR server, where I spend the majority of my time. Why is community so important? Part of it is that if you are surrounded by people with similar passions and interests to yourself, you have a lot more vectors of growth through engaging with that community. If you want to get good at Super Smash Brothers Ultimate and you only play with your cousin who spams smash attacks…you won’t improve. Similarly, if you want to get better at GMing or system analysis but you only talk to your players about it, and they just want to show up and have a good time, you won’t develop much.

It’s worth pointing out that joining a community also introduces groupthink tendencies and blind spots. You’ll start to adopt their opinions and attitudes with less critical thinking that you did before joining a community. That’s just how communities work. Still, I think the benefits outweigh the detriments. It’s just something to remain aware of.

At Stage 4, you begin to have your own accomplishments. At the highest level this means putting content out to the community – your own blog, your own module, your own brew, your own system. It means that you now aren’t just a participant in a community, but you are putting your own content out there to be scrutinized. At a less daunting level, it just means that when a blog gives you something (a random table, a monster, a dungeon), you don’t just use it as a consumer. Instead, you understand the underlying structure, and you remix it to make it your own. We have some exercises in the upcoming blog posts to help you try this.

At Stage 5, you have self-actualization. You have crystallized your own beliefs, compiled from your own experiences and whatever information sources you’ve cribbed from. This is honestly more about your internal state than anything you can express on the outside. The final step to most of these “learning hierarchies” or “need hierarchies” usually looks something like fulfillment or enlightenment, rather than an output or a product.

 

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