Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Creative Process

Back in the 90s, after I'd decided I simply couldn't take AD&D 2e anymore (which probably deserves a post in its own right), I first found myself sucked into the vortex that is Tékumel fandom. Now, as I've probably mentioned, I never saw, let alone played, Empire of the Petal Throne when I first entered the hobby. I'd heard of the game through the hushed reverence in which it was held by older players, who talked about how "complex" and "detailed" its setting was and how expensive and hard to find the game was. Sometime in the late 80s, I'd read Man of Gold, the first Tékumel novel written by Professor Barker and found the experience simultaneously bewildering and intriguing -- but not enough to investigate the game or its setting. That had to wait several more years.

When I did get around to looking into Tékumel, it was undergoing a renaissance of sorts, thanks to the growing use of the Internet, which enabled the once-disconnected fans of the setting to communicate with one another and, more importantly, to interact with Professor Barker himself. So, I joined a Tékumel mailing list and participated in the discussions there, immersing myself in the world. I also set up a webpage where I posted lots of Tékumel-related gaming materials, like adventures, NPCs, new monsters, and the like. My feeling then (as now, for what it's worth) was that the measure of any game setting is how much it's enjoyed through play and that too much of Tékumel fandom was interested in setting details as ends in themselves without much concern for actually, you know, using those details to foster fun adventures and campaigns.

Anyway, I eventually started a Tékumel campaign (using, at least in part, the Gardásiyal rules -- yes, I didn't know any better) and began to correspond with Professor Barker, asking him questions of relevance to my campaign. This was a great thrill for me; it was like running a game set in Middle-earth and being able to ask Tolkien for details I could use in it. So, at one point, I was recounting to Professor Barker bits of a recent adventure I'd run when I mentioned a particular NPC and his behavior. His reply to me took me aback, as it was something like, "Oh, yes, I know the fellow and he often does X, Y, and Z." He then provided me with other details about this NPC's personality, life, and relations with others in the city where the campaign was set.

As I said, I was taken aback. This NPC was entirely my own creation. He wasn't based on anyone I'd read about in any of the Tékumel materials. Indeed, he was a pretty generic wannabe merchant prince type character, a scheming middle-aged clanmaster with dreams of "the big score." And yet Professor Barker claimed to "know the fellow" and then proceeded to give me some really terrific details that not only fit with what I'd created but also gave me hooks on which I could hang subsequent adventures.

I found this experience so odd that I related it to someone who knew Professor Barker in real life and he explained that it wasn't odd at all. He said that, when you game with Barker, if you asked him a question about something that hasn't been clearly established beforehand, he often will close his eyes for a moment, thinking, and then he'll get back to you with not just the information you requested but also a whole lot more. Professor Barker seems to know Tékumel so well -- no surprise, given that he's been imagining it, to one degree or another, since the 1940s -- that he can just "transport" himself there and "look around" for the answers to questions he hadn't considered before. Perhaps, I was told, he'd done the same thing with the NPC I'd created.

At the time, I thought this whole business was crazy. I simply could not imagine "transporting" myself to a fantasy world of my creation and then extracting details from what I "saw." World building, I thought then, was a matter of deliberate forethought and planning; you can't just intuit the details. Nowadays, I'm not so sure. A good portion of the details I've come up with about the Dwimmermount campaign are ones I've created on the fly in response to some question or other at the game table. And when I say "created," it's not as if I gave them careful thought. Instead, I just went with the answer that seemed "right" at the time, oftentimes not even realizing why it was so. It's only later, if at all, that I came to understand the logic -- if you can call it that -- behind it. In many cases, that logic still eludes me. There are many aspects of the campaign setting that remain mysterious, even to me. It'll be some time, if ever, before I know why they are as they are.

And I'm OK with that. I understand well the drive to create a fully-realized world where everything makes sense according to a well-considered master plan. I spent much of my teen and young adult life creating many such worlds. What's interesting, though, is that, while my earlier endeavors were impressive, both in terms of their scope and depth, most of them saw very little gaming. They were thought experiments -- good ones even -- but they weren't places I ever felt compelled to use at the gaming table, perhaps because they were too well imagined. I already knew so much about them and the fun of gaming, for me anyway, lies in being able to be surprised, even by one's own creations -- or perhaps especially by one's own creations.

