Saturday, October 30, 2010

EDITORIAL: Innovation Versus the Merry-Go-Round of the Mind

I have heard rumblings and, dare I say, didacticism, from some that claim that RPG design from the many companies now publishing compatible material should not be about innovation, that it in some way instead equates to a moment which appears to them to be frozen in time.  I will say this in response to those who actually believe this and promote it as truth:  It is the MOST patently absurd idea I have ever heard.

If we had thought that way prior to D&D's publication, the MOST INNOVATIVE GAME in the history of games would have never been published.  That D&D set a standard to be overcome is a matter of historical fact.  The very day that people form companies and cease being amateurs by accepting money for their products they approach the realm of professionals.  There is no differentiating; one cannot slide this way or that by whim nor escape their separate truths while embracing either.  In rising above the amateur state one must embrace a professional acumen that is always being propelled to the forefront and through which you take a hard look at yourself, your philosophies and your ways and means.  If indeed much of what brands itself as emulating the past stands out and proclaims itself as new, then I say:  prove it.  Prove it like the fans turned amateurs turned professionals did to make something innovative, who strived to continue improving upon that innovation, and who continue to do so today.  Embrace professionalism and the future of imagination as the originators of the game did or stop accepting money and remain amateurs--it is not a two-way street of convenience.  It's earned, just as E. Gary Gygax and David Arneson earned it.

To true creators, innovators and those individuals with plans of making careers out of their writing and design like I have done, please follow this advice as a saviour-path to it: Flee!  Run as fast as you can from such abhorrent thoughts and suggestions that your creative paths are best suited to the past.  Separate yourselves from those who do not know or do not care and those who say they do even though in your heart you feel otherwise.  Upon the singular plain of your own creative spirit will you find the true expressions of your soul and mind and not in the endless circling caravan of regurgitated thought or upon a merry-go-round of the mind.  Divorce yourself from the group; for at that time you will have the complete freedom to express yourself; in that hour will come your best work; and in that serene moment you will arrive at your truth.


"Being involved in the RPG industry as long as you have, surely you’ve collected bits of wisdom and knowledge along the way. Is there any advice you could give to budding game designers?

"RJK:  Seriously: Throw out everything you think you know, including the rules. Challenge established norms, redefine what imagination and creativity “really” are, ignore the jealous and the pundits (re: critics), push past the mundane and open up possibilities, don’t close them, no matter how absurd someone says you are, or how off base they say you appear to be. With that, follow the words of my oft-quoted author, Orson Scott Card: “How can we experience the literature of the strange if we stay in well mapped lands?”-- my advice from one of the many interviews I've given.

"If we all think alike, if we all become uniform and bland, we shrivel up and die, and the great process shudders to an end. Uniformity is death, in economics or in biology. Diversity within communication and cooperation is life. Everything your forebears, your ancestors, everything you have ever done, will have been for naught, if we ignore these basic bacterial lessons." Autopoiesis and the Grand Scheme, Greg Bear

"Most of the time I look at my work as an ocean of missed opportunities...My lack of talent & knowledge bedevils me no end... But I realized a long time ago that my art is a race I run alone..."  Michael Bair


Anonymous said...

I thoroughly agree. I try to make my products unique rather than minor variations of things that have already been done decades ago.

Rob Kuntz said...

Afternoon Geoffrey: It's true this was a broad statement aimed specifically at those whose foot would wear the shoe, as well as an encouragement to spirited designers such as yourself. The most able way of honoring the innovative past is to do just as you have done with Carcosa and thereby continue stepping into the future. As for myself, I made a pledge a long time ago that my closest friends, business partners and associates are all aware of: The day I feel that I cannot produce anything but a mimicry, a shadow from the past, then I shall quit designing, and I meant it.

I wish you continued good fortune along your most singular design path.

brasspen said...

It's pretty hard to argue with anything you've said, because you didn't give the inciting incident, the story that you're reacting to. I suppose this is because you like to keep it nonconfrontational and polite. But ... that's a tad dull. It'd be more fun to me if nobody else, if you could say a bit more of what raised your ire. Isn't there a way for you to heave a little closer to specific details without compromising your own politeness?

Rob Kuntz said...

