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On Shoulders

On Story-Games.com, Tazio Bettin (Suna) has been asking how one copes with “standing on the shoulders of giants” in game design; that is, feeling like everything you might design has been done before, and possibly done better than you could hope to do yourself. This is an issue that’s always been close to my heart as an aspiring creator of art in any form. it’s easy to become intimidated by all the brilliant and inspiring works that have proliferated throughout history. And the more you love art, the more you’re likely to be overawed by that brilliance.

One of the things I cherish about roleplaying and storyjamming is the affirmation of the concept that everyone is an artist. Everyone has a unique voice that can gain expression in any number of artistic forms–storytelling, painting, poetry, you name it! Every person has precious gifts to share

I truly believe this. And yet Tazio’s question lingers: in the presence of greatness, how does one muster the drive to create at all? How do you shake the feeling that all the ground has been covered, or that you can never measure up?

This was my reply to Tazio in the Story-games thread:

It was Shock‘s list of influences that first delivered my epiphany on this subject. I mean, sure, Ron always touted Sorcerer as a descendant of Over the Edge, but it was easy for me to dismiss that, like “sure, I can see the similarity but OtE is so primitive and Sorcerer is so brilliant.” Whereas Shock: has a really focused bibliography that celebrates its influences in detail, and contained a lot of designs that I respect, so I was open to the insight.

The phrase that did it for me is, “In many ways, Shock: is a purpose-build modification of PTA.”

When I read that, something clicked and I went “oh my God it SO IS!” And my world was never the same.

I realized that designers are “stealing” from each other all the time, and it’s more about the particular arrangement of parts than about inventing all your own parts, which is impossible anyway. This helped me to break into design myself.

When I entered game Chef 2008, I ended up building my game Spectre of the Beast (still in development, now called “Mortar of Utopia”) largely on the chassis of Shock:. In many ways it’s a similar game–you play Protagonists in an invented world (though a past one, rather than future) whose pursuit of their goals have a profound effect on society, and play revolves around the attendant issues. So I took Shock’s Protagoniost/Antagonist roles, series of scenes each with a conflict, and based Ambitions roughly on Story goals. I added a Hope mechanic somewhat like that in Contenders (which also apportions protagonism and antagonism similar to Shock:). But on top of that chassis I arranged pieces in such a way that they would work a certain way in play, which is different than the way they work in Shock:.

Joshua’s approach to presenting his influences gave me an implicit permission to do that. To look at previous ingenious applications of tools and suss out my very own application, similar yet distinct, without feeling that I had to start from scratch. Now, I do still get the feeling sometimes that “all the ground has been covered,” and certainly as more and more niches get filled it will be trickier and trickier to find a distinctive statement to make. I believe it’s valuable to ask, for any design idea (or any art, really), “could this thing be done well with existing works?” Or put another way, “What do I want to say with this design, distinct from what others are saying?”

Notice I say “distinct” instead of “new.” The key isn’t to find what hasn’t been done, the key is to find your own voice. That voice will be in chorus with a hundred others, and will owe its inspiration to thousands more. But if you focus on finding that, on saying the thing that’s welling up in you and DEMANDING that it be said, you’ll do well.

So, that was a wonderful and freeing realization. But I must admit, it doesn’t settle the question of greatness. Works of great skill and beauty might dissuade you from even beginning, feeling that your own meager effort could never compare, so why bother?

In the Story-games thread, Kira Scott (Anansigirl) shared a story about how as an art student she didn’t appreciate Picasso until she was given an assignment to copy his painting Guernica, and discovered how much craft, skill and vision the painting actually required. She explains what she learned from that experience:

All this to say… it takes a lot of work to be a master. But that doesn’t mean you can’t work at getting there. I know that I’ll be working on being as good as Picasso for the rest of my life (and really, that’s not a goal I would like to achieve… what makes me happy about creating is not the same thing that made Picasso happy about creating), but I really enjoy putting myself to the challenge. Have confidence in what you create, learn from what came before you, and know that, while you’re not Picasso, you’re making something beautiful and unique because it came from you.

You get better at designing things by going through the process of designing them. Keep at it!

This says to me that creativity is more about process than goal, more journey than destination. On the one hand, it’s a fine thing to work to improve your skill. On the other hand, doing the work is its own joy. And in any case, the key to doing both is to do it. Mastery isn’t something that some people have and others don’t. It’s a road that everyone walks, its only requirement that you put one foot in front of the other, day after day. In so doing, you express that thing in you demanding to get out, and you may discover a voice you never thought you had.

So in this season of gifting, I’d like to give you this gift: YOU have a voice. YOU can make art. If any voices inside or outside of you have ever told you creating is not for you, that you’re not smart enough, talented enough, good enough–if you’ve ever internalized the message that art is for Serious Professionals–if you’ve ever feared that your voice would be dismissed or ridiculed–I’m here to tell you your voice is welcome. There is something only you can say, and I hope to hear it, whatever form it may take.

Peace,
—Joel

One thought on “On Shoulders”

  1. Well-spoken, Joel!
    That’s a big reason why I love playing role-playing games (not to mention designing them) – it’s a chance for low-pressure, low-structure, collaborative creativity, and a great many games out there either a) are enhanced by or b) explicitly call for the folks at the table to work together, to ping ideas off each other (or build on each others’ suggestions) in order to make things really hum!

    I’ve been blessed with a regular group out here in Virginia, so much so that I know when I go to game night, I’m going to laugh, applaud, and be amazed at how funny, clever, and creative we all are – yes, we! It’s not that THEY’RE so great; they help *me* be great, too!

    One of the best moments recently came about when my friend George played the goblin pilot in Lady Blackbird – one of the gob’s Keys lets him get 1xp every time another player laughs at something he says (buyoff happens when “everyone groans” at something, instead). George is a really funny guy, and I laugh easily, so the great time we had gaming together was also *mechanically incentivized*. De-lightful.

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