It’s time for the monthly, rambling, bulls$&% stream of consciousness garbage whose only justification is some fan picked the topic. Well, past time actually. I know this was supposed to happen last week. But, as you might have heard, the Angry PC – the heart and soul of the Angry enterprise – broke. And so did Angry’s knee. Okay, neither was actually broken. But both were pretty bad off. The knee is doing better. And the PC has been resurrected through the expedient of a clean reinstallation of the operating system. But it was a rough week. Sorry.
Anyway, it’s time for the month, rambling, bulls$&% stream of consciousness garbage whose only justification is some fan picked the topic. This week’s fan is… ME. That’s right. I chose the topic. Partly because I’ve been incommunicado for the better part of a week and wasn’t really able to talk to my fans for any length of time. And partly because, well, because the topic is about feedback, innovation, validation, ballsiness, Dungeons & Dragons, and adequacy vs. greatness. It’s the sort of stew of a topic that needs this sort of stream of consciousness thing to really spell out. But, unlike my other stream of consciousness ramblings, I’m going to keep this one relatively short. See, once I get rolling, there isn’t actually a whole lot to say. But what there is to say IS important if you want to be a great GM or even a great game designer.
Now, this one does have several ingredients that provide the context. And since that’s the sort of s$&% I normally put in the Long, Rambling Introduction™, I’m going to do it here. Feel free to skip ahead to the first – and only – actual heading if you’re one of those people who are smart enough to understand how this s$&% works and not to piss and moan at me about how you don’t like the Long, Rambling Introduction™. For the rest of you, here’s the funny, egotistical, sweary context for this discussion.
I get a lot of feedback. I don’t know why. I do everything I possibly can to make myself unapproachable. Ludicrously, comically unapproachable. I’m sweary, insulting, unreasonable, dismissive, belittling, condescending, and egotistical. You’d think that would keep people away. But no. Because people are f$&%ing sadists. I am contacted via e-mail, direct message, comment section, Facebook messenger, Patreon messenger, and occasionally being shouted at on the street pretty much every day. The thing is, most of the feedback is just simple thank you type s$&%. I get a lot of that. Because I’m f$&%ing awesome. And I thrive on that crap. Because my ego can’t maintain its Rubenesque figure without constant feeding. But, beyond that, the feedback can be divided into several different categories.
First, there’s people looking for help. And I’m going to come back to those people in a minute. Just know they are there. After being told how awesome I am and how much I’ve helped, that’s the second most common category. Second, there’s people who read one of my ideas and think its good or bad and want me to know that. As if I give a f$&%. And I seriously don’t. See, here’s the thing with RPGs: you can’t evaluate anything in an RPG just by reading it. You have to actually try the thing out. And that’s because the medium is interactive. The mechanics of the game – the stuff you read – don’t mean anything until they are interacting with GMs, players, and each other. So, if you think you’re qualified to tell me whether an idea is good or bad based on a read through, you’re wrong. And ignore all that crap. Yeah, even the compliments. Third – and these are the people I do pay a lot of attention to – third are the people who have actually TRIED something I wrote about and want to tell me that it worked, that it needed some modification, or that it didn’t work. Granted, I don’t get much of that last one. Because, as I said, I am awesome. And most of the ideas I write down on my blog work because most of them have actually been used in play at least a little bit in some form or another. And when they haven’t been, I admit it. Just to be totally honest. Oh sure, sometimes I jump the gun and write down something I’m going to use in play soon – like that armor thing – but if I’m willing to put it into my game, I’m willing to write about it. After all, I can always come back and say “hey, I fixed this because it didn’t work the way I wanted it to.” By the way, that’s why the “rules module” articles petered out. I’ve been without a regular group of people I can playtest s$&% with. But I digress.
Where was I? People who want help. People who have opinions based on reading. People who actually try my stuff. And the fourth is people who want my opinion on Dungeons & Dragons. Seriously. I get this one a lot. And I don’t know why – at this point – anyone wants an opinion on D&D 5E. Everyone in the gaming community who was going to try D&D 5E has already either bought it, skipped it, or bought it and then given up on it. And if people are having fun with it – or didn’t have fun with it – I’m not going to change their mind. I seriously don’t get the whole “what are your thoughts on 5E now that you’ve been playing it for three years” or whatever. Who gives an actual f$&%? Ask me something useful. Anyone can s$&% out an opinion. You want my opinion on D&D 5E? Here it is: it’s perfectly fine. It’s like that first remake of Star Trek back in 2009. Or – if you didn’t hate it like I did – that Star Wars: The Force Awakens thing. It’s a perfectly adequate rehash that basically imitates the thing it remakes, takes no chances, and adds nothing new of substance. It’s adequate. Okay.
