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Principles of building creative skill

After my musings on Root, I’ve been thinking a lot about why we categorize some games as beginner, and others intermediate, and I realized it bugged me quite a bit. I think it’s mainly the gatekeeping inherent in the phrase, and how often words such as “entry-level”, “beginner” and “newbie-friendly” have been used to separate the “shallow” from the “deep” appreciation of all kinds of art forms, something which I think is bull.

I’ve noticed a term floating around a fair bit, which is the “Matt Mercer Effect”. To the uninitiated (me being one of them), this is the way in which the hugely popular Critical Role roleplaying actual play channel in particular has given some of their audience unrealistic expectations of their Gamemaster’s (and sometimes their own) roleplaying performance, comparing their games to a voice actor who’s been running games since *googles* I don’t know, probably sometime in the 90’s. I actually think it’s nothing short of a miracle that this hasn’t happened to the hobby earlier – perhaps there would be the same idolization of Gary Gygax if he had a twitch stream, but it hasn’t been until now that we can actually see play like watching a TV show.

I started drawing late. When I was 10 or so I decided to draw a house, realized it didn’t look anything like said house, and I never tried drawing anything for 20 odd years. My reasoning for beginning now is that commissioning artwork is pretty expensive, and if I started drawing now, I could probably be decent when 2027 comes around, which seems like a pretty sweet deal. However, as I started listening to podcasts and watching videos about drawing, often I heard the question “is age XX too late to learn to draw?”.

The various artists I’ve watched, many of whom had been drawing for literal decades, always answered in the negative, but you could see why the question was on peoples minds: On Youtube David Finch, Karl Kopinski and Kim Jung Gi are immensely popular, and they’ve been drawing for decades, and the trope of the young genius painter has been around for centuries. In forums you hear people say “never compare yourself to other artists”, because if you keep expecting yourself to draw like Kim Jung Gi, your results for the first couple of decades will crush your spirit. More on that notion later

It is the same with writing, sports, and music, and now finally Master GMs like Matt Mercer and Matt Colville have arisen, unintentionally crushing the spirits of novice roleplayers.

Roleplaying is a skill. Running games is a skill. It takes time building your proficiency and your confidence, and in order to get there you might need some principles to keep you afloat – things to keep in mind so that your spirit isn’t crushed. These are my principles, feel free to modify them at leisure.

Climb the mountain of conflict progress

First Principle: Don’t stop

This is the only really important principle. If you want to get better at something, you need to keep doing it. If you haven’t done it before, start doing it. As a roleplayer, this means playing games. As a GM, this means running games. You can read all the games and theory you like, but actually playing games is a requirement for improving to the point where it is effortlessly pleasurable.

Not stopping can be difficult. The trick to not stopping is finding ways to motivate you. Theory is helpful, and can motivate you to try out different methods, different approaches. Prep is helpful, as long as you find the prep fun. Trying new systems is helpful, because it can broaden your skillset, and introduce you to new styles of play. And running games that you are already familiar with is also helpful, since it can help you build confidence, and practice the fundamentals of that particular style.

Flow state, kinda

Second Principle: Make Confidence and Doubt a positive loop.

A lot of courses on drawing will be focused on “building confidence”, particularly when it comes to lines and strokes. A long, sweeping, unbroken line is better than a lot of short lines. A lot less is talked about the role of doubt in the positive loop of learning.

In roleplaying you also want to build confidence. A clean line of dialogue or exposition is usually more effective than one broken with “uhms” and “uhhs” – sure, there are characters who talk like that, but often you will play characters who won’t. In practice, this usually means plotting out your lines of exposition, like a line on a sheet of paper, in your head before you start.

If you are anything like me, this is practically impossible. My short-term attention span is horrible, and often when people speak I forget what the bulk of a sentence consisted of right as they end it. I’ve had to learn to plot out “beats” to a sentence or conversation, and then try to hit those beats instead of constructing an entire sentence in my head. Add to this I often second-guess myself and my creative choices, and I get this churning feeling in my stomach when I’ve done something wrong – I always get it the day after I’ve had a session, and the initial high of exciting play has worn off. It has taken my many years to realize that this is a strength.

I’ve learnt that usually the churning feeling I get is something positive which feels negative. It is this feeling which spurs me to better myself. So, back in the day this would be a negative loop (the churning feeling would lead to serious doubts about my ability), while today it is a positive loop, where the churning feeling makes me constructively evaluate my work. On good days at least.

