Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Confessions of an Insecure Game Designer

Hi, allow me to re-introduce myself.

I’m JB…at least, that’s my handle in the blog-o-sphere. I live in Seattle. I have a regular 40 hour job that gives me very little stress and makes zero demands on me outside the office. I have a wife and child that I love a lot, though we don’t always get along as well as we should. I have two beagles who wake me up between 4 and 5 every morning and who contribute to my general state of endless fatigue…on the other hand, I am probably their favorite person in the world (I feed them, more often than not), and despite their idiosyncrasies, I have immortalized them by naming my game company for them.

Game company? Well, that’s kind of a stretch but I needed some type of title for this hobby thing I do in my spare time. I’m a gamer…I enjoy playing games. My preferred types of games do not involve 21st century technology. Cribbage is good, as is Hearts. Yahtzee is good. I like cards and dice…I’ve got a streak of the degenerate I guess. I used to smoke, too, but I decided I liked life too much to keep that particular habit.

Role-playing games are good because I have a pretty active imagination and most RPGs are “adventure oriented” and I like adventure. In fantasy anyway. I’m not much for heights, or extreme-type sports, or enlisting in the military, which cuts out a lot of “real life” adventures I might have.

A good RPG (to me) has a rich fantasy world to fire my imagination, a slim and/or easily managed set of rules, and a few objective means of system resolution (things not requiring a whole lot of GM fiat). Dice rolls are good for this type of thing. And I like dice.

["rich fantasy world" does not necessarily mean "complex setting." Boot Hill has a rich fantasy world because A) there's a LOT of history/fiction available on the "Old West" and B) pretending to play a cowboy is an obvious fantasy!]

I have a lot of opinions on games. It comes from liking them, playing them, thinking about them. The advent of the internet and free blogs (like this fine blogger machine here), allows me a platform to vent my opinions into the internet world. Sometimes those opinions have been bounced back by others. Sometimes those opinions have been changed or transformed by things I’ve read. Over time and life, I continue to evolve…or rather refine…my point of view. Somewhere along the line, I got the idea to start contributing to this thing I liked – gaming – in a way more than simply venting opinion. Creating something…something folks could hold and enjoy, something folks could use for their own amusement…became not just an interesting idea, but something important.

I have called myself an “artist” in the past with regard to music and acting. But I’ve never created anything lasting, unless you count the occasional fond memory. That’s nice, of course (nice to have your ego stroked by someone 10-20 years after the event happened)…but that memory will die with that person. An experience can’t be truly shared with a person who wasn’t present at the time. It can be described, it can be used to teach or amuse, but in the end it’s all just hearsay mixed with the jumbled thoughts and memories of the person telling the tale.

A book, though, is different. It can be held, it can be kept, it can be shown, it can be lent. It can be bought and sold and traded. It can be mined for ideas (like an experience), but it exists independent and concrete of the person doing the mining…it can benefit more than just a single person. And yet it is still an expression of one’s creativity – like a song or a performance – as well as a physical commodity.

And so I’ve discovered a deep satisfaction in the act of publishing. Self-publishing, of course, because I’m a bit of a control freak, not to mention shy with my creativity. On stage, there is a distance between yourself and an audience. Working closely with other people in the act of collaboration? That’s tough.

[hmmm…now that I think about it, it’s always been tough for me to collaborate with my stage-mates as well – whether you’re talking about a band or the cast of a production. Maybe I should have studied painting instead…]

Anyway, that’s me. I understand that I’ve embarked on a different type of artistic endeavor in writing and publishing books…even game books. I understand there’s a honing and refining of one’s craft that’s needed if I’m going to continue and hope to create useful, constructive art. I also understand that there is much I have to learn and that the best resource for that learning is from others who have gone before me.

That being said…

There were a LOT of game designers present at Dragonflight this year. Much more than I remembered from my last stint (in 2010), but it’s possible I was just overwhelmed by the entire experience previously. It was, after all, my first gaming convention (or “fun-type” convention of any type). This time I was much less whelmed by the venue, and was able to concentrate on observing my surroundings. I met and had the opportunity to speak with several designers. Some offered me advice. Some offered me information. Some offered me encouragement. Some just desperately, desperately wanted me to buy or play or support their pet game. Those were the toughest ones to deal with.

I saw a lot of games in binders…binders with a nice illustrated title page tucked in the front of the binder. Huge-ass binders, each one representing someone’s fantasy opus. Some of these had many players at their tables. Some of them had none. One person waved a handful of loose papers at me as I was leaving (early) Saturday evening. “I have pre-gens!” he cried.