All of this is is a long-winded way of saying that the elven oddities I discussed yesterday do have reasons behind them; I just don't know what they are yet. I may eventually uncover those reasons, but, when I do so, it'll be through play, much in the same way that the oddities themselves were first uncovered through play. Temperamentally and philosophically, I'm just not very interested in writing reams of details about a setting beforehand. I'd much rather wait and see what details emerge from my mind while playing. That's why I'm still involved in this hobby after three decades: gaming lets me surprise even myself and that's a true pleasure.

24 comments:

  1. It can be a little disconcerting when you realize how much of a world you have internalize and you can just create meaningful and interesting things for it as needed. And how wonderful some of those things can be and how they "fit" even if the rest of the puzzle pieces are not in place around them.

    Though occasionally you do end up with pieces you are never sure how or even if they will fit in the big pictures, but, boy, are they fun and wacky.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I greatly appreciate this creative process. There is a point where you allow yourself to let go and allow a world or a character to live on its own terms and make decisions independent of what you would do. It is at this point that we who create actually bring life to our creations and when we can be surprised.

    And, given my own understanding of life, the universe and everything, it is a far more realistic and naturalistic way of gaming than planning out every detail before hand. I cannot count the times I have looked back at my life and seen the Hand of God move. I did not see or understand at the time, but given all that has happened afterwards it all becomes very clear why certain things in my life took place.

    James may not know why elves are as they are, but given time and given play, they will reveal themselves at some point and everything will fall into place and make sense. The icing on the cake is that it will surprise and delight everyone, even James.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great post James. And it sounds to me that Professor Barker may have been magnanimously trying to make you and your creations feel like a part of "living" Tekumel, perhaps?

    ReplyDelete
  4. Re Barker creating on the fly - my definition of the difference between art and design is exactly this. Design is creativity used toward solving some problem. Game design consists of opening interesting spaces for player action. Monster or trap design is solving the problem of what to do with fighting or investigating PCs, creating spaces for them to work and think. It answers to utility, of fun around the table. Art is creativity aimed at goals that are always partly unknown (or subconscious, if you like). It seeks to communicate and set processes going in the mind of the interlocutor, which will surprise everyone. I'd say what Barker did there was art, not design - intended to suggest but with no explicit goal in mind. And world-building is art; intended to suggest, but in ways not anticipated by the creator. Bad art is wonderfully suggestive to the creator but says nothing to the interlocutor.

    Also, AFAICTWHRI, what he did there, saying "I know him well," is the core mechanic of Baron Munchhausen.

    veriword: zotiscle. A Smithian frozen treat.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Fantastic post. I'm right there with you on world building and how I used to do it. These days I'm much more interested in leaving parts of the world mysterious for me (as GM) then getting everything down. it makes things more fun for me *and* it requires less up-front work.

    ReplyDelete
  6. James wrote:
    he explained that it wasn't odd at all. He said that, when you game with Barker, if you asked him a question about something that hasn't been clearly established beforehand, he often will close his eyes for a moment, thinking, and then he'll get back to you with not just the information you requested but also a whole lot more.


    That's exactly what Victor Raymond described to me at GaryCon, when we were chatting about EPT (and, among other things, my humorous pronounciation of Vimhula [sp? and certainly missing diacritical marks!]) :D

    Allan.

    PS: I posted "The Temple of Vimhula" handout that I picked up at an early '80s convention @ http://www.greyhawkonline.com/grodog/temp/temple_of_vimuhla.pdf. Enjoy!

    ReplyDelete
  7. Great post.

    An aphorism of mine I've been using a lot lately: Our best stuff is unavoidable. In the act of creation, not only did it not take a lot of detail-intensive labor, not only was it kind of easy, it would have taken a lot effort to prevent ourselves from doing it.

    ReplyDelete
  8. i guess this is what every gm should strive for when building a world, the pinnacle of world-building, if you will.

    the point where his world feels so alive and tangible that it starts to create content on its own. when what you (or your players) know/feel about your world intuitively leeds to stuff you didn't know yet.

    i believe to reach that point you need 2 things:

    a solid foundation of detailed stuff to build on and a lot of playing time.

    if the basic outline of the world is inconsistent or confusing this is unlikely (impossible?) to happen and only through lots of interaction with the players will the world truly come alive.

    ReplyDelete
  9. And I didn't think Tekumel/Barker could get any cooler.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Fascinating account of Prof. Barker!

    In The Dragon #9 (Sept. 1977), Prof. Barker made a distinction 'between "real" Tekumel--the fantasy world--and "game" Tekumel--the abstracted, simplified, and somewhat altered version which results from playing "Empire of the Petal Throne."' The good professor then went on to mention that he preferred answering questions about "real" Tekumel over answering questions about "game" Tekumel.

