Game Designers Aren’t Wizards

In my experience, the fans who most acrimoniously disagree with certain game designers are also those who attribute the greatest skills and talents to those designers. How does that work?

It’s an extension of the persistent notion among fans of any media that their favorite creators are magicians. Not literally in the sense that they cast magic spells or pull rabbits out of hats, but rather that they have a preternatural ability to create—that they need only sit down before keyboard or easel and instantly whip out perfection.

There are, admittedly, a rare few who seem to possess the skills and talent to get it right the first time, without deliberation or error. But that sort of mastery takes years—decades!—of constant practice, and even then, I suspect few are truly that expert. For example, we view Mozart as a gifted prodigy for composing his first works at the age of five and gaining employment at the Salzburg court at the age of 17. But his abilities didn’t come from nowhere; he spent his youth in musical tutelage and practice, and he wrote dozens of compositions before his court debut. And his works did not appear fully formed—he outlined each piece through drafts and musical fragments before putting them together in their final form.

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?

Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.

Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?

Hemingway: Getting the words right.

— Ernest Hemingway, “The Art of Fiction,” The Paris Review Interview, 1956

Game designers are, by and large, amateurs working on games in our spare time. Freelancers squeeze in a few hours a week on various projects in between our full time, non-gaming jobs with which we pay the bills, and our other leisure activities—like actually playing the games we love. Despite this, we do our best to revise and refine the material we plan to publish until it’s the best that it can be. But there are limits to this process that readers ought to recognize.

In the most egregious example, I’ve seen people complaining that playtest material for Exalted 3e contains problematic elements—broken rules, overpowered combos, etc. Well, duh? The whole point of playtesting is to find problems in the rules. If they were already perfect, we wouldn’t need to playtest them.

“But I spotted an error just by looking at the rules,” you say. “The designers should also have spotted it even without playtesting, so they’re idiots.” Unfortunately, not all humans think alike or spot the same things. That’s a perfectly normal part of the writing process.

I’m a professional proofreader and copy editor. It’s part of my job to spot mistakes in people’s writing. I’ve edited copy written by professional authors and journalists. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single document longer than a few paragraphs that didn’t have at least one error in it—even from experienced authors who’ve been in the business for decades longer than I have, including some authors who are also copy editors or proofreaders. Similarly, no matter how often I fine-tune my writing, editors always find errors in my work. That doesn’t mean I suck; it means I’m a writer, that’s all.

When a game designer sends out a broken rule or overpowered combo for playtesting, that doesn’t mean the designer sucks. It means that they’re a game designer, that’s all. Look at Steve Jackson’s OGRE, one of the tightest little sci-fi board games of all time. It’s currently viewed as a classic. It also had stat changes between the first and second printing because the “G.E.V.” hovercraft unit proved to be overpowered with its published stats.

There’s also the issue of some designers not being the smoothest intermediaries for their companies. Sadly, the pen-and-paper gaming industry is run on a shoestring budget, which means there’s no cash for dedicated public relations specialists. So it’s either designers untrained in PR interacting with the fans, or dead air. And the Exalted community has certainly dealt with the latter before, when 1e lead developer Geoff Grabowski completely stopped communicating with fans after the vicious reception met by the original Lunars splatbook.

The time we spend talking online about games is time we don’t spend writing those games. We talk to you guys because we really want to share the cool stuff we’re working on. So while it’s cool to politely point out that we’re saying something that comes across as dumb or offensive, please don’t lash out in anger over disagreements; we’re doing the best we can with a very limited time budget.

And then there’s blog posts. If a designer is really excited about a topic, he or she might put a lot of time and energy into brainstorming, researching, writing, and editing a post. But aside from the vanishingly few designers who work on games full-time, we don’t get paid for blogging. So we squeeze in a few paragraphs here and there, and we try to do a good job of making our posts coherent and useful, but hours spent on researching and revising blog posts are hours we’re not spending on the games we’re trying to publish.

Game designers aren’t wizards. We can’t wave our magic wands to turn out perfect material. It takes blood, sweat, and tears to produce quality work, and many of us are already sweated out from our day jobs. Posting online is a third job—essentially a second unpaid job—and it has the lowest priority, as without either of the first two, there’ll be no game to comment on.