Thanks John. I read your extended commentary and have some points. Perhaps you will appreciate them.

First, and as I stated, EGG, Arneson and myself were fans of a hobby, then amateurs (meaning, "doing it for the love of it") and then professionals, which is implicitly in our cases doing what we loved for money while maintaining professional decorum and high standards on those projects we sold.

The idea, however, that there is so little time available to hobby publishers and that they because of this "do the best" unfortunately does not tread water. EGG, myself and Arneson and the LGTSA and Minneapolis groups, well we were all full-time employees, with EGG having four kids, married, and with many other social and religious commitments as well. We were all challenged to find the time to create, but we found it time and again, much to the dismay of girlfriends and wives, I might add.

The idea that publishing is expensive is indeed so if one opts for other than digital these days, as offset press prices have gone through the roof. However, POD (LULU), the internet connectivity, the ability to type-set on a computer--all of these time- and money-saving shortcuts--were not available to us then. In fact it is much easier and less expensive these days to POD in digital, get out the word on various blogs and sites, and connect with those who can help in bringing a product to market quickly and efficiently and at less cost than what we at TSR were at first faced with. So this idea does not hold together by comparison.

What, in my estimation, is needed is to look at products and say, "How can I do better?" rather than saying, "I can do that." D&D and its initial products were, "We can do better (or different)." And since TSR charged money for this difference there was an ongoing design thrust to improve it. That's all I am saying. But to charge money is in my estimation to demand quality standards for your products and services--another extended part of the discussion which I have talked about as well as explicitly stated in my own company's philosophy.


Rob Kuntz said...

@ Brasspen: "Isn't there a way for you to heave a little closer to specific details without compromising your own politeness?"

In fact the post is explicit regarding the subject matter and accomplishes what is intended, discussion on the matter from those who are concerned, who disagree, or are on the fence and wanting to hear more. Its broad-based, critical but ultimately encouraging tones are what I wanted the focus on.

No brawls here today, folks, move a long.


jgbrowning said...

If one sees creative bonds around the works of others, one must first be sure that the bonds are not around oneself.

One who seeks freedom is not free.

Rob Kuntz said...

@JgBrowning:: Pretty cryptic but I'll roll with it.

Rob Kuntz said...

@John. No problem, appreciated your insights as well.

Endymion said...

In one sense, a "professional" is simply someone who makes a living doing something -- whether through innovation or not. I understand you're using the term in a different sense, as describing someone who lives by a certain code of ethics, in your case, by maintaining a creative integrity that embodies how you see the spirit of fantasy and imagination (always pushing boundaries, never resting).I like that very much, but I just wanted to seek clarification on a few things.

First, it is possible to "push the boundaries" by looking back, right? Doesn't "Bottle City" embody that? That's nostalgic and "old school," but its very simplicity of presentation demands a kind of readerly co-authorship that seemed (and still seems) pretty cutting-edge to me.

Second, I just wanted to put in a good word for the other kind of professional, the one who may not be constantly moving forward. Professions tend to be conservative by nature, a collection of people into a group that is recognizable mainly because they hold some stable conventions in common. If you're in a profession, you want to make money at it and you're probably attracting at least some business because you're staying pat with certain conventions. I know that's not your thing -- you've prided yourself on being a maverick since your TSR days. However, as much as I respect that, in my book, anyone who's out there producing a role playing (or other type) of game deserves at least some credit. They're not making much money at it and a reasonably savvy consumer can separate the wheat from the chaff: in short, even non-innovative stuff can spark the imagination. For me that's always been the main point (and, of course, one reason I like your stuff).

Rob Kuntz said...

Hello Mark,

Yes. Bottle city was an example from the Old days, but take a hard long look at its content for creative range--the mode does not differ as I was then who I am now. Same with the Machine Level as I am writing it--very single encounter, situation and nuance is unique, for how could it not be? It is all new matter which did not exit then and does not exist now in RPG books; and if it did, I'd tear it out and start anew.

The only way to push boundaries is always predicted by the past, yes. Depends on the view, however--we all get to choose the object of own desire to push boundaries with.