    I like studying Tekumel even more than I would like gaming therein, even as I like studying Middle-earth even more than gaming therein. I can't say this for any other fantasy world, though. Tekumel and Middle-earth are in a league all their own.

    ReplyDelete
  11. That's... that's amazing.
    I wish to study at his feet.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Welcome to the club. James ;) And thanks for a good topic for a blog post of my own.

    ReplyDelete
  13. There's nothing particularly strange with transporting yourself into a world to see how it functions. I do it frequently myself. [One of these days I'll find a useful way to get these visions out of my head, but given my artistic ability I'm afraid it is going to more likely to be through the use of a trepanning chisel than anything else. Although Vue software does raise intriguing possibilities.]

    I think this is the source of a lot of the conflict between the "narrativists" and "simulationists." The simulationists put their emphasis on building a workable world, which often means that small details are important. The narrativists on the other hand think the world is merely a platform for launching their stories and is infinitely malleable.

    In one playtest I slightly irritated the author of the game with questions about "trivial" things (not that he said as such; he just couldn't understand why they were important). The problem was that if you imagined yourself on that world doing that stuff, they turned out to be major questions about the nature of the world and how it shapes the cultures and societies that live in it. [And I also wanted to see if we were imagining the same world.] Decisions have consequences, and a world is a web of these relationships.

    It is by examining this web of relationships that Professor Barker knows your NPC. Beacuse the web defines that he must be there and how he interacts with the world around him.

    One of the reasons that Glorantha keeps getting Gregged* so much is that Greg wanted to build a simulationist world, but is essentially a narrativist. Sandy Peterson, on the other hand, is a simulationist who builds a stable foundation in the world and then tells stories in it.

    I think world building in itself is an interesting exercise, and one of the reasons I like gaming (and science fiction and fantasy). You must also remember that Tekumel (and Glorantha for that matter), did not start out as games.

    In many senses, it is akin to both alchemical Great Work or the model that a physicist constructs of the universe.

    [* Gregged. The act of a decision about the world of Glorantha, often provided by Greg Stafford himself, being later nullified or reversed by a subsequent decision of Greg Stafford.]

    ReplyDelete
  14. Allan, thanks for the PDF. Awesome!

    ReplyDelete
  15. I feel pretty fortunate to have started a game world as a kid, and to still be doing it over 30 years later. It started out as a tavern and a dungeon, and just grew. Players named some places their characters came from, and those places became locations in the world. The elvish lands, the dwarves, human cities and empires, gods...around 50% stemming from the creation or actions of players and their new characters.

    I can come up with so much off the top of my head when posed things about the world from players new and old.

    Early in this campaign and new group I started the other year (after several years off from gaming), the PC's came across a troupe of actors doing a historical drama about stuff from 100 years prior in my game, stuff that included PC's and NPC's in the history making. Because my gameworld is so close to my heart and mind, I was able to describe the scenes in the play based on games from the early 80's! My new players were stunned, and could instantly tell I was in tune with my game world beyond anything they ever experienced before.

    I'm so glad I didn't just go with the World of Greyhawk or the Wilderlands of High Fantasy. I loved reading about that stuff, but nothing beats a world you created and have seen grow over the decades.

    ReplyDelete
  16. "...and that too much of Tékumel fandom was interested in setting details as ends in themselves without much concern for actually, you know, using those details to foster fun adventures and campaigns."

    I'm having flashbacks to the Glorantha mailing list...

    "Instead, I just went with the answer that seemed "right" at the time, oftentimes not even realizing why it was so."

    This "looking around the world to see what the answer is" is similar to what I've experienced working on TV spec scripts. The best dialog and the right actions come not from forcing the characters to do and say what you think is right, but from the writer sitting back and, well, "listening" to the characters talk and show you what they do. Same thing, I guess, for game worlds, too.

    PS.
    Has Blogger changed how replies are handled? It no longer remembers my password, and there's no no option to mail new comment replies to me.

    ReplyDelete
  17. > At the time, I thought this whole business was crazy. I simply could not imagine "transporting" myself to a fantasy world of my creation and then extracting details from what I "saw." World building, I thought then, was a matter of deliberate forethought and planning; you can't just intuit the details. Nowadays, I'm not so sure.

    *g*. Nicely phrased, James. Crazy, you say? ;)

    To quote Barker's letter to Lin Carter from just over 60 years ago;
    *
    "Note: I am not nuts. I actually do not believe in the reality of these lands and people in my dream world. It is just more fun to talk about them as being really existing, and I find my stories seem more real (both to myself and to others) when I deal with people who really seem to exist. I hope you won't take me too seriously."

