Thursday, 26 November 2020

The Creative Process in Role Playing Games

Iain McGilchrist is probably the most important contemporary thinker, and last night I listened to a good two part interview with him, here and here. One of the themes in his work is how creation requires hard limits and barriers in order to take place at all. I have written on that theme before on this blog in my own small way (see e.g. this post and this one), and it occurred to me on listening to the interview that there was, yes, yet more to say about it as it relates to RPGs.

McGilchrist describes how creativity functions on the basis of limits which are not necessarily externally imposed but can come from the process itself. Hence, a river's flow creates banks which themselves then act as limits on the flow, which further influence how the river develops, produce eddies and currents, and so on. The best example of this, though, I think, is language. Language is a creative process, whose own limits produce the act of creation. 

What do I mean by this? Utter a single word: 'The'. From a completely open range of possible utterances, we have picked one, which itself then limits what can come next. The next word must be a noun or gerund or adjectival complement, trivially, but the subject matter of the utterance is also constrained: the definite article has been used, and not the indefinite one, for example - and that will limit all that follows. Pick a word to follow it: 'man'. Now we are even more limited - we know that the subject of the utterance is an adult male human being, as opposed to all of the other myriad possibilities which it could have been ('fox', 'apple', 'ant', 'Greek', 'big', and so on), and this also further restricts what follows. With each subsequent word, 'bit', 'the', 'dog', we see this closing off and narrowing of possibilities, so that what began with literally anything becomes, with each word, something definite and specific through a process of limitation and restriction: a specific adult male human being biting a specific individual of the species canis familiaris.

The crucial point here is that for the creative act to take place at all it must both contain and consist in its own capacity to restrict itself. Creativity is not the unbridled exploration of a free horizon of unlimited scope. It is quite the opposite. It is a process which is carried out through the imposition of limits (from within itself). 

How is this relevant to RPGs? Well, there are a thousand ways, and I don't have a thousand hours with which to write this blog post, so let's just think about three.

Process. The structure of playing an RPG has the character I described above. One sits down with friends. What shall we play? D&D. A decision is made that restricts potentialities (we will not be playing SF, or contemporary horror, or a detective game). What do we do then? Create PCs. The creation of PCs results in picking options which impose further limits (I will be a fighter, as opposed to a magic-user or cleric; I will arm myself with a bow, as opposed to a spear or sword). The game begins. The PCs are in a tavern (not in a public baths or a castle, not on a beach or underwater). They hear about places to adventure. They pick one (and not the others). They go there. They enter a dungeon. They go left instead of right or straight on. And so on. Put in a very abstract way, the process of playing an RPG is an iterative one in which many possibilities present themselves, but which necessarily close off a great many more others, and in which that model repeats itself indefinitely. 

Dice. The very act of rolling dice is one of closure, but which in doing so produces consequences and hence creative flow. My PC confronts a violent orc. He decides to try to hit it with his sword (not talk to it, not kiss it, not eat it, not throw dust in its eyes, etc.). He could hit, he could miss. The dice closes off one option and tells us it's the other. It restricts possibilities to one. And then that thing happens, and we follow the results. Narrative emerges. Creation happens.

Genre. What's our next campaign going to be, guys? Purple space baboons trade in shellfish on the moons of Neptune? Moles hunt earthworms? Demons made from flowers invade from floral hell? We could play anything. We are paralysed by indecision because, given the infinity of choice available, we will spend the rest of our lives merely listing the possibilities. Or: we can pick a genre, which contains its own constraints of both form and content, and which hence brutally limits us, but in such a way that the actual creative act - the game - can happen at all. We are playing high fantasy, not purple space baboons or moles underground or flower demons from hell. We must have orcs and dragons, swords and spell-books. But now the potential inherent in the sitting-down-to-play-a-game has a fighting chance of being actualised rather than lost in an endless array of never-to-be-realised possibilities. 


  1. Sorry, off-topic but:

    I do remember you calling me names after apologizing about how I was treated by your friends in RPGs.

    Anyway, I got this comment from Kent today:


    When I think of Jews I think--protected species--but for how long?

