“Nothing pleases people more than to go on thinking what they have always thought, and at the same time imagine that they are thinking something new and daring: it combines the advantage of security and the delight of adventure.” – TS Eliot
Of course, you read that quote and think “yeah, now I’m thinking something new, go me”.
The other day a dog trainer said to me “a good dog is a dog who understands other dogs.” And he’s right. And it goes for humans too. Although we don’t call it being good. We call it wisdom. A lot of figuring out how to be the kind of artist you want to be and the art you want to make comes from understanding yourself, and understanding humans in general helps with that. It’s also a vital skill to learn about how people encounter games. So permit me, for a moment, to talk about security and adventure.
I first heard this from Tony Robbins, who called them the two most important things humans want (assuming they’ve got the base of their Maslow pyramid, of course). We want to feel safe and in control and assured. We want predictability. We want tomorrow to be exactly like today, and today to be like yesterday. We’re not angry because the computer won’t work so much as because it worked yesterday and the new thing bothers us, it makes us work. And you can make millions of dollars with books about cheese talking about how we react when today isn’t like yesterday.
But we also want adventure. We feel paralyzed if things can’t change. Because we always want more. So we need the sense that we could go out and get more and that means we need unpredictability. We need to know tomorrow won’t be like today in some way. That thrill is addictive – but so, of course, is the need to feel secure. Robbins’ best example of this is the gun. The gun in American culture is sold along these exact lines: on the one hand, you’re convinced your safe because you can’t be hurt, while on the other hand, the danger and taboo and criminality and action-movie-excitement tells you that when you pick up a gun, anything could happen. You feel secure and you get the thrill of adventure. The car is sold in much the same way. Super safe. But you can go ANYWHERE. At high speed. In fact, most advertising is like this. McDonalds is your old nostalgic friend whose always there, but gosh, look how much FUN you could have if you grabbed some burgers! As Don Draper said, advertising is about rocketships and time machines, new and nostalgia – adventure, and safety.
In that speech he also talks about the carousel, which is maybe the best example of this. For a five year old, the carousel is so exciting. They get a horse. They go spinning off at high speeds. But just as they start to get scared, there’s mum and dad again. Phew. Security and adventure, over and over again. It’s how we learn. How we explore. How we plan our days and our evenings out. We must go out, we must come back.
Popular, enduring games, play with these things. The trump cards and the ace are your security. You know they are winners. But you wouldn’t play if you only had trumps. The chess pieces are safe behind the pawns. To attack you must expose them. When threatened, you draw them back. It sounds ludicrously simple, but being aware of it helps; games walk us through the carousel ride, the constant dance from security to adventure and back again. In classic RPGs, your security are your cool powers. Your adventure is not knowing what’s behind the dungeon door, or the GM’s screen. Security is a +1. Adventure is rolling the die.
But, like everything humans like, and as the Eliot quote reveals, there’s a danger to this. We cling to bad forms of power and strength, one’s that a toxic, hurtful, false or dangerous because we need the security and adventure we think they provide. We also cling, strangely enough, to bad forms of surrender and weakness. Sometimes, when somebody hurts us or overpower us, we create in our head a sense of security from it. I can’t change this, so it’s safe. Or it reflects some value in me, so that’s safe. And since I’m no longer in control or responsible, there’s a twisted sense of adventure in it. Surrender means you are secure because you don’t have to do anything, and yet you go on an exciting adventure.
Maybe the classic example I see of this is when people call their dogs to try and stop it from doing something but the dog doesn’t really respond. Then people just stop. They’ve tried and done the signal of trying, which meets their values, and that makes them secure. They then get to surrender and watch what happens. There’s no drive for them to take responsibility or accept power over the situation, because they already have what they need. They’ve got security and adventure. The only way they’ll do something else is if the security is being threatened (like someone starts judging them further) or the adventure stops.
A lot of times when you can’t win a game, or a game kind of runs out of real involvement, we fall back into this kind of surrender. Indeed, decent games can be about this kind of surrender. It doesn’t matter what happens, because we’re securely held by the random events, so let’s just enjoy the ride. In many cases, RPGs are like this. It’s not our fault if anything our character tries succeeds or not, we’ve surrendered to the dice. That lack of power keeps us secure, and then adventure comes along and we roleplay it out. In a sense, the adventure of the randomness of the game, combined with the unreality of the game environment, because a dispensational security.
I mention all this because last week I talked about weaknesses. Specifically, I talked about how you can’t be afraid of them, you need to understand them and make them your friends. But there is a flip side to that, where you can surrender to them too much. You can go well, I’m not good at rules design so I’m just going to work on settings. I feel secure in that “choice”, and the adventure comes as I surrender to where it takes me. And if you do that, you’ll never learn and you’ll never find all the things you really are good at. You might also be fooled, because surrender is so enjoyable you’ll take a weakness you don’t have.
My most recent work for Shadow of the Demon Lord was this book, Weight of the Underworld. When Rob commissioned it for me, I was like, no thanks. I never use planar stuff in my fantasy games, it’s of no interest to me, so I have no idea how to make that cool. I’d decided that was a weakness because then I could say real-world stuff like culture and people, that was my strength. Give me the next book, I said. I had to feel secure. And like I said in the article, it came with the tickle of adventure knowing I could write anything IN my wheelhouse. But there are other kinds of adventure, and I took a deep breath and decided to push myself. And I think it came out pretty good.
This isn’t anything new. We’ve all been told about the need to accept what you can’t change and change what you can. But it is important to understand why we can’t tell the difference, how we cling to surrender and power because of false adventure and toxic power. And after I told you how awesome your weaknesses are, I had to point out the other side. Make friends with your weaknesses, but don’t cling to them. Like all friends, they will come and go. Make sure you’re always ready to wave goodbye to them, even if it makes you feel unsafe.