Trust me, there’s a reason why that’s part of the context.
But let’s get back to the people who want help. People who ask me for help break down into two categories. First, there are people who have a situation in their game and are genuinely stymied. They don’t know what to do. They don’t know where to start. They maybe have some vague idea about doing this or fixing that or adding something else, but they just don’t have a clue how to turn that into something to actually add to the game. I love that sort of s$&%. I wish I had the time to reply to everyone. It’s fun to throw ideas back and forth. If you’ve ever sent me a question like that on any channel and I haven’t been able to respond, I’m sorry. Lots of people come at for that s$&%. I really wish I could help.
But the second category is people who have an idea and want to “bounce it off me.” “Dear Angry, I have this idea for a thing; here it is all spelled out; do you think it’s good?” There’s also a less direct version. And that’s the version that goes “how would you feel about this feature or mechanic or encounter or whatever in a game? Do you think it would be cool?” That’s passive-aggressive bulls$%&. It’s doing the same thing, but the writer doesn’t have the balls to actually take credit for the idea by saying “this is my idea, is it good?” You f$&%ing coward.
I see that question mirrored on social media a lot. “Do you guys think this would be a good idea?” “How would you feel about a mechanic that does this?” “Would you enjoy playing in a game with this theme?” Once upon a time, a friend of mine was getting ready to start a Kickstarter. And as he was delaying the start of the Kickstarter, he kept asking various people for opinions about the things he INTENDED to do. “Should I do this?” “Do you think this would be a good idea?” And, because I was his only real friend, I was the one with the conejos – yes, that’s not a typo, I know what I said – I was the one to tell him what he needed to hear: “stop looking for someone to validate your decisions, just do the damned Kickstarter and it will succeed or fail. S$&% or get off the pot.” He did. Finally. And it was successful. Because I’m basically the best damned life coach you could possibly have as long as you can take a lot of abuse. Just don’t look at MY life. Because it’s a lot easier to tell other people how to live their lives than it is to live your own.
From that Extra Long, Rambling Introduction™, you now have the major factors that have led to this article: 1) You can’t evaluate anything to do with an RPG until you see it in play; 2) D&D is perfectly adequate; 3) “how would you feel about this thing”; and 4) balls, guts, and conejos.
Innovation: Utterly Worthless and Totally Priceless
Once upon a time, I watched some video on the internet about how gamers – this was specifically about video gamers – all claim to want innovation, but how things that are the “same old thing” just keep outselling everything that’s new and different. And that’s true everywhere. We all recognize innovation as something valuable, something we want. But at the end of the day, we rarely act that desire out. We rarely seek out the new and innovative and instead tend to stick with the things we know and love. It’s true in video games. It’s true in movies. Especially these days. And it’s true in RPGs. D&D 4E was truly innovative. It was the most innovative version of D&D since the year 2,000. And it was left bleeding in a ditch after five years as we sped toward a new version that was going to built by fans to capture the CLASSIC spirit of D&D. Reviewers and bloggers like me, we all complain about it. Game designers complain about it too. After all, what’s the fun of just putting a fresh coat of paint on something that’s been done before? Oh sure, you might streamline things and tweak things, but that’s puttering and tinkering with someone else’s work. It doesn’t test your chops. And GMs recognize it too. GMs HATE doing unoriginal things. If you say that you started your latest campaign off in a tavern, you’ll get people screaming at you for being trite, tired, and cliched. But most GMs – even after all of that – they tend to fall into familiar patterns of their own and seek the path of least resistance. Why build custom content when you can reskin, for example? Why change the rules when the rules work quite fine the way they are? Why build elaborate scenarios that require complex mechanical frameworks when the encounter building rules give you combats that are just fine the way they are?
So let me lay down the truth about innovation and originality. Innovation and originality have ZERO intrinsic value. By themselves, they are worthless. There is nothing inherently more enjoyable about something new as opposed to something old. Likewise, there is nothing inherently less enjoyable about something derivative. A remade movie has just as much POTENTIAL to be good as the original did. They are both potentially good. Potentially. My adventure based on rescuing a princess that starts in a tavern has as much potential to be a fun adventure as your adventure about a group of sky pirates sailing through the astral sea plundering the ruins of the divine realms after the equivalent of Ragnarok has left all of the gods dead and humanity has moved from the ravaged natural world into the divine realms.