    Certainly no-one sane wants 2% of the population (JEWS) to have 90% control in a democracy. Why are there so many JEWS in HARVARD as a proportion of WHITE EUROPEANS? Nepotism and Illicit money, usurious warmongering cunts. Banker Jews have been so egregious in their stupidity that ordinary people will redefine 'Jew' to mean 'disgusting looking rich perverts.'

    Historically ordinary people have allowed Jew nepotism and usury but this has evolved disgusting looking Jew perverts who are forced to pay vast sums to touch human women for sex.

    And I do notice he keeps commenting here. And has for, idk, a decade?

    I'm trying very hard to give everyone as much benefit of the doubt as I can but with the best will in the world: how the fuck is someone like that still welcome and you saw fit to trash me?

    1. 1. I don't remember calling you names or trashing you.

      2. Kent is not 'welcome' - this isn't my house, or a pub. It's a blog, for fuck's sake. I let people post comments here unless the content of the comment annoys me. If Kent posts offensive spam I usually block it. (He posted the same comment, word for word, on my blog that you have cited in yours. I blocked it.)

      3. Kent quite clearly has a serious mental illness of some kind (see his comment below), which is why I extend him a level of sympathy.

    2. @noisms

      Oh let's see:

      "complete prick"
      "malign ends"

      Now, I know among both nerds and British people--and especially among nerdy British people--the ethic that if you're on more-or-less friendly terms with someone you come to them before trashing them to other people isn't really a thing, but where I come from it is.

      So I consider the fact you apparently thought all that up until February 10th 2019 and kept it a secret a creepy moral failing considering how cordial we'd been over the years.


      A maybe more relevant or interesting issue is:

      So let's say someone (for example) is mentally ill and they spreads misinformation and attack people unreasonably because they're mentally ill.

      No matter how much sympathy you have for them: they are still concretely causing a problem for other human beings as long as they keep doing that. Do you have any sense that maybe if someone is admittedly mentally ill we maybe still should maybe do something other than politely watch them be assholes to our colleagues or fuck up their lives?

    3. @noisms
      or, more simply:
      is there -any- level on online fuck-uppery that could happen that would make you feel like you had a moral obligation to any of your fellow game people here?

    4. Are you denying that you can be obnoxious, nasty, manipulative, etc.?

      The answer to both your questions is: no. I think you're a big boy and can look after yourself. I don't believe you take anything Kent says remotely seriously - in fact I'd think there was something wrong with you if you did. I think it's even less plausible that you genuinely believe he is capable of "fucking up your life".

      Clearly the Mandy allegations have had serious consequences for you, but I have never repeated them here or anywhere. All I've ever said is that I don't know the truth of the matter but I am influenced on balance by the opinions of people I do actually know, and know to be perceptive. That is it.

      I wish you would write more on your blog, which remains highly insightful, than spend time vindictively pursuing Kent, or me for the temerity of failing to delete some of his comments.

    5. 1. I am denying it. But do not move the goalposts: are you or are you not admitting you did this namecalling?

      2. Literally no-one can "look after themself" alone against hundreds of people. If this means I'm not a big boy in your book: fine, I'm not. I would've died months ago if not for my friends' help.

      3. Where is the line between those you "take seriously" and those you don't? Patrick has admitted to being mentally ill and all the attacks on me he's made in the past about online behavior can be proven to be false with 3 seconds on google. Is he Taken Seriously thus you dogpile anyone he attacks or Not Taken Seriously thus you ignore anything he does that doesn't directly irritate you?

      4. Why are you asking me to do things for you (like blog) if you won't even do anything for me? Why do you want the benefits of a community without the responsibilities?

      5. You know perfectly well it's dishonest to claim that leaving comments on a blog somehow takes away precious time that could be spent on other projects. You should apologize for taking such a cheap shot.

      6. My motive isn't to be vindictive--it is to understand why you decided to attack me when other people have done so much worse so routinely for so long.

      I'm screencapping this comment in case you again do what you did last time, which was fail to approve it, thus creating the illusion that I was asked a question and failed to answer, which would be morally reprehensible on my part.

      The date's Dec 1, 2020. 7:05pm pacific.

    6. This comment reads like a parody of one of the Zak G+ threads of old. I lost patience with all that years ago, long before your fall from grace. You are a phenomenally creative and intelligent person; this aggressive online-comment facet of your personality is one you ought to jettison.