    :)

    Sounds intuitive enough from the inside and partly helped, perhaps, by analogs to real-world cultures on which to hang one's mental framework rather than leaping /right/ into an "alien" setting.

    > And I'm OK with that. I understand well the drive to create a fully-realized world where everything makes sense according to a well-considered master plan.

    That's not how Barker worked, of course. Much of the overarching Tekumel story comes in at a later date, post-Vance, and there's a large amount of wiping the slate clean and starting again when something /really/ doesn't work. Dragons on Tekumel, eh? ;)

    I'm sure world creation works in different ways for different people but it probably helps to have the plan, if there is a plan, as a rather more flexible entity and let the world develop more from itself as it ebbs and flows organically; from which pulse one can "intuit the details", as you put it.

    Good "food for thought" post, thanks. :)

    ReplyDelete
  18. > That's exactly what Victor Raymond described to me at GaryCon, when we were chatting about EPT

    *nods* And elsewhere. It makes sense... :)

    > (and, among other things, my humorous pronounciation of Vimhula [sp? and certainly missing diacritical marks!]) :D

    Has anyone counted how many of those were entered by hand? :p

    > PS: I posted "The Temple of Vimhula" handout that I picked up at an early '80s convention @ http://www.greyhawkonline.com/grodog/temp/temple_of_vimuhla.pdf. Enjoy!

    It's a good one, that, Allan. (+thx, again). aside: The backstory mentioned there confounds the dating somewhat, of course, since Norwescon was 1950 not 1949 and likewise those other dates slide back one year, IIRC.
    And Barker & co. were dressing up for the likes of that /long/ before costumed Trekkies turned up at SF conventions. ^^
    e.g. http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v316/harami2000/sinisterra1-3_cover.jpg , as posted before elsewhere.

    @James: have you tried "transporting" such details back into RL, eh?
    (The Living Greyhawk comment above got a smile in that context since even that didn't (couldn't!) pull the concept of shared experience/world development into /quite/ so sharp a focus, IMHO).

    ReplyDelete
  19. "...that he can just "transport" himself there and "look around" for the answers to questions he hadn't considered before. "

    Doesn't everyone do this? ;)

    ReplyDelete
  20. "Anyway, I eventually started a Tékumel campaign (using, at least in part, the Gardásiyal rules -- yes, I didn't know any better"

    I got my start with Tekumel when I purchased a copy at GenCon when it was released. Actually had seen ads for it and went there intending to find it. Loved the setting, hated the rules.
    Was optimistic when Sword and Glory was published, and got the first two books to be sorely disappointed when the third never materialized.
    I'm not sure why folks dislike Gardasiyal so much. Personally, I think it's been the best of the Tekumel setting rules put out (sort of Sword and Glory lite). Didn't like either of the two latest sets, and actually have been looking at doing a D6 Tekumel, though I have to admit that having a lot of time invested in Gardasiyal, it's not a priority.

    ReplyDelete
  21. I am too intimidated to even GM a game in the Forgotten Realms.

    The idea of running a Tekumel game gives me night sweats.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Great post, and a great look into the way the Professor thought about his creation. In my own experience, he enjoyed being asked about things like this, or being presented with same, as he told me that it generated ideas that he could use. I was always fascinated by his creative process, and had asked him on several occasions about it. He always said he didn't really think about what he was creating, but just started with an idea and let the idea develop.

    The Temple of Vimuhla model is an example of that; Phil didn't start out with any set plan for the model, but (as he told me) "just started fiddling around with blocks of wood on the table saw..." The results, as they say, speak for themselves. For him, doing things like this within his world were much more 'organic' then 'pre-planned', and it had always been this way for him.

    Thirty years on (My word! Has it really been that long?), I'm finally beginning to understand his creative process as I deal with my own collection of twenty-something players as they explore Tekumel...

    yours, Chirine

    ReplyDelete
  23. great post, great comments.

    one point that deserves highlighting is that in James's example, the imagined element is not geography, religion, or economic, but a character.

    among the many ways that is important, it offers an opportunity for success (or failure) in managing the tention between our simulationist and narratavist impulses:

    for the simulationist, well-imagined characters are your key to "making something happen" in your detailed world. for the narratavist, well-imagined characters are your key to giving depth to your stories.

    ReplyDelete
  24. I'm familiar with the mentioned phenomenon from my experiences with my campaign, ideas spring fully realized like platonic forms or Athena from the head of Zeus.

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.