The Scarlet Realm, Evil Empires, and Fictional Morality

Stephen Lea Sheppard has had some things to say on the subject of imperialism in Exalted, and he’s ruffled a few feathers in doing so. He’s written things like this:

The problem is that “Real empires” pretty much are “cartoonishly evil” if you look at what they do to their oppressed states. The Rape of Nanking and the Bataan Death March are real things that actually happened. That scene in Ghandi where the British military commander had his troops fire on a mass of peaceful Sikh protestors, including whole families, for no particular reason beyond “Well, I’m here, and I should do something about those people, and my only tools available are a bunch of troops with readied weapons?” That actually happened.

The Canadian government taking Native American children away from their families to be raised in orphanages where it was policy that they’d be beaten if caught speaking their native languages? That happened. That kept happening until the late 60s.

Spartacus’s slave revolt ended with the Roman government literally taking all the rebellious slaves they’d taken as prisoners after it’d been put down, like tens of thousands of them, and crucifying them along the main roads around Rome and leaving the bodies there to rot so that for the next year anyone traveling those roads would see what happens to rebels.

Read up on Quin Shi Huang, Ghengis Khan, and Stalin.

The problem is these all read like exceptional historic anomalies but if you actually look at history they’re normal. This is the sort of **** empires get up to all the time. The willingness to get up to this sort of **** is what makes for the successful spread of empire, because people, as a whole, really do not like foreign rule and will go to almost any lengths to prevent it from taking hold, so historically the successful conquerors are the ones willing to go even further in imposing it.

If we make the Realm a realistic empire it’s going to come off as Snidely Whiplash.

I personally don’t want to make the Realm unrealistically compassionate as empires go.

This has led some readers to suggest that the Realm—and other realistically-drawn states, societies, organizations, and factions—will be presented as Evil with a capital E, and that the Solars will be the Good Guys with two capital Gs, siphoning away all moral ambiguity from the setting and casting everything in black and white.

Such readers have things entirely backward. If one approaches the setting with the intent of playing a Solar as a “good guy”—by which I mean a character rooted strongly in modern universalist morality, believing that all human life is of equal dignity and worth—then one will see the Realm as the Evil Empire. Or, more likely, as an Evil Empire, as other societies won’t look significantly better.

But from that frankly sanctimonious perspective, our own world is a cesspit of capital-E Evil. We ignore (or even laud) immorality that we, our fellow citizens, and our governments are party to, while decrying perceived immorality from outsiders. And for all that belief in the equality of the human race is widespread today, in practice we tend to fall back on more primitive moral systems: traditionalism, authoritarianism, and—most importantly—tribalism. And it is these moral systems that predominate in Creation.

By and large, the peoples of the Threshold don’t hate and fear the Realm because the Realm exacts tribute from poorer peoples and crushes uprisings against their power. Common folk in the satrapies hate the Realm because the Realm extracts tribute from them and crushes them when they attempt revolt.

Self before kin, kin before neighbor, neighbor before stranger—this is a key element of the human character. Utilitarianism (and Mr. Spock) tells us that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, but it takes a saint to put the lives of two strangers before the life of one’s friend, sibling, lover, or child. There are precious few saints on Earth. Creation is no better off in this regard. If you approach the setting with the belief that those who are not saints are wicked, then you will find not a shred of moral nuance or ambiguity—and the fault lies in your own perspective, not what’s on the page.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t play a character interested in making the world better for everyone, not just her in-group! But if your character holds everyone around her to a standard that we, the readers and players of the game, cannot adhere to, please acknowledge that that’s a character flaw rather than a mark of righteousness. And if your character recognizes the flawed humanity of those around her but still seeks to guide them toward her vision of a better world—well, let me finish this post with a quote from line co-developer Holden Shearer:

The thing a Solar may want to do as a hero, and which nobody in the setting has ever yet managed, is to create lasting peace, equitable and fair government, enduring happiness and boundless opportunity. Note lasting, as in, without a subset of those things being temporarily gained in such a way that it ensures later strife and calamity. To rule with grace and wisdom—there is no Charm for this. And if it seems that the best thing is not to rule, then to determine how best to wisely use the great power one has been granted—there is no Charm for this. To create a perfect world—there is no Charm for this, although there are Charms to create worlds.