So, you can be sure that whenever you get this churning feeling of something being wrong or bad, this is your mind’s natural way to ensure that you learn something from your mistakes.

I’ve always felt people restrain themselves in museums

Third Principle: Allow yourself Awe

I don’t think people should stop watching Critical Role, even if they struggle with their own self-esteem. You should watch whatever you like, whatever strikes you as good or entertaining, and instead of simply comparing your own skill with those of performers, allow yourself to feel Awe at it.

There is an illusion to running a game, like there is an illusion to rendering form on a flat surface. Not to be confused with the term “Illusionistic Gamemastering” (a style I find pretty boring) because every form of roleplaying is the illusion – the collective illusion that what we say happens is real. And part of what I love about all kinds of art, roleplaying included, is that it allows me to experience Awe at the illusion being created – being swept away by another player’s performance, about a part of the world-building, or even the simple fact that pretty much all players have great ideas which they put into play.

Like a magic trick, you know that they’re doing something to distract you from the work they’ve put in to get there – or maybe the trick is that they’re less “trained” than you are, and have a raw creativity not yet molded by intense practice. And my favourite part is that allowing yourself awe is a skill which, once built, allow you to look at your own work with awe. Often when I draw it feels like my good work is accidental, same as when I play a game. I’ve had times where I’ve made jaws drop, by stuff which felt like it just popped out of my unconscious. And the key is that when these things happen, you should attribute them 100% to your self, because you made that happen through hours and hours of practice.

This castle was brought forth through very little practice drawing castles

Fourth principle: Practice fundamentals, but delve into the unknown

It is difficult to pinpoint the fundamental skills of roleplaying, like you do in drawing. Lines, values and perspective are a lot more concrete than improvisational ability, mechanical proficiency and empathy.

This is where I am of two minds about the category “entry-level”. I DO think it is a useful category, like art fundamentals, but I also think it is a mistake to think of certain games as simply a step on the path to mastery, where you play “real” games.

I’ll try a definition: An entry-level game is a game which allows you to practice the fundamentals of roleplaying. An intermediate game is one which adds elements that obscure the practice of these fundamentals.

Consider World of Dungeons as an entry-level game. It is definitely not an easy game, not to play or run, but it does allow you to practice the fundamental skill of creative problem-solving as a player, and improvising an adventure as a GM, pretty much without any added elements that might distract from this practice. Consider Apocalypse Word as an entry-level game. It is structured in such a way that it can be reduced to three fundamentals (Make it seem real, make the characters’ lives not boring, play to find out what happens), with layers of extra rules supporting this Agenda, but if you forget them it’s no big deal.

Consider Root the RPG. It is structured in much the same way as Apocalypse World (Agenda, Principles, moves, etc.), but it does not quite collapse inward like AW without losing the things that make it… fun. It has a bunch of elements that are awesome, but they obscure the practice of fundamental skills. It is an intermediate rpg.

Where I’d really like to embellish on my entry-level/intermediate discussion from earlier, is that I think it is a mistake, even as a beginner, to focus only on fundamentals. In fact, since your foremost principle is to keep playing, you should play things that make you want to keep playing. And if you’re not worried about your performance, but rather the process, wrestling with a challenging RPG is incredibly fun, and therefore likely to make you keep playing.

Also, if you keep wanting to master fundamentals before moving on to intermediate games, you will never move beyond fundamentals. I’ve been running games for 15+ years, and I still practice fundamentals. You will want to move back and forth as seems natural to you.

Chairs, the fundamental object signifying societal acceptance

Final principle: Make room.

This principle is almost as important as the first one.

Make room for difference, both in skill, outlook, and identity. At some point you will encounter someone with fewer years of experience than you. Make room for them, and you will grow yourself.

The more you do creative things, the weirder your outlook on those particular things will get. Make room for your own weird outlooks. When I started out playing Earthdawn, I thought it was a fun thing to do with friends. Then at some point I started thinking it was an awesome thing to do with friends and strangers. Now I think roleplaying is a collective illusion with the power to break down barriers between the minds of friends and strangers, potentially resulting in a communion which goes beyond any other art form, and probably the most spiritually nourishing experience a nietzschean atheist like me will experience.

Make room for old, weirdly entrenched thinkers, and demand that they make room for everyone else. Make room for young roleplayers with young ideas, and demand that your peers make room for them too. Make room for voices that can articulate what you will never be able to.

As long as you keep playing.

2 thoughts on “Principles of building creative skill

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