Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Questions of Creative Freedom

Hmmm. It's a difficult subject, creative freedom. Too much? Not enough? Read Zak's post about Why Caverns of Thracia is the Best Published Dungeon and Shouldn't Be, as well as Aeons & Augauries' Breaking the Mold. Recent rumblings have been about here and there.

Truth is, I really don't like bold experimentation. To me, originality is a completely different thing than creativity, with creativity and the imagination that drives it better served personalizing and creating variations on familiar, favored themes.

Which might be rather obvious, especially in light of the fact that I've spent the past four months refinangling the thing I spent the previous six months putting together. But the creative impulse is still there, the drive to just drive people nuts with things they've never seen before - the need to impress - but it's equally tied to the fact that I'm really not all that interested in entirely new things.

I'd be more than happy to watch 34348923789473 zombie movies in the Romero vein as long as they kept to consistent "rules." I'd rather see a greater world of such a thing than zombie movies with "original ideas" that "break the rules." I think there are an infinite number of good stories to be told within that universe without needing any more "originality."

The idea of continuity and canon are, to me, the only justification to continue reading the same comic character for decades on end. The fact that they goof around with retcons and reverse deaths and all that is why I really don't read comics although I have an almost desperate need to - and so only get the 20+ old reprint editions.

I like heavy metal of only certain types - identifiable by the fact that they are all rather similar. Yet bands are also infinitely unique, even when purposefully aping another band's sound. I can go on and on about the subtle differences that make one album great and another suck even though one could swear there's no appreciable difference. I could discuss Black Sabbath vs Lord Vicar vs Candlemass (especially From the 13th Sun) all night, and would rather find another twenty bands of that pedigree and explore their nuances than catch on to some new thing and have an entire musical genealogy to explore from scratch.

And so it goes with my role-playing. I still have a creative urge, but really my creative urge involves taking bits of this and bolting them on to strips of that. Showing you what "red" and "green" look like through my eyes, which I hope is just a bit different than what "red" and "green" look like through your eyes, or what they looked like through the eyes of people 20 or 30 or even 40 years ago. But content to work with "red" and "green" without worrying at all about "yellow" or "white."

I realize that the most important thing about RPGs is their stimulation of the imagination; that is the only thing they are good for. What is "good writing" or an "imaginative idea" can utterly fail where a bog-standard idea sloppily presented could result in a superior gaming experience. As a writer it's a maddening thing, realizing that Keep on the Borderlands is a much better adventure in practice than any of the UK-written D&D modules, even though I find the UK series to be "better" in every way that I would count in how they are crafted.

So while I'm sitting here in my attempt to take something that most of you thought was pretty good and make it perfect, these things weigh heavy, especially as I work over those sample monsters, sample magic items, and the new intro adventure for the new box. Trying to inject the proper atmosphere, trying to really unlock the mind and get into the thinking of "no limits" without injecting the whimsy I often indulge in (the giant at the bottom of the pit from Death Frost Doom in the first printing, the entirety of Green Devil Face #1, my film review from earlier today) and trusting that I can make something that's both imaginative and serious. Show you a thing or two you've never seen before while making sure it also feels familiar enough to be immediately useful.

There's still that cleanup work for the new box, plus I have four projects worth of manuscripts from three authors that are more or less complete that I haven't really looked at yet. 2011 is going to be a busy year.

I'll leave you with another art preview, received literally while I was writing this blog post. It's for the new intro adventure A Stranger Storm (which I ran as an in-store game for some very freaked-out players), and just to get you worried that much more I will tell you that the adventure does not assume what side the PCs will be on in this struggle because events will conspire to make it a rather difficult choice. Nobody in this picture is evil or insane or doing an inarguably wrong thing. In this adventure, the stakes are high, the decisions difficult, and the opposition weak. It's time to get Weird. Thank Amos Orion Sterns for this one:

OK. Holiday over. Navel-gazing over. See you soon.


  1. The picture makes me think about the old chestnut of going back and killing Hitler as a baby, do you kill the nursemaids too?

  2. ...the giant at the bottom of the pit from Death Frost Doom in the first printing...

    What!? You mean in the non-first edition, it no longer destroys the campaign world when someone drops a sword down the well?

    We're just getting started on DFD; I probably wouldn't have killed everyone that way, anyway (the new thing won't be ready that quickly).

  3. Another great one from Amos. Good to see his stuff getting around. :D

  4. The giant's the best part. and I don;t really think it's whimsical.

    There is a seriousness scale, top to bottom:






    normal again

    The giant is smack in the middle of "weird". which is good. The weird-to-horrific zone is the good one.

    Anyway, I like originality.

    However, in RPGs if you're too "original" with basic setting elements it can take so long to communicate to the players where they are that they aren't playing, they're just listening to you describe your acid trip.

    I think the RPG form requires slow, staged movement from the familiar and universal to the unfamiliar and original so that the players can participate in that originality themselves rather than being left in the dust eveyr time by a DM or module-writer whos ehad months to come up with inventive shit when the players only have seconds, and that's really what it's all about--exploring.

  5. >>The picture makes me think about the old chestnut of going back and killing Hitler as a baby, do you kill the nursemaids too?

    That's not what's going on here, but I really hope somebody makes that module.

  6. I absolutely agree with Zak that too much "originality" can lead to a disconnect where the GM fails to communicate the world to the players. Familiar is good, we need something to latch on to, to start from.

    (But I like weird and strange and original, too. I'm completely opposite you when it comes to music. I want a new genre to listen to every week.)

    That said, I hate when the familiar gets flipped around a bit just to appear "original". Like Dragon Age and what it did with elves. Look, if you're going to have elves, have elves. If not, just throw them out. At least that's how I feel.

  7. This is obvious, that guy just found out his transatlantic flight is sitting in-front of one baby and behind the other.

  8. For weirdness to work, IMO, there has to be a weird logic associated with it. If things are just weird with no weird logic, the players eventually give up trying to interact because they cannot systematize the interactions into anything usable or predictable.