Now, sure, that second thing really does sound great, right? It sounds exciting and new. But the thing is, whether it actually IS great is going to depend entirely on my ability to pull it off. If it just ends up being standard exploration and dungeon crawling with the names changed, it’s not great. It’s just okay. Meanwhile, if I can pull off a harrowing traversal challenge through a volcanic lair and a battle with a red dragon that plays out on the caldera of a volcano and has to end in ten rounds or else the volcano will erupt and the dragon is strafing the party and lava bombs are raining down on everyone and the princess is in an adamantine cage cooking to death while the rogue desperately tries to pick the lock, that’s going to be pretty awesome.
Now, here’s where the value of innovation DOES come in to play. Imagine you are at a convention and you play both of those games. And both of them are great. Equally great. In terms of the gameplay experience, both of them are heart-pounding, exciting, tightly crafted, and artfully delivered. If someone asks you to tell you which game you played at the convention was your favorite, you’re probably going to go with the sky pirates in the ruins of Ragnarok. When done well – when executed well – innovation makes great things better. That is, if something is awesome AND ALSO innovative, then it really wows people.
See, the truth is, people don’t want innovative things. They want great things that are also innovative. Given the choice between a good thing they’ve seen before and a good thing that’s new, they’d rather have the new thing. So why don’t people seek out innovation?
Let’s say you have a $50 gift card to a really nice restaurant. It was given to you for your birthday. And they have two specials on the menu that are exactly $50 including appetizer, cocktail or beer, and dessert. It’s a great deal. So, you’re going to get one of the specials. One of them is chicken and fettuccine alfredo. Which you know you like. It isn’t your favorite dish ever, but you enjoy it. The other dish is some unpronounceable Italian thing you’ve never heard of. And when you ask about it, the waiter gabbles off a list of ingredients and spices of which you only know about one third. If you are MOST PEOPLE, you will go with the dish you like. In fact, there are certain dishes that restaurants always list on their menus precisely because they are familiar, and most people order familiar things rather than trying new foods. Especially when the restaurant is expensive. Trust me. It’s true. You can look it up. Chicken Alfredo is an example of one of those dishes. I s$&% you not.
Here’s the thing: it’s always risky to try something new. And the more it costs you to try something new, the more likely you are to stick with what’s familiar. When a movie studio has a choice between a new movie franchise no one has ever heard of and a sequel or remake in a very popular franchise, they will sink their millions of dollars into the thing they know will put a$&es in chairs. And you can’t even blame them. Because when most people decide to go to the movies, given the choice between something in a franchise they know they like and something they’ve never heard of, MOST PEOPLE choose the familiar franchise.
Wizards of the Coast took a huge risk with D&D 4E. There was a lot behind the scenes that happened between WotC and Hasbro to get that edition bankrolled. A lot of promises were made. And ultimately, D&D 4E didn’t resonate with fans. It did bring in a huge pile of new players, but it alienated a lot of hardcore fans to do that. At least, that’s how it was perceived. Lots of fans chose to stick with D&D 3.5 either literally or practically by adopting Pathfinder. And Paizo ended up being WotC’s largest competitor in the industry as a direct result of D&D 4E not quite resonating with core fans. The problem was, for a lot of people, 4E just didn’t work. But here’s the thing about that. Lots of fans claim it’s because 4E didn’t FEEL like D&D. It changed too much. But I’m old enough to remember the change from AD&D 2E to D&D 3E. And people said the same thing. Because 3E innovated A LOT. It was a very different game. But it worked. So much so that it became the definition of D&D. That’s why 5E imitates it so closely. Because 3E became the definitive version of D&D.
What was different? Well, when it came to D&D 3E, you didn’t have a lot of choice. I mean, your AD&D 2E books didn’t go anywhere, but if you wanted new modules and settings and rules and support, you had to switch to D&D 3E. When it came to 4E, WotC didn’t have the power to kill 3E thanks to the OGL. Pathfinder kept 3E alive. People had a choice: learn to love the new D&D or stick with the old.