I looked at a lot of character sheets. A LOT of character sheets. Instead of sitting down at tables, I’d just circle the groups while the young (or not-so-young) designer was giving “the spiel” and I’d look over shoulders at character sheets. I saw archetypes like “cleric.” That particular game actually had quite a few players at the table.

I saw a LOT of new games I’d never heard of: ones that had no connection to the OSR as far as I know. I might be considered a part of the “Old School Renaissance,” but my game is a lot farther from D&D than some of these games. I saw a lot of games that incorporated phrases like “D20 sensibilities” in their description.

This might be a good time to talk about Pathfinder, as I’ve had (what I think is) a profound change of opinion on that game based on what I saw at Dragonflight XXXIV. On Sunday, during one of the several breaks in my activity, I wandered into the 2nd floor hall that had been set aside for the Pathfinder Society. The hall was too big for the number of people actually present…at the last convention it had been used for Warhammer (and 40K) matches and it seemed fuller because each table was usually only occupied by a pair of combatants. Even so, there were at least as many people playing Pathfinder as all the people in the downstairs “role-playing hallway” combined. Each table was round and had anywhere from six to eight players. Each table had a pile of books and a battlemat in the center occupied by a number of miniatures. The participants (both players and DMs) were from a wide range of ages, young and old. All (as far as I could tell) were having a great – or at least pretty good – time.

Pathfinder is not the devil. Pathfinder is a fun and popular game. As long as it remains well-supported by its publisher (as it is currently), I believe it will enjoy a long and fruitful life and bring great joy to a number of people. I don’t know if I call it role-playing or not…heck, I’m personally inclined to give up that term altogether [the only reason I was running 5AK in the “RPG” section is that it didn’t seem to fit anywhere else]. But regardless, Pathfinder's grown into its own self-sustaining entity…one that I don’t begrudge in the slightest. That is to say, NOT ONLY am I not going to fight Pathfinder (i.e. take a “live and let live” attitude), but I’m not going to actively discourage folks from playing Patherfinder, either. By which I mean, I’m not going to denigrate the game or its designers or attempt to “show it up” with regard to other D&D editions or OSR clones, including my own. In the past, I was inclined to do this because I was of the opinion (rightly or not) that Pathfinder was, well, bad somehow. And I’ve decided it’s not. It’s just a game…a game that plenty of people like and enjoy playing. I myself played a lot of 3rd edition D&D which I consider to be about the same thing as Pathfinder.

Having said that, I’ve also come to the conclusion that I have absolutely zero interest in Pathfinder. The people who enjoy the game are getting an enjoyment of a type I’m not interested in having. It’s like Settlers of Catan or Axis and Allies or Magic the Gathering. These are popular games that plenty of people have plenty of fun playing and with which I’ve had fun with myself (save for Settlers which I’ve never had much interest in trying). But I don’t have any desire or interest to take part in those games. That’s the main thing I realized as I wandered through the Pathfinder tables. All these people having a great time, thoroughly enjoying their game play, and registering absolutely zero on my “interest scale.” And I’ve played the game! It’s like when I walk into Gary’s Games or Café Mox/Card Kingdom and people are playing Magic at the tables…it doesn’t bug me at all. It just doesn’t pique my interest.

SO: no more raining on the Pathfinder parade. For me, they’ve entered the realm of GURPS players. I just stand in wonderment that I had any real resentment towards the game at all.

Back to the basement where “the other role-playing” was taking place…here was a land that, in contrast to the “Pathfinder Society,” seemed to have some type of shame or sadness attached to it. Maybe it was just the area they set aside for us. Maybe it was the number of tables that had scheduled to host events and that had zero players (I wasn’t the only person getting stiffed at the convention). Or perhaps, this is just me looking at the event through the lenses of my own self-consciousness.

As I wrote in my other post, I spent a lot of time in the Story Games Lounge, playing indie-games. Not indie in the sense of “independent designers;” there were lots of those on display in the RPG dungeon, as noted. No, I’m talking about the Forge-type, Story Now games: non-traditional “RPGs” designed to explore premise, or do something other than “fantasy adventure,” or do fantasy adventure in an unconventional fashion.

Sitting in those games…whether as a participant or as a quiet observer…I found myself feeling incredibly self-conscious. It’s not just that the people playing were intelligent individuals (plenty of gamers have the high IQ thang). No, they weren’t just smart: they were clever. And quick-witted. And funny. And creative. And incredibly UN-self-conscious about their own geekiness or their gaming hobby. They were completely good natured and un-judgmental.

I found them disconcerting. Being in their presence, I found me judging myself. Even if they would not.

Ridiculous. I’m the guy who likes to bring non-gamers into the hobby and put them at ease. I’m the guy who runs the game that tries to get everyone involved without judging their choices (with regard to character or action) least at the table. I’m the dude that likes to create an open, safe environment for players to imagine and “role-play” and have a good time in the imaginary, virtual world.

