Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Finding the Next Dragon

Have you ever noticed how we spend all our time looking for new challenges while simultaneously trying to find the cheat codes for life? I heard a new song by Marian Call tonight, about the dragons we face and how every time we defeat a dragon, we are compelled to find another. And I find that, for the most part, that’s true. It’s as if all of life is a series of leveling up: there's always one more platform to reach, one more challenge to accept. Work, romance, children. The next big thing, the next big step, the next dragon to face. And yet, at the same time, we try to find a way through without actually meeting those challenges. We ask “how can I get that job without actually having the training for it, there has to be someone I can blow.” “I can get that girl to sleep with me if I say just the right thing without actually getting to know her.” In our personal lives we seek out new and exciting challenges. We call them games. What is a game but a series of challenges standing between you and the end? And it's those challenges we relish, much more than reaching the end (see The World is Saved by Danny Wiessner).

There have been open world video games with no battles, no puzzles, nothing to do but explore—and no one plays them. There are tabletop RPGs just about telling a story about ordinary people—and no one plays them. I mean, some people play with the cheat codes on. I must admit that some of the most fun I've ever had was rampaging around Liberty City as Nico Bellic with an invulnerability cheat on: mayhem and chaos and a complete lack of consequences. It gets tiring, doesn’t it? You get done with it. You’ve got to turn the difficulty back up.

One of the most common complaints I hear as a GM is “you’ve made this too easy for us.” Too easy? Wouldn't you like to be guaranteed a win, in a way you can't be in real life? Nope. In fact, the Fate Core community is currently abuzz about the coolness of conceding conflicts, that there's a neat game incentive to lose, and people are eating it up to make an eventual win that much sweeter. Gamers want to pay for victory. This is a concept that just recently came to my attention, that has apparently been a cornerstone of my beloved Fate system for years. Victory in Fate is not a question of the whims of the dice, it's about how much you are willing to give up in order to achieve victory: from fate point to stress to consequences to narrative complications from concessions and such. How much are you willing to pay to win? And the answer is always "something," nobody wants to walk through the game without anything standing in their way. So apparently, we relish challenges and difficulty. But you might never see that in real life. You'd think if we really wanted those challenges that we would want them everywhere, wouldn't you?

Perhaps it’s the fact that we can set the difficulty level of our games—if not by changing a setting in a menu, then by talking to the GM or simply playing a different game. In life, we don’t always have that choice. Sometimes that dragon is bigger and meaner and harder than you expected, you are thrust back down to where you were before: you’ve got to do a little more grinding before you can move forward. And sometimes we can’t find the right dragon to slay. We can't always find the next great challenge. Sometimes we're treading water—grinding—working far below our abilities and desires. That’s when boredom sets in, ennui. Gaming-wise, this is farming low-level mobs in WoW, it's running a dungeon filled with goblins for the fiftieth weekend in a row, it’s spending hours getting that one Mortal Kombat combo just right. In real life, it’s the days flipping burgers, the hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic, the nights spent with that lover that you just don't care that much about. Sometimes it’s because the next challenge hasn’t been made available to you, you haven't been able to find it. But more often, as I'm sure all of you know, because you haven't really looked for it.

When you finally find that dragon, you will very often find it’s smaller than you thought, weaker, not nearly as scary when looked at from the other side. I just spent the last 10 months writing a brand-new role-playing supplement (and by by supplement I mean it's actually larger than the game that it’s built for). This was something I had been trying to do for years, been wanting to do for a long time, but I always shrank back, I never pushed too hard. I never found the right venue, the right circumstances, and the right people to get involved with. Getting those extra people on your team can really help, but the fact is, Jennifer and Quinn aside, I personally have done way more writing and design this year than I've ever done before. I picked a project and I set out to slay that dragon. Now the first of this flight of dragons is defeated (flight, it’s the collective noun. Look it up. Or don’t, because I just decided that just now). The first draft is done. Soon it will become a new dragon, one I haven't tried to fight before. This is the one that scares the shit out of me, but I really am looking forward to the battle: the playtest, the Kickstarter, the publication. Getting it out there. Becoming published for the first time. A step I should have, could have, but didn't, take years ago. I spent too long grinding, not looking for dragons. Now, my viewpoint is different. Strange Voyages may be my current dragon, but it's not my last. I have three pitches prepared for the next game project on the pipeline, the next dragon to fight.

Maybe you don't understand what I'm saying. Maybe you are someone who always wants cheat codes on, never ever searches for that next dragon, has no interest in new challenges. But I'd like to think that the hypothetical you does want something more—people who genuinely want no challenges in life are mainly the ones who already have so many they can't handle what they’ve already got. So let's assume that everyone reading this does like a good challenge, wants those dragons to find, in whatever way, in whatever form, at whatever level of difficulty they may exist in your life. So you've got to take a look, reach out beyond your comfort zone, because that comfort zone is dealing with the same problems every day, using the same solutions over and over. You know how that goes, you know what that answer is. It's boring. It’s a grind.