One of my favorite scenes in any movie is the “There’s No Crying in Baseball” scene from A League of Their Own. Former player and current manager Jimmy Dugan (played by Tom Hanks) makes one of his players cry. He tells her that Rogers Hornsby once called him “a talking pile of pig shit” in front of his parents, and he didn’t cry.
This scene has been on my mind due to recent discussions on various Internet sites and forums dealing with criticism—particularly criticism of RPG games and adventures. “A talking pile of pig shit” is somewhat mild when compared to some of the discourse one might see on various forums. Obviously the anonymity of the Internet gives some people the “courage” to behave badly without fearing the same consequences for saying these things to an individual face-to-face.
Creativity Spawns Reaction
Whenever one creates something and releases it for public consumption, a certain amount of feedback, both positive and negative, is going to result. This is true for creative writing, visual art, filmmaking, theater, dance, and—yes—even RPG design. Maybe even more so for RPG design, it seems—although certainly the Internet has made it possible for anyone with a rudimentary grasp of written language and opposable thumbs to become a critic. (Opposable thumbs sometimes optional.)
The truth is that criticism itself used to be as much an art form as the fields that it examined. Although critics were sometimes loathed by the people whose works they were reviewing, there was a tacit understanding that the critics’ opinions carried a certain amount of weight because they understood both the fields they were analyzing and their obligations as a critic. The criticisms, whether positive or negative, were themselves held up to scrutiny by both the publications printing the critics’ works and the informed readers of the criticism. A critic who failed in his or her duties was scathed just as readily as the creator of the critiqued work.
Naturally, those days are pretty much gone. There are certainly still critics whose work is trusted and admired by the public, but it is just as likely that some tool with a web page or Twitter feed can have a louder voice and more influence. In a Tweet-ocracy, he who has the most followers is most right, right?
It is a shame when creative people new to a given field are driven away because of harsh reactions to their work before these people have had the chance to get a thicker skin. I believe RPG designers are particularly susceptible to this problem because of the nature of the medium: the projects often have shorter development time than a movie or novel, the consumers are often closer to the final product because of the nature of the consumption (an intense play experience), and the projects are often distributed online, bringing the designer into direct contact with opinions on their work.
Beatings Will Continue, Regardless of Morale
As a creative-writing student and then an instructor of the same, I got a heaping dose of the issue from both sides. I met very few novice writers who didn’t both long for and fear feedback on their work. Their mouths said, “Really, I want you to be completely honest, because I just want to know the truth,” while their eyes were saying, “If you don’t like it, I am going to break down.”
One of my first works of fiction discussed by first writing teacher was a pitiful piece of junk. I didn’t know this teacher as a person, but she was a writer whom I thought was brilliant. And she was. And she also gave my first work the full Rogers Hornsby. “A pile of pig shit” would have been a freaking Pulitzer by comparison. It hurt to hear it, but it also helped. When later I turned in fiction that earned more positive remarks, it helped me to learn that first valuable lesson in creativity: the work’s creator is separate from the work.
This lesson was valuable to me not just as a writer, but later as a teacher. When I had to interact with a student who had just handed me a heart-wrenching but terrible story about some obvious personal abuse or trauma, I had the means to react to the fiction in one way and to the fiction writer in another. A story is one thing; your life and your spirit are another. The former doesn’t do the latter two justice, so let’s work to make the story as good as you can make it be—as it deserves to be.
This may seem far afield from game design, but at its core it really isn’t. Game design is usually not as personal as a work of fiction, but it can be pretty close. The hours, days, or months spent creating content—whether that involves rules or characters, adventures or worlds—is still time spent creating. To spend that much time on something is to imbue it with value. No one wants to make that time and value feel like it was wasted—or worse yet that any future time would be a waste as well.
I’ve already done an entire column on ways to prepare yourself to write RPG material, and I don’t want to repeat that too much. If you feel you are ready to give it a go, then start. But I have a few bits of advice that might help.
The Cheerleader, the Cohort, and the Critic
Find someone you trust to read your work, even if they know nothing about games or RPGs. This person should be your cheerleader. This person should tell you that you are better than William goddam Faulkner ever dreamed of being. For a novice writer, this person is the most valuable resource you have. This person will be the one who drives away the doubts that can lead to problems moving forward. IN time, this person’s voice will become the voice in your head that gets the words on the page without fear.
Next find peers. These should be people in the same position as you—your cohorts. They can still be cheerleaders, but they also have some experiences in what you are going through as a designer, and they can add some insight to the cheering. They can offer support and advice, both with the projects you are working on and the trade in general. Their victories and your victories are the same.
Finally, find the critic. I don’t mean “critic” in the sense of one who criticizes, but instead critic as the one who can analyze and dissect. In RPG terms, these may be playtesters. They can shine the light on the work without shining the light on the creator. They can dialogue with you about the work in a way that makes it a discussion and not a scolding.
Throughout your projects, they can continue to act as support. However, in time, all of these people can at once become a part of your creative process without necessarily having to take part at all. Their parts of their collective voices that have been helpful to you will become a part of your own inner voice, and they can teach you how to approach future creations through their past contributions. It is this inner voice that will finally sustain you throughout the creative process, allowing you to become your own cheerleader, cohort, and critic.
There’s No Crying in Design
This part of my previous column bears repeating. As a general rule, stay away from forums. Yes, some of the feedback provided on forums may be valuable. Yes, it can be nice to see compliments from total strangers who appreciate your work. But in general the most valuable feedback on your work is going to come in from playtests, from running your games for both friends and strangers, and from conversing with people whose opinions you can rely on to be presented honestly and in good faith.
And when there is negative feedback leveled toward your work, you don’t have to take it personally. It is natural to want to justify and qualify and, at some level, strike back. But all the time and energy spent doing all that would probably be better spent establishing productive relationships and creating new material. And it certainly it is not productive spending the time crying. There’s too much work to be done and too little time as it is.