The truth is this: innovation is extremely risky. Trying new things is risky. Because they might not work. And because new things are held up to a higher standard than old things. D&D fans were always going to hold 4E to a higher standard than Pathfinder because even if Pathfinder was only a pretty good derivative, a pretty good version of something you really like is better than a pretty good version of something you don’t like.
But, innovation can be highly rewarding. Because, when you DO pull it off, you’ve not only pulled off something great, you’ve pulled off something NEW and GREAT. D&D 3E was HIGHLY successful. It literally brought the brand back from extinction. Whatever WotC wants to claim about the success of 5E, it just doesn’t compare. And lots of things we think of as franchises now were once NEW and GREAT. That’s how we get new things. For films, consider the Pirates of the Carribean film franchise or, for kids, the Despicable Me/Minions franchise. Yeah, they are being run into the ground now. But they were both new ideas when they started. Dark Souls has grown into a very famous franchise, but it was also a game that no one thought COULD succeed when it came out. Minecraft? Angry Birds? And even within derivative works, look at Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey. Those are both very original compared to the prior games in their franchises, and they have both been wildly successful.
The payoff of innovation is the potential to do something great. It is the potential to do something amazing. The risk is that people hate it and it fails. Doing something derivative will get you something lots of people will probably like and it’s far less likely that you will do something people hate. Doing derivative s$&% is low risk, medium reward. Doing innovative s$&% is high risk, high reward.
What does all of this have to do with GMing?
First, if you want to run – or design – great games, you have to risk running – or designing – s$&% games. Sorry. That’s a fact of life. You have to be willing to take risks. And that means you have to be willing to innovate. You have to be willing to be the first person to do something. Or at least to do an old thing in a new way.
Second, doing something new or unusual or original or innovative does not ensure greatness by itself. Innovating just to innovate will have no payoff. Because people are suspicious of new things. And they hold new things to a much higher standard than they hold established things. Which means anything innovative has to work twice as hard to get people to give it a fair chance.
Third, doing derivative things isn’t as bad as people think it is. Most people like things that feel familiar, or at least, they will give things more leeway if they feel familiar. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Now, those three things crash into each other like this: you can’t make greatness happen, but you can recognize the opportunity for greatness when it arises. And that opportunity will arise in the form of an idea in your head. You’ll have an idea. Something new. Unusual. Untried. Unfamiliar. It might be a new bit of game content – like a race, class, or monster. It might be a new mechanic – like a set of rules to handle equipment or wilderness travel or stealth. It might be as big as a new system – a subsystem or hack for an existing game or an entirely new game. And you’re going to have to decide what to do. Do you put in the time, effort, and energy to build the thing out? Do you stick it in your game? Do you try to sell it? Kickstart it? Do you take the risk of wrecking your home game? Of wasting your time? Of failing to get sales? Of failing to get funding? Or worse, of getting funding and then selling something that turns out to be crap? Because whatever you put into that new idea, whatever you let touch that new idea, it will all be lost in the – probably likely – event that your idea doesn’t turn out as good as it was in your head. Are the rewards worth it? Is it worth the risk to achieve greatness?
Only YOU can answer that question. Only you can decide whether good enough is okay for you or if you want to chase being the very best, like no one ever was. Me? I’m usually chasing the best. I’ve ruined my game more times than I want to admit with things that seemed like brilliant ideas. Of course, over time, I got the trust of my players. Because, over time, I got better at things, so my flops came less and less often, and my successes got better and better and more and more frequent. Because that happens. The more risks you take on innovation, the more successes you have. You get good at it.
But, once you’ve decided to chase greatness, understand that the rest of the world – even your own players – they are all going to be skeptical. If you ask people “do you think you want to try this idea,” lots of people will say “nah, that doesn’t sound good, let’s just do what we always do.” Most people just want the chicken alfredo. And that means they can’t be trusted. Don’t make the mistake on asking for feedback about an innovation until you’ve actually made people try the damned thing. If you ask if something new sounds like a good idea, lots of people will be able to give you lots of good sounding reasons why it probably isn’t. But those people don’t know what they are saying. Until an idea is EXECUTED – and tested and tweaked and perfected – it can’t be evaluated. Not even by you.
In short: if you have some great idea for doing a new thing in your game, JUST F$&%ING TRY IT. Don’t e-mail me to ask me if it’s a good idea. You want the glory, you have to have the guts. Grow a pair and try it. Or else just keep rereleasing remakes and sequels and leave me alone.