I have not slighted professionals, of course; but here I refer to those professionals in he arts. Though every professional should use the creative faculty, it is those in the arts who are challenged to do so regularly and are judged for their separate endeavors by those with supposed artistic taste, or at least, better, these who are at least informed and well-read in those areas they champion within the arts. Thus I see the nature of professionalism as separated by the work that profession takes you into, not by its mere denotation.

As for being a Maverick, it is true. Seemingly the world loves to squash folks into easily categorized bits and I would have nothing to do with that. To me, when you adhere to the arts, whether as amateur or professional, creative integrity is the only thing that is worth a damn; and it is certainly the one of the truths revealed when a true artists is asked "What's your favorite piece?" and they respond in kind. The cream rises to the top.

As to the "conventions" idea: Be surprised. I feel that the Golden Age of D&D ended when pre-made adventures came on the scene. Never played one and won't. But it presented a challenge to my philosophy then. How was I to make things for everyone as unique as I had been doing for players in Greyhawk and Kalibruhn? That spurred a belief that every adventure should have a majority of new material--monsters, magic, spells, etc. as well as strange settings, stranger encounters and twists and turns. The idea was that everything was all known to consumers then, so in order to keep the suspense and mystery high that was my course. I compare that as a standard for everyone of my works. I started early on that course, and so should designers seeking to easily expand their creative ranges. But in essence I am not for pre-made adventures but for getting folks back to the basics before these existed. That won't occur, of course.

If I missed anything Mark, please let me know.



Endymion said...

Hey Rob, thanks for replying. It's just interesting to get your thoughts on creative philosophy and process.

I do think (albeit as an outsider) that an artistic profession has a fair bit of similarity to a "non-artistic" one (and that can be a difficult distinction to make in practice). They all have their conventions and norms. The truly avaunt-guard, where you want to place yourself it seems, can be a dangerous place because it can (although not yet in your case) become unrecognizable. I study William Blake's work and that was certainly a problem for him: his ideas can offend even today and his technique was about 150-200 years ahead of its time (being most fully realized now in the graphic novel and hypertext). He lived as a pauper but took solace in the purity of his artistic stance. The most extreme expression of genius maybe can't even be articulated -- it's a howl or a grunt. To an extent, the artist who wants to be heard and have any kind of audience must employ some conventions, even if it's just language: not that I think you're suggesting one should move that far ahead. An artist needs a "product" in order to live -- the eternal compromise, I suppose.

But I'm not pushing an agenda or even arguing: it's just nice having a conversation about it all, really. It's almost like old times on the boards -- but where's Clang?

Rob Kuntz said...

Great chatting Mark,

As far as being the "advance guard," I will not say it isn't so for this reason alone: Who today in this particular niche industry do we study most readily fro the Weird tale days? Say Lovecraft? Howard? Then Smith? And the sorely overlooked Manly Wade Wellman might trickle in on occasion. Now consider how many actual stories were published in just that magazine's run and thereby how many authors are not included on that list (sure there's Bloch, Leiber, Kuttner, and you could always fickle in Hugh B. Cave) but the list is rather limited to this niche industry of the "icons". A shame, really, as there was much good literature (as Wellman's) which I consider consonant with the best that was published within its pages (and elsewhere, "Black Cat" Astounding, etc.).

Now, I am admittedly very influenced by C. A. Smith, then Lovecraft, and have a great fondness for Burroughs, Wellman, Bierce, Stevenson. The former three painted strange worlds inhabited by stranger things. The idea is that it was all about strangeness, unknown, all propelled through action. That's my North-Star, so to speak.

Now after so many years of thinking about this thing and that nuance, design intermixing with story, being there, it is hard to not forward myself as someone truly studied in this; and due to my proclivities, the more I study the more I see room for inclusion. So if that makes me ahead, behind, whatever, I do not know for certain. I am as an island; It is often when we are forced off said island that we must to swim with the tide. There's the compromise you speak of. Part of life, but not part of my own tactics to be used as an excuse for not rising upon the incoming wave. ;)

Endymion said...

Thanks again for your thoughts and your time -- speaking of which, it's late here. Good night.

Rob Kuntz said...

G' Night, Mark.

I forgot to answer: Clang has bee invited here but prefers to hang out on Face Book and at Dragonsfoot these days. There still old board members here all the same. I enjoyed the chats.

Now back to work.