Thursday, February 4, 2010
Up on A Tree Stump™ #5: Creative Exceptionalism & Asking "Why"?
Up on a Tree Stump™
(or) All I Know about D&D™ I Learned From Life
©2010 Robert J. Kuntz
"The root cause of any problem is the key to a lasting solution." -- Taiichi Ohno, pioneer of the Toyota Production System in the 1950s. Link to full article.
I have the greatest respect for SF/Fantasy writers and their past and future involvement in the craft. It is indeed they along with the historians and other great artists and authors who have given us by adaptation Role Playing Games, for without their ideas, their time devoted to such imaginative and enlightening subject matter, none of it would exist, there would not have been an RPG, or at least not as we now know it. These authors made leaps in exposing new ideas and in challenging stereotypes in all fields of knowledge and social context, and often with a critical eye brought us profound concepts and new ways of seeing the world through the focused lens of their stories.
The majority of good literature has stood upon a spacious ground of perceptive social critique and in this case SF/Fantasy, in the main, has been no different. By transference, then, we can rightly assume that RPG designs that in whole or part emulate speculative fiction have at least that same range of possible articulation. Even though we can choose to separate an RPG from speculative fiction to the point where it becomes a mere vehicle of entertainment amid flourishes of creative addition by its author (in this case, the game designer and/or GM), there is no denying that pushing the bar of its application can expose ranges that contribute to honoring its fullest potential just as any piece of fiction can.
Thus the creation of more challenging forms of design that reach beyond tired and over-tested varieties indeed marks solidly the reason "why" they are conceived of and then produced to begin with, as these literally go hand in hand with the progressive ideal of design. But it also makes for a unique challenge to take fiction and games and weave them together into a unique tapestry that makes not only sense to the designer but to the players of such scenarios or games. And every great designer, and for that matter, great player, loves a challenge.
We have noted a plethora of titles and themes from past and present authors of speculative fiction, so we know that "whys" in our cousin-market can vary tremendously and often do. Such diversity not only promotes a wider range of interesting product but introduces a wider range of readers while expanding these boundaries. In essence it feeds the industry with new blood through fresh approaches which in turn furthers continued sustainability of creative exchange. That is then good for the industry that such writers or designers are deeply involved in.
However, what is important to some may not be so for others. This re-poses the "Why" in a different light, for a truly intransigent creator looks to outdo past designs to make his or her mark. They are the ones who will ultimately, in many cases, deserve the accolades of informed fans and valued critics. Unfortunately, most beginning writers and designers often fail to realize that ongoing homework is needed to succeed in such markets. Homework can here be roughly defined as necessary planning but takes into effect an ongoing challenge he or she envelopes themselves in. This includes innovative story, plot and character development; and in the case of RPG scenarios this will include what might be unique among its parts and how these do or do not compare to previous designs. In either case, creating unique inroads may require more planning and/or reading past examples or primary texts depending upon the proposed story's/scenario's specifics and depth.
To successfully pursue a career in speculative fiction or with any of its related by-products attaching to the RPG industry, writers should not cast their works in a mould that will more often be viewed as mere imitation. Indeed the challenge for those intransigent few who see such investments as a continued test of their creative metal is to continue outdoing themselves and others, and by correspondence greatly influencing all of what they value.
The Lake Geneva Tactical Studies Association as a group had a no holds barred approach to design. We were all very opinionated--I argued with EGG over points that I fet strongly about. I was in fact looking for "Whys". His previous tutoring of me when I was age 13 finally found purchase around age 16 in exactly the entire realm as he had projected it, which was to be unique, not just to follow his example only. EGG was a strong supporter of investigating possibilities and absracting "what ifs" from anything before him. Given that mindset we were as a whole disposed to sliding this way or that on issues of creative departure but more often found ourselves in agreement through such exchanges. Don Kaye, his childhood friend and co-founder of TSR Rules, summarized his perspective on this differently but with the same open respect for EGG: "Rob, I argue with him not so much because I think he's wrong, but just to keep him honest."
This working idea of open discourse which always fed creative rumination and critical departures from the norm or "fashionable" worked itself into D&D's play-test and design, as I've noted elsewhere, and became a very important notation for me when considering how this now relates to the whole idea of design and thereby learned artistc processes of that time. In consideration of this ongoing impact, I feel that designers should look as hard at their sources for inspiration as many like myself have done: EGG was a prolific writer, inspired game designer, trenchant humorist, avid and informed critic, amateur artist, animated story teller, superlative editor, and the list goes on. But above all EGG was an outspoken individual, and that added continuous depth of expression to his designs. There was no middle ground as he always attempted to go beyond what was being presented. When faced with design hurdles he was not shy (that word does not figure into his make-up at all) to call upon the LGTSA members to discuss options, or to play-test an idea. When faced with creative challenges (as in his Alexander he Great board game) he advanced innovative system design. Throughout all of his creative phases his voice was heard and his opinions were felt loud and clear and were for the most part respected (except by certain fragile and sensitive egos); and he was highly regarded as a designer who pushed the limits of design.
Part of the reason why this played out so was in fact due to a non-competetive arrangement between us. We were not competing with one another but in fact contesting to see who could contribute to making whatever design was before us better. In essence no one then had any time to be offended or put off by all of the flurry of debate and criticisms and play-tests and the holistic parts that were constantly being interchanged. This wasn't outwardly about ego, though of course ego is vested in design at some level, but most certainly about creation and the creative ideal. As Dave Hickey points out in my recent video post, creators, especially truly unique ones, should be allowed to express their opinions in open discourse without somebody being offended. Creativity is about reaching outwards and beyond and that is done at a sustainable level which is as unique as the artist doing so.
When we were refining D&D through play-test--in fact when we play-tested and developed all games then--we were in DEEP and open discourse. Creativity and transformation cannot occur between others in closed discourse and every artist knows this. On the personal level I have always noted that strongly creative people have equally strong opinions. It is intrinsically part of their natures, or else they could not separate from a community standard and choose their own unique paths for expression. And if anyone believes that true creativity can aspire and grow and implant itself on one's doorstep and in their hearts, otherwise, they are mistaken. D&D separated from the wargames community and formed a totally new game concept and game type; and while doing so, it was at first ridiculed, misunderstood and often vilified. But its adherents stuck with it and proved that creative exceptionalism is the rule, not sameness. What made RPG possible were select designers and play-testers who became responsible for the unlimited possibilities of human expression in a game where people, not standards, had recourse. In comparison, one cannot look at an artistic product because of this, and as Hickey noted in that video, again, and not see the artist or his kin. And in doing so, I might add, you cannot look at the best of these either without seeing, if only in some degree removed, what inspired that art, design, or writing.
Co-equal with that, certain art can be imitated, but artists cannot be. There will always be distinctions in this by their very acts, natures and beings; and more importantly, the fire of individual creation is not found in "grouping principles" but in standing away from said group and building one's own fire. Gary Gygax was, and still is, the prime example of outspoken individualism in our industry, and so too those whom he encouraged along such paths. It is a fundamental truth that an artist must have absolute freedom to be uniquely creative. This sometimes requires the interjections of others, but in the end, it most certainly requires that a true creator take his or her hammer and smash home the nail of self expression. Otherwise designers and writers adopt another's truth and with that lose their individual creativity and trim their capacity. And the latter in no way embraces what we--prior to and during the years of TSR--promoted while upon the unending search for creative exceptionalism.