Wednesday, 27 July 2016

The Craft of Writing RPG Materials

Have I blogged about this before? Even recently? Have I been writing this blog so long that I am repeating myself without even knowing it, like some kind of senile robot? Is it fair or reasonable to demand that I remember every single post I've written in 8 years? Are these enough rhetorical questions?

Anyway. Craftsmanship. This is one of the topics that interests me most, and what I devote increasing amounts of time to thinking and writing about in my day job. Naturally, I am likewise increasingly interested in the craft of being a DM and particularly the craft of writing RPG materials.

I am not a great TV watcher, but I do love watching talent competitions. I'm not talking about Britain's Got Talent or the X Factor or Strictly Come Dancing or the other vulgar (yes, I'm going to use that word, god damn it) light entertainment shows which are really just about celebrating fame and, well, celebrity. I'm talking about the kind of shows (they may be unique to British TV?) in which talented amateurs in a given field (photography, cooking, etc.) compete against each other over the course of a series of episodes in order to be crowned "the best".

These shows have proliferated like wildfire in the last 5-10 years or so. It used to be just Masterchef, which is still the grandaddy of them all; I sort of love and hate it at the same time, but it is one of the only programmes on TV that I will take time out to watch every day when it's on. But now there are dozens. Off the top of my head, there are ones for baking, photography, sewing, pottery, guitar playing, landscape painting, portrait painting, art generally, and modelling. I expect there are others, and will be in the future.

The ones on Sky Arts are the best, because in their own way they are quite low-key and rigorous, and aren't afraid of either criticism or technical detail. For instance, I've just watched an episode of Guitar Star featuring Nitin Sawhney explaining to a young jazz guitarist how to play a Turkish rhythm in 10/8 time, Preston Reed discussing the importance of strength in keeping time and meter, and a fairly detailed exposition on how to cleanly play the notes in an Iron Maiden riff. I'm a bit of a noodly hobbyist guitarist so I lap that sort of stuff up, but I'll just as happily watch equally recherche discussions of pottery techniques or sewing methods despite having no real interest in doing those hobbies myself - I just like watching craftsmen discussing their craft.

What I like most about these shows is the participants, who are always brilliantly talented, if a little rough around the edges, and totally earnest about wanting to improve. I find this genuinely moving: I'm not sure if there's anything more likely to warm the cockles of my heart about how humanity can rescue itself than seeing people wanting to be good at something and trying hard to better themselves and create stuff - whatever it may be - that will be brilliant and will please others. I am a bit cynical about why it always has to be about competition; I understand that TV is also about entertainment, but I'm not sure why we always have to worry so much about who is the best participant. But still, the fundamental principle is sound: it is right and good and important to have a craft or hobby and try really hard to be better at it.

Anyway, what I want to say with this post is really that I feel that way about writing things for RPGs. I want to try really hard to be better at it. It's a craft, and like all crafts it needs hard work and perseverance. (And huh huh, Christ knows I need it, huh huh.) I don't find mediocrity satisfying, even in something as ultimately meaningless as a book about the memory of a crocodile or a campaign dedicated to replicating the atmosphere of Rules Cyclopedia D&D. I relentlessly want to improve. But are there people around in the hobby like Nitin Sawhney or Preston Reed, who will rigorously help others to get better by offering advice? (I'm not talking about reviews. I'm talking about personal discussions and conversations.) A big part of the problem, for me, is that quite frankly there are very, very few "established figures" in the RPG industry, such as it is, whose work I actually truly respect. In fact there may be, er, two? It's a different matter when it comes to peers, people in this very small business of writing small press DIY D&D stuff. But big figures? Forget it.

This post is rambling - so I will leave it where I started: with me behaving in a way that is reminiscent of a senile robot.

15 comments:

  1. Heh... I've started re-reading my blog and realizing that, yes, I did repeat myself unknowingly a few times.

    As for the greats of RPG writing mentoring those coming after them... Well, who counts as a great? Gygax did years of Q&A, filling hundreds of pages with his thoughts, for what they're worth. Who would you consider to be a great in adventure design? Or in rules design?

    Honestly, I think the medium of RPGs is still to young to have really produced any greats yet. We may be on the cusp of that now, but everything that's come before has largely been lost in the OMG of a new medium, and handicapped by an audience convinced that this was as good as it was going to get.

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    1. Does Gygax count as great? Difficult question.

