Paragon Wants, Epic Needs

Doing work for a client seems on its face a straightforward transaction. The client says what they want, and the professional they’ve hired performs the work. In some fields, this holds true. Specifications are put forth and followed. Job done, Cold Ones opened, feet up on the couch. If there’s a snag in the plans, most people will grumble at a plumber, carpenter, or architect — but ultimately it’s hard to argue with “your 6′ bathtub will not fit in a 5′ area” or “do you really want a 6′ square living room?”.

Hopefully, these problems have been identified while still on paper. It’s a lot costlier to go back, undo things, and then figure out some way to salvage things in a mostly-correct (read: passable) way. Experienced craftsmen have seen a lot of these types of things, and can plan to avoid them. They know a lot of ways to do their job well that the layperson doesn’t. Rooms are designed to be comfortable and space-efficient. Walls and floors are designed to be sturdy and flexible. Plumbing is designed to last a long time. (Admittedly, I really wish this hypothetical plumber was around with my home was constructed.)

The Plight Of The Creative

Doing client work in a creative field is much the same way, except many clients tend to view it differently. If you know any web developers or graphic designers, you’ve no doubt heard their particular repertoire of “Clients From Hell” stories. These people are no different from any other, except they tend to be some combination of clueless, under pressure, and/or completely morally bankrupt.

The first two, cluelessness and pressurization, are understandable. I’ve been in many a situation when I’ve been handed an impossible situation and flatly told to get it done, and I bear the shame of many hasty and boneheaded decisions. If I’d been hiring people to do the things I couldn’t, those may have qualified me for Client From Hell status. Cluelessness is even easier to understand. Techies, designers, and artists have a tendency to do things those outside their field don’t understand. (That’s why they’re being hired.) That also means it’s hard for the average Joe to wrap their head around a web developer’s priorities, or to place value on the things a designer does. Worse, sometimes these skills are trivialized and the client thinks anybody with a copy of Frontpage or Photoshop can get by. Concerns from creatives are frequently misunderstood, ignored, or met with hostility. It is not much fun.

Communication: Minmaxing For Social People

When people hire other people, it’s frequently because they have some sort of need or pain they want to address. One of the most important skills for anybody who does client work is communication. You need to be able to hear what your client is saying and apply your knowledge and skills to provide a solution for them. Sometimes, you realize what they’re asking for isn’t what they need. That’s when it really gets interesting. I mean that in several senses of the word. They might think you’re awesome and let you save the day. They might also throw a fit if you need more time and money to do it, or just fire you because you’re going off their original plan. This is not much fun either.

I’m not exactly sure when I realized this in my career, but one of the keys to succeeding in getting the client what they need instead of what they want is salesmanship. I worked at a Radio Shack for a year when I was a teenager, and I hated it. I didn’t like selling, I didn’t like feeling like I was tricking people, I didn’t like any of it. This is not what I am talking about. It’s about being confident about your ideas and infecting other people with that same passion so they believe in it too. I suck at this, and I wish I’d worked on it a lot more when I was younger. Accursed social skills!

The Herculean Path Of D&D Next

Some of you may be wondering at this point if this is some sort of extended April Fool’s Day joke where I write about how to sell yourself to freelance clients. I assure you, we are all done with our April’s Foolery for the year. I am, finally, working my way around to my thoroughly game-and-nerd-related point.

This is the job WotC faces right now with D&D Next.

The specifications on the project are loose. The game has to work well, yet “feel like D&D”. And yet, with many editions and 40 years behind it, D&D is a lot of different things to a very disparate group of people.

WotC’s client right now is a thousand-headed hydra. It’s us. We’re like thunder-mecha-hyper-double-octuple-mirror-image-garlic Tiamat.

And unfortunately some of us are Clients From Hell. Don’t believe me? Some among us get really angry and make wild assumptions about things we don’t know much about (like D&D Next). Enough of us even made a game company change an ending we didn’t like.

Their job right now is twofold. First, to make a game that works. Just going with one way or one edition’s methodology won’t do, so they’re trying to make a system that can accommodate being whatever we want it to be. This seems unattainable to me unless they accomplish the second goal: that of getting people to believe in it as much as they do.

