There’s No Crying in Design

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.


  1. John du Bois says:

    I also think that it’s important to note that in game design, the odds that someone will hate what you have done are about 1 in 1; preferences in the genre are diverse enough that’s it’s impossible to write a universal work. All you can hope for in criticism is that either (a) nobody says that you should throw yourself in front of a bus, or (b) you’re able to laugh at the person saying it while drawing the insightful comments (if any) from their criticism.

  2. Shawn Merwin says:

    @John: Yes, that is very true. RPGs are interacted with in a way that often draws strong reaction. Everyone’s play experience is different, and reports of such experiences must necessarily takes that into consideration. I was going to write about playtesting and incorporating feedback, but I decided not to for a couple reasons: (1) the column would get too long, and (2) I’m probably about to gain some more experience in that area, so I wanted to wait until I had more thoughts to wrestle with. And thanks for reminding me about the “throw yourself in front of a bus” comment. Keeps me honest.

  3. There’s a vast pit between having a knowledgeable person critique your work and adjusting design and development plans based on anonymous comments posted in a manner just archaic enough that only those that are aggressively angry (about something, usually not the game) will bother putting up with long enough to do so. (And ChaosDog147 is still anonymous until he tells you his last name and where he lives.)

    I think the biggest problems that have happened overtime to both the Living Forgotten Realms campaign and D&D 4E design in general are due to those folks listening to their forums. The chart overtime of the local and regional decline in popularity of both LFR and 4E that I see and deal with on a daily basis echoes the chart overtime of Wizards Community launching and discussions being forced to happen there while admins and designers are forced/”encouraged” to visit on a regular basis.

    2009 was a time of both the least restrictions in LFR play and the highest ration of 4E material available to 4E material with errata and 2009 saw our best numbers in LFR play, Game Day play, home game play, interest, new players, DMs offering to run, convention badges and tickets sold, and so more. More people I personally know bought D&D products, subscribed to DDi, and traveled out of the state for conventions than since. Many don’t play D&D at all now, the rest rarely play. I hear the changes in design structure, in product release schedules, and in organized play opportunities quoted over and over when I try to get them back into the game. I’ve been a party to many of the discussions on WizCom that led to these changes and have seen game designers reply then watched the changes happen alter, to the joy of the few on WizCom and the hatred of the many at the store.

    Meanwhile I’ve followed LFR since before it’s release and been a party to similar discussions about things that are “wrong” with the campaign and get restricted in future updates of the campaign documentation and seen LFR admins partake in said discussions. Later restriction happen, the majority of the local players rebel, and the number of players decreases over and over again.

    I think Wizards Community and this initiative to interact with the noisy few that bother to post there is the worst thing to have ever happened to Dungeons & Dragons.

    And I’ve seen all the movies. 😉

    – NFR

  4. Shawn Merwin says:

    @NFR: You make some good points. I think a sense of community is needed for RPGs to flourish, but basing business decisions on a few voices is definitely dangerous. Do other RPGs have vocal communities, I wonder? Are those RPGs guided by those communities at all, and do they suffer for it? I know a lot of my friends and colleagues in the world of fiction and film/TV writing absolutely despise the thought of “focus groups” or marketing people determining the creative content of their work. The “democratization” of creative processes and products rarely yields truly great results, but woe to the American who even suggests that anything to do with the will of the masses might be less than glorious. 🙂

  5. Regarding what might be described as ‘views from the peanut gallery’, even John Rodgers, who is phenomenally open in answering questions about each Leverage episode on his blog, makes it abundantly clear that it is the /writers/ who write the show. I’m not sure I’d want to watch a show designed by the posters on TWoP!

    Now I don’t know if it’s true that D&D development has been significantly affected by the discussions on the Wizards Community or elsewhere, and, of course, responding to customer feedback is sensible for any organisation. But forum posters aren’t designers, and the responses should be commensurate with the validity of comments and criticism, not the frequency or volume! Taking into account a wel-developed piece of analysis – even if provided by an ‘amateur’ on a forum – is sensible; believing that a particular volume of less-fully-considered complaints must mean that the criticisms are well founded is dangerous.

    (I’m reminded of Josh Lyman’s ‘mis’-translation: “The voice of the people is the voice of a dog”)

  6. Great stuff, Shawn. I find that a lot of gamers want to write (and create) but aren’t sure why they are doing this. The validation for their efforts is not clear. Because writing RPGs is so imperfect, and the feedback so mixed, it can be very hard for the writer to gain that personal validation.

    Ideally as a writer you can get in touch with your inner self around why you are doing this and how to feel that your work is valid/good regardless of the reactions. Writers often struggle to understand that a work can have flaws, or flaws for some, and still be incredibly valuable to gaming. It is exceedingly hard work and has a cost (I mean, all this largely free work comes at the expense of important things like family… and then you get the joy of reading a gamer’s negative feedback? Why did I stay up until 4AM again?)… but the benefits can be huge.

    Organized play can have some nice payoffs. When you run into a gamer that thanks you for their adventure, when a player at the table is having a great time and asks who wrote this and you admit you did, when you see a sea of tables having fun in part due to your efforts, that can be great validation. It can also be useful to look at it like an artist – do it for the sake of creating and furthering your craft, not just for the audience. Perfect that craft and take joy in the discovery and the gaining of skill. Finally, free yourself up to make mistakes so everyone can learn. Our work is better because of the many mistakes others have made before us… we in turn contribute our mistakes so others may find a better way.

  7. I’m going to be a cheerleader-peer here and say that you are completely correct!

    I only frequent only one forum, EN World, that I’ve found to be populated mostly by mature people with either neutral or useful opinions. It’s a great place for me to get opinions on my homebrew from other people who play the game and even homebrew their own stuff for comparison. I also have a friend of mine who reads my blog and always tells me positive things about it, so I laughed when you described the need for a cheerleader, because that’s exactly what made me stick to my posting!

  8. Madfox11 says:

    Forums are not always that bad 😉 You do need to be able to filter reviews though for player (including the DM) influence, style preferences and what is useful info and what just opinion. Just because everybody can post on a forum does not mean that everything, or even the majority, will be bad. I have read a lot of useful comments on the LFR forums of WotC for example. Having a thick skin helps, and, what is absolutely necessary when writing adventures, is that you realize that you will NOT write the perfect adventure. You will make mistakes, and those developing and playtesting your work will do so as well.

  9. Wow, this really hit home. I had completly overreacted to someone yesterday when they hit me with A LOT of negativity. What you are saying makes sense. I am still trying to make my first game, and it isn’t always easy to know whom to turn to for a critique. Thanks for the advice.


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