      I do apologise for saying impolite things about you online, though. That wasn't nice. Sorry.

    7. Other than "it bothers people who do bad things" why should I abandon aggressively criticizing people who do bad things. -Not- criticizing them hasn't exactly worked out.

      Will you erase the attacks you made on me?

    8. Well, criticizing them hasn't worked out brilliantly for you either.

      Erasing things is a stupid thing to do, and in any event I can't remember where or when I said those things - believe it or not I don't keep careful logs of every interaction I have with you.

    9. I have to do the right thing even when it's inconvenient or unpleasant or will create hardship. The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.

      If I told you, would you then erase it?

    10. You are a veritable martyr.

      No, I wouldn't. I've apologised. What difference does it make? Nobody cares, and I prefer what I have said to stand rather than airbrush it out.

    11. If you think doing what you know is right makes you some kind of laughable "martytr" then what kind of right-wrong judgments do you actually make? When -do- you decide to do the right thing?

      What difference would it make? It would mean that people who read you specifically and trust your judgment could look up what you had to say about the controversy and see a standard of behavior upheld:

      "Oh, this is a place where you don't throw tomatoes unless you have a reason and can explain it"

      It's a better world where people see that as the norm.

    12. That wasn't rhetorical question: I'm asking.

      And if you don't think my answer to your question makes sense, I'd like to know why.

      I suspect the real answer is "Doing nothing is the path of least resistance plus I don't like to look too fussed about anything even at the point of helping destroy a human life" but I hope I'm wrong.

    13. No, the real answer is that I don't agree that letting Kent post comments here = "helping to destroy a human life".

      I care about actual things that destroy human lives, like crime and natural disaster and disease. I don't care about things that don't matter, like comments on blogs.

      If you feel like Kent is destroying your life by commenting here, the sensible thing to do would be to stop reading the blog.

    14. You're -clearly- aware of the fact that defamation (and other forms of illegal speech) can do harm to a target even if the target doesn't read it, so I can't imagine why you'd pull the whole "don't like it? don't read it!" dodge.

      But you mentioned crime, and that's important:

      Would you start to re-examine your behavior if I pointed out out how it helped enable to -actual crimes- that affected my life?

    15. Again, David: not a rhetorical question. I don't do those.

    16. Zak, almost nobody reads what Kent writes and absolutely nobody cares what Kent says. His words do you no harm whatsoever. They play no role in "enabling" anything.

    17. I didn't ask a question about Kent, David. The conversation has moved on. I asked a different question about a new thing.

      It was a yes/no question.

      Here it is again, since you seem to have missed it:

      "Would you start to re-examine your behavior if I pointed out out how it helped enable to -actual crimes- that affected my life?"

      Do you understand the question, David? Can you please answer?

    18. The whole reason we are having this conversation is because you showed up to complain that I "welcome" Kent posting here. If we're not talking about Kent then I have no idea who we are talking about - nobody is posting comments on my blog that "help destroy" your life.

      I can't really be bothered continuing with the conversation, anyway - I actually have things to do and a life to lead. You don't have any say in what gets posted here or commented on. It's that simple. But I reiterate my apology for saying insulting things about you and will not do so in future. I consider that to be the end of the matter and will not respond further.

    19. So you'll never respond to any comments on your blog ever again by anyone because suddenly because only now, 12 years in, you have "things to do and a life to lead"?


  2. This creative process also demands the "artist" to be vulnerable. To allow one to be wounded at the same time as being restricted. Competency and technique, the illusion of technique is usually the first stopping point for those who cannot be vulnerable at the same time as creative choices start to get restricted. Getting lost during creation is usually the only way to blow up the restrictions and see a whole new vista.

    1. I'm not sure if I'd put it quite like that. I think rather than requiring the artist to be vulnerable, it requires the artist to accept his or her vulnerability and not to allow it to restrict the creative process?

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. At what point does the detriment of having to put up with consistently obnoxious behavior overpower the seemingly small positive contribution to the conversation and force a permanent ban? Kents superiority complex has seeped into so many places that even Zak is showing up to complain

    2. I'm afraid I just don't really believe in 'permanent bans'.