I felt small. With those folks, I didn’t even bother to bring up the fact that I’d just published Five Ancient Kingdoms or anything about it. These people didn’t give a shit about deconstructed Dungeons & Dragons…why waste their time?


This kind of thing is my personal hang-up, I realize. We all have our foibles…mine is a combination of “not recognizing my own self-worth” (in more than a couple categories) as well as “thinks he’s smarter than most people.” Maybe I’m an intellectual bully. No one’s ever accused me of that, and maybe that’s too harsh anyway, but perhaps that describes something of my make-up. Gaming with people who do a helluva’ lot more gaming than myself, and who couldn't care less whether or not there’s a new edition of D&D on the horizon (and are too busy having a fun to worry about spitting in someone else’s good time anyway) and just, well…*sigh* (again).

Yeah, I’m probably being too harsh. Like I said, the people who’d come into the Story Games Lounge (a constantly rotating cast of characters) were all very nice, and seemed perfectly happy and encouraging of my “showboating” play style (I’ll talk about Dresden in a separate post…perhaps). There was certainly no undermining that occurred and the facilitator asked me to hit him up on Facebook sometime. Who knows if I will or not. Certainly, I’ve yet to even email the folks who gave me their email addresses with a request to forward them my “web site information” so that they could check out my games. I mean, what am I supposed to do…give ‘em my blog? That’s the only “web site” I have besides a couple gmail accounts.

Ugh…self-conscious game designer. Did I mention that yet?

Actually, as I wrote yesterday I already had a chance to “decompress” a bit with Tim during our rides to and from the convention (Mr. Morgan is a self-published game designer himself, in addition to the long-time manager of Gary’s Games in Greenwood). Tim, bless his heart, talked me off the ledge I’d (mentally) worked myself into after two days of stress, foul-ups, and “semi-professional" failure. I DO have some faith and confidence in myself (duh), and I fully intend to press on and all, but man-o-man sometimes I really get the shakes…at least internally.

Self-respect. That’s what I’m currently learning.

And publishing, of course…creating that concrete thing that can be passed on and shared with others. A tangible creative expression designed to help others find creative self-expression in game play. That’s what I’m shooting for. And as long as I keep my focus on the objective, the shakes seem to subside to a negligible level.

Eyes on the prize. Don’t look down. All that jazz.

So regarding the publishing thing…or rather, the marketing thing…I did pick up a couple-few useful ideas from Dragonflight, which I’ll be sharing in my next post. Maybe a little bit of “what not to do” but…well, you folks will have to decide whether or not it’s useful to you. It’s stuff that’ll be useful to me, assuming I’m able to keep my shit together and make it out to another of these things!
; )



  1. Time to "big up" the JB. You've self-published two fine B/X supplements and I don't doubt that 5AK is going to be excellent too. That's considerably better than most people with the same ambition have achieved. Cut yourself some slack.

    Regards, Tom

  2. Yes, you have books out there for sale. That's more than 99% of aspiring game designers have. And you encourage and inspire others. And you have never been an "intellectual bully"; for an example of that, look to your "friend" Alexis.

  3. @ Thomas and Erik:

    Thanks. Like I said, I'm working on the self-respect thing.

    @ Erik (specifically):

    I don't think I've ever referred to Alexis as a "friend" (if we were buddies, I'd probably refer to him as "Al"), but we appear to have some mutual respect for each other.

    I should point out I don't believe Alexis is a bully. He's a heavyweight (intellectually) with a mean streak, but you certainly don't have to get in the ring with him.

    Most bullies try to force the issue till they get backed down.

  4. Humility is underrated JB, especially on the blogs and forums. There are many that think too highly of themselves. I tend not to have much time or interest in what they have to say. They are people who are unteachable and unreachable.

    On the other hand, the "down to earth" individual holds nothing but promise if he's willing to learn from his experience. Most people lend a willing ear to what that sort of person has to say because they can identify. They want that person to succeed in the same way they would want others to hope for their own success.

    Nothing wrong with being "down to earth" JB.

  5. You should at least look into setting up a Facebook page and promoting your work there. I generally avoid Facebook as much as possible, but I do try to follow writers, game publishers, and other companies whose product I enjoy.

    And then bang the drum for your books.

  6. you have 2 supplements our that are relevant to their target audience, and now you published your own game. your own game!

    i don't see any need for a lack of self respect. you are doing what many others only dream of and you're doing it all by yourself. (and, as some before me have noted, you do it and manage to stay a nice guy ;)) you certainly got my respect. ;)

    so you fucked up a convention? pfff!

    keep up the good work! :)