It’s here I worry a little bit. WotC’s being absolutely fantastic about asking us what we want. But, once again, that’s like asking multiple-adjectives Tiamat what it wants. I hope somewhere along the way with all these surveys and the upcoming playtesting that they will correctly determine what we need (whatever that may be) — and that we’re open to seeing it.

Our job for D&D Next, as I see it, is to make sure we express our wants and needs to WotC in a way they can process. For the moment, that means being spoon-fed bits of info and providing little bits of input as requested. Angry manifestos on forums are the realm of Clients From Hell. They are no fun.

Let’s not be that.

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  1. WotC needs Steve Jobs to unveil next D&D… May he rest in peace.

  2. Excellent post, but…

    If there’s a snag in the plans, most people will grumble at a plumber, carpenter, or architect — but ultimately it’s hard to argue with “your 6? bathtub will not fit in a 5? area” or “do you really want a 6? square living room?”.

    I had to laugh at this part. This may SEEM like it SHOULD be true, but clients always find a way. While I haven’t yet heard, from my plumber friend, about demanding he fit a 6 foot tub in a 5 foot room, I have heard about demanding he run a 5 inch pipe within a 4 inch wall.

    It’s hard to WIN those arguments, but you might be surprised just how easy it is to have them.

  3. Alhazred says:

    Yeah, it is kind of a ‘Jobsian’ kind of task in a sense…

    Seems to me the best they can do is make a good solid game. Not everyone is going to agree on what they want and not everyone will like it, but if they’re good enough at selling the thing to the community then they can probably make it mostly well accepted, if not loved.

    Of course one might wonder if WotC is up to it. They haven’t in the past apparently managed to connect real well with their customer base. I’m not sure why, but it seems like there’s a bit of a cultural gap between Hasbro culture and D&D community culture or something. Hard to say from the outside. They certainly failed miserably to sell 4e even though they clearly wanted to.

    I also often get the impression from the various surveys and discussions that they put out that they have some very preconceived notions about things, and maybe not a super good understanding of all the aspects of their own products and how people play them. That can be worrisome.

  4. Wizards has the challenge of listening enough to understand reactions and find some good ideas, but not get lost in the noise. Part of the way they can do that is to find ways to qualify what they hear against their own vision and against reality checks with people they trust (but not just people that like the same games they do). From everything I can see, they are balancing this well so far.

    A second challenge is establishing the vision for the game and staying true to that course. It is very easy to see a mechanic, play with it, and end up off track. Backstab may be something like that… what does it add to have it for all PCs, and does it have anything to do with the different editions? It’s an arguable point, but it is close to getting you off track… especially if we give all PCs a menu of backstab-like things they can do when they have advantage and then more based on class. It can seem great but isn’t part of that vision of a simple core set and of speaking to different editions.

    But, I really believe in the people there. When I read pieces by Mearls, Perkins, Bilsland, Schwalb, and all the other fine folk there… these are really top-notch people.

    Lastly, this isn’t the last edition of D&D. It is the next one. It doesn’t have to create perfect D&D, just better D&D. Yes, that’s a tall order, but there is a lot of room there to make a better game if you aren’t trying to make a perfect game.

  5. Hunterian7 says:

    It’s frustrating for me. I’ll be honest- I’m not too thrilled about D&D Next. I like 4th edition just fine and want to see it continued. I’d be okay if D&D Next came out in four years- there is still a lot more to do with 4th. I’m not buying it (not literally but figuratively) nor do I believe in what they are selling. The whole retro reflections has me troubled- 2nd edition was great but it’s in the past. It should stay in the past.

    The solution for D&D is this- get it out of the hands of Hasbro and send it over to an independent company. Unrealistic High budget expectations and role playing don’t mix. Heck, I’m no fan of Pathfinder (although Paizo is a great company) but I’d rather see D&D in the hands of Paizo than Hasbro. I’m thinking a lot of people feel that way. If 4th was to die (okay, its dead anyhow) then let it be not because of profits and Mearls. Also- Hasbro fired almost all of the designers I loved and respected- it’s hard to be excited about what’s left.