The Pain Behind The Dice

Over the weekend, the esteemed Mr James Wallis posted another update for his kickstarted RPG Alas Vegas. Although funded in Feburary, the game has not yet been finished, and James took another moment to address that, and he did so with his characteristic frankness. Indeed, one of the reasons I like and respect Mr Wallis so much is because he wears his heart on his chest, and lets us see inside the project, sometimes down to the bone. I wish him a speedy recovery from the pains he’s experiencing, but I also want to salute the gesture of opening that door.

He’s not in a wonderful situation: for reasons both personal and artistic, his RPG has failed to appear despite not only a promise of a release date but taking people’s money. Some would suggest his funders are in a worse situation. Commercially speaking, they have given cash for a promise and it has not arisen. And up to a point, I have sympathy for those who feel some sense of entitlement in these days of instant entertainment and total communication. Especially as many production companies treat their fans like a drug dealer treats a junkie – and many fans love being treated like that, and worship the crumbs thrown to them to keep their addictions pumping. When you feed a monster like that, you have to expect it to grow crazed for a fix.

But if you’re not a drooling capitalist zombie or fanboy (ie the same thing), if you’re a human being of anything worth the stripe, then the total communication of the internet and the relative intimacy of the gaming industry offers us a chance to be a lot better than that. We can see – because he’s let us – that James is aggrieved both by his personal situation and by his failure to fulfill the deal. We can use that information to make a judgement as something other than just consumers. We all want to get return for our hard-earned money, but not at the cost of our humanity – and that sounds florid, but when Chris Pramas had to push back a book or two in the Green Ronin schedule because he desperately needed expensive spinal surgery, he was vilified by some not-so-valued customers.

Even without financial and social consequences, it takes guts for a designer or a company to do this sort of thing, even in the smaller world of game design. It’s offering up intimacy to those who have no reason to offer it in return, and can easily slap the hand away. And it’s something that we should encourage, I think, and see a lot more of in the game industry. We can use this era of total communication to do more than just keep us up to date, but allow us into each other’s worlds a bit more. In business and in design.

We’re conditioned not to get too personal, but we’re building art here; nothing is more personal. We take the personal out because we feel people won’t be interested, but again, that reduces the relationship to artist and audience (or worse, producer and customer). I don’t need to know you’re life story if I’m buying your game, no. But if I’m looking for information on you and your game, you shouldn’t feel that I’m not interested in all sides of that conversation. The elephant in the room in conversations about art and design is the personal – and the pain.

Art critics talk about it – my English teacher told me that Polanski’s violent Macbeth came shortly after his wife was violently murdered. And Roy Orbison’s work is enriched by knowing about his terrible stage fright. But I don’t see too much of this in game design. I mean, we’re not always making Macbeth, of course, and the self-doubt of the artist can be excruciatingly dull, but as I wrestle with my self-doubt, I feel enriched and empowered to hear the same kinds of words coming from a luminary like Mr Wallis. Maybe if we talked about it more, we’d find it more of a part of the design process than we thought. Maybe all the people making it look easy would show us just how hard it is.

I’ve talked before about how working on Daughters of Exile literally almost killed me. Right now, my brain also literally will not let me work on personal projects, only those that emulate existing settings, because I cannot let myself create on a blank page, my brain violently rejects that kind of ambition. That’s how my mental illness is operating right now, and that’s part of my design and writing life. Mr Wallis isn’t sick, but he’s dealing with grief and self-doubt and that is part of his writing life. Some others I follow on Twitter – David Pidgeon, Charles Valentine, Philipe-Antoine Menard – talk about their struggles, and that helps me a lot. As long as it’s not defeatist, we can help each other.

As I’ve said before, we get so obsessed with art being the finished product we lose sight of the wonder of practice, which in the long run, is the only thing that matters. Writing a great book is a terrible thing if you hated writing it. The more we look into the process, the more we can separate these two things out, and thus better understand the process that produces the outcome. If we talk more about the path and less about the destination, we can make the path easier to walk. And part of talking about the path is talking about how, sometimes, it is agony to walk it. And indeed, how sometimes the best thing we can do is wait and go another day, or another way. Or even stay home altogether.