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    2. Agreed. I'd give him props for being one of the people who created the game, but I can't really say he ever truly mastered the art of writing for it. The DMG is full of all sorts of great stuff, but the language is notoriously purple and the organization nearly non-existent. I still consider it indispensable, but it's a tome you explore rather than read.

      But it's also indispensable, a book I still reach for even when running 5e. It may not entirely be fair to say Gygax isn't a Great of RPG writing, even as he's clearly not a great writer.

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  2. I've learned most of the craft of writing - and improved from shit to suck, and possibly from suck to good - from my editors and co-authors. Mostly from my editors. At least one of them is an excellent RPG writer, but I learned from all of them. I've taught what I know back to people, as well, and I occasionally blog about what I think I've learned and why.

    I think there are people who spend the time to make people better, in writing and in game design. It's just not going to be the same list of people for everyone. There will be overlap, but, to learn "craftsmanship" you just need someone who knows one piece that you don't know and can put it into words you can understand and draw from. That's really all there is to it from my perspective.

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    1. Yes, although I've never really found generic advice useful in any field or hobby. From my experience the only way to get better at a "craft", whatever it may be, is to get personal.

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  3. It is worth bearing in mind that really talented writers have somewhere else to go, that is writing and publishing *fiction*. That is obviously a step up and attractive to those who might otherwise dominate the rpg field and I suspect that is where the 'missing' great rpg writers have been since Gygax.


    I think there is a false sense of success in the rpg field because it is so small, and a tightly organised community perfectly set up for marketing, everyone hears about every single product and a fair proportion seem to buy almost everything.

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    1. Fiction and RPGs are different things. Also, I'm cynical about whether the publishing industry actually publishes the best writers. Have you tried to read a fantasy novel published in the last 10 years? (I say "tried to read", because I don't think I've managed to finish any I've started apart from the most recent Song of Ice and Fire books, and that was only read out of a sense of duty.)

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    2. For me nothing post Gene Wolfe 1981 (Shadow of the Torturer & Claw of the Conciliator) is worth reading. This, I believe, is because the cliches have become locked in. Writers can't think without them, their visual imaginations are overwhelmed by cinema and computer games and they think the trite juvenile celebrity culture around us defines 'cool' characters.

      Nevertheless, even a writer of pisspoor fantasy such as GRR Martin is probably a very talented writer compared to the wannabes of rpgs and comic books. All you have to do is read some *fiction* by a friend who is intelligent and articulate and wants to be a writer to convince yourself how difficult it is. There are few things more embarrassing than giving feedback to a friend on a story he wrote. Anyway any writer with balls, and talent, will try to write fiction and that is why there are no outstanding rpg writers, it is a mediocre field like comic books.

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    3. The publishing industry cements the cliches, which is part of the reason why I don't think for a second that the "best writers" are the ones getting published. As far as I can tell you mainly have to be competent, lucky, hard working, and good at self-promotion.

      Writers with balls and talent will write whatever they want to write - be it fiction, poetry, non-fiction, comic books, or games.

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  4. I saw a list of (nearly) every OSR game written since 2008 today. It's only like 200 games long. That's fewer people than are enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

    Just writing an OSR game makes you one of the greatest OSR writers in history.

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  5. I don't know if you were aware of this or not, but Alexis Smolensk of Tao of D&D had this same revelation a little while ago and decided to offer DM workshops to create that kind of 1-on-1 mentorship you discussed.

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  6. One thing to consider is that there are two aspects to RPG design: the writing and the design. Writing in clear, concise fashion (while perhaps still incepting the text with flavor and color) is one "craft" that needs to be honed...but game design itself (making games that are both fun and playable) is its own separate "craft." There are some designers that excel at one or the other, but failing at either one can hamstring a game (whether you're talking a core book, supplement, or adventure).

    This last week I've been reading through several of FFG's WH40K RPGs and have found myself at times impressed, annoyed, and nonplussed by the material. Some of what they're doing is really interesting and some of it is just...meh. But all that is hidden beneath the veneer of their fantastic production values.

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  7. This attention to the 'craft of being a DM' and 'replicating the atmosphere of Rules Cyclopedia D&D' are worthy projects that really resonate with at least this reader.

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    1. I have been running an off-on campaign whose raison d'etre is replicating the atmosphere of Rules Cyclopedia D&D. It is extremely enjoyable but sadly difficult to schedule.

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