Richard Simmons’ exercise programs were never about showing thin people with big smiles showing off their abs. They were about showing people who were so fat they couldn’t walk and how they made their choices and faced their demons and fell down half the time. I think we could use more of that in other fields. In the world in general.

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Games I’ve Got My Eye On aka What I Want For Christmas

Since I’ve put my roleplaying on hiatus, I’ve been gorging my board game addiction as much as cash will allow which is totally not enough in a world full of such brilliant games. Here’s a few I’ve been looking at, for my reference purposes and others’, in no particular order.

Everything By Vlaada Chvatil: Vlaada is a Czech game designer who seems to make unstoppable awesome, and I want everything he’s made. Space Alert, the real time shouty panic card game is top of the list (or its dice-rolling cousin, ESCAPE! Temple Run, if I can’t get Space Alert). Galaxy Trucker also sounds good, with the same wacky comedy of Space Alert where you build a space ship badly then watch it fall apart. There’s also Bunny Bunny Moose Moose which is a party/family game where you have to be a bunny or a moose, depending on cards flipped up. Imagine Simon Says but much more insane. His new hotness genius is Tash-Kalar which is a game about card-management where you play little monsters to build up points to bring out big kahuna monsters but the condition to play cards is based on the arrangement of pieces on a chess-like board. Imagine chess but if you force your opponent to play a bishop next to a knight and boom, you get a second queen. Mad genius.

Collaborative Story Fun: A mouthful but an Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on Cursed Island is an intriguing collaborative game, alas only for four players and with a set-up that makes Arkham Horror look simple. Eight scenarios with different goals but each combining different ways of hunting monsters, exploring a randomly tiled island, building tools and to build settlements and random events throwing it all off kilter, and never enough resources or time to do everything. Like Arkham Horror with Pandemic’s pace. Speaking of the great AH, I’m keen to try it’s very close new cousin Eldritch Horror where Corey Konieczwa applies the same brain that turned Space Hulk into Death Angel and reduces AH down to its bare essentials while still having basically the same mechanic: travel the world, have encounters, gather clues before the gates open. Most of all though I want to pick up Legends of Andor, the winner of the Kennerspiel deh Jahres this year despite being for children and collaborative. All the stress of Arkham Horror but with fantasy heroes exploring the land like Mage Knight! Pseudo-RPGs also lead me to Mice and Mystics a game of miniature heroes fighting cats and cockroaches – basically another Descent or zombie hunter but with a much more distinctive setting.

The Weird and Wonderful: When the Germans do mundanity, it’s REALLY mundane – the thrill of the 18th century post office or pumping electricity around Dusseldorf. But mundane can be pulse-pounding awesome, like Pandemic, or Fire Team Rescue, or Police Precinct or City Council which sounds excellent: pressure from special interests, skim off the top before financial constraints kick in, ponder whether to burn down the zoo to make room for a hospital? I love this trend in games and hope it continues cos I dig real-world stuff. Keeping on weird though there’s the logical games of a kind of Robo-Rally Redux in Twin Tin Bots – program robots to pick up crystals but you can’t change your programming as much as you’d like! Or, work together to give as much information as possible without breaking the rules (like bidding in Bridge) to lay down cards in a perfect pattern with the amazing (not to mention short, sweet, elegant and cheap) Hanabi.

The Euro Reliables, Turned Up to Eleven: What do you get if you combine the hex control of Settlers with the worker placement choices of Village and the random VP goals of Stone Age and the race choices of Cosmic Encounter and the player psychology of Chaos in the Old World? Something like Terra Mystica, which has so many widgets, yet apparently comes together smoothly, in that the choices aren’t difficult to understand, just deep to choose between. Or have the same kind of myriad of choices but with title exploration and resource limitations like you’ve rammed Terra Mystica back into Robinson Crusoe and created Archipelago. And since I can never get people over to game as much as I want, I’m super curious to try the solo genius of Friday. While not euro in truth but in style, I hear good things about AEG’s set of four linked games in the same setting, particularly the uber-simple five minutes to play 12-cards-only Love Letter.

Everything is Better Licensed: There are not one but two Firefly games coming out (and that doesn’t even include the RPG). Legendary, the Marvel Deckbuilder could use the expansion (well, my buddy who owns it could). And they’ve just made a collaborative demon-fighting game based on Journey to the West.

So just a few, you know.