Inspiration

https://therewillbe.games/media/reviews/photos/thumbnail/300x300s/8b/28/9e/inspiration-100-1527766750.png
MattDP     
206   0

Hanging on the wall in a cramped hallway is a huge painting. Three boats speed across it, their tall sails blurring as they whip in the wind. The rippling sea and bruised sky are patchworks of colour, contrasting fiercely like the elemental enemies they are. Light, catching on the surface, reveals unexpected textures. Rakes of painterly brush strokes shimmer, their refraction bringing it all to life as I move my head. 

There are three boats, but it's a lonely, raw scene. Three slivers of humanity sandwiched between the boundless deep and the endless sky. It's awe-inspiring. My bored eight-year-old pulls at my trousers, breaking its spell, and I turn away. The artist is nearby, chatting with some other visitors. I want to say something, but I'm not sure what, and it seems rude to interrupt.

We're on an art trail, a local event where amateur and professional artists alike open up their homes to show their work. We have seen cunning lino collages of nearby cityscapes, soft paintings that express the quiet grandeur of church interiors, awful sculptures. That angry sea with its lonely boats caps the lot. Each one, good or bad, has left me with a nagging sense of inadequacy. There are scenes and emotions that words can't capture. 

That morning I had been reading Geoff Englestein's GameTek book. It's a series of articles about the application of maths and science to game design. Much of it is interesting and engaging, but what sets me on fire is the transposition of those ideas. It's one thing to learn what a Penrose tiling is. It's another to make the leap to see that it's a valid game design concept.

Re-framing ideas like this does not come easily to me. It's a lack of imagination, and it's frustrating. Looking at the art, reading Geoff's essays builds that frustration like a coiling spring. 

The final straw comes in an office presentation by a "motivational" speaker. It's awful, vacuous nonsense that a moment's critical thought will blow away like sea foam whipping in the wind. He makes a parallel between office teamwork and the Greek phalanx, where every warrior protected his neighbour with their shield. He's an idiot, but it's another useful transposition of ideas. If he can do it, surely, so can I.

Games are the only medium I can claim to understand, so it's games I go to. At home, I open the laptop, gather pencil and paper, sit staring into the garden while emptiness squats in my head like a lead brick. I take a shower, guaranteed to stimulate the mind while you have nothing to write your ideas down, but all I get for my effort is cleaner. The fizzing frustration begins to seep out as poison.

That night is hot. I cannot sleep.

Next day I am reduced to looking at shallow self-help sites on being more creative. The thoughts are like the sea: mercurial and shiny to look at, empty once you break their sparkling surface. It makes me remember, though, that there are actual games that can inspire. I'm pretty sure I could write a whole book of short stories based on my plays of the wonderful Once Upon A Time. The weak scaffold of simple rules and a few cards is a great starting point for climbing much more lofty peaks.

Enlisting my kids to help, we play Story Cubes for a while. We have a great time and it's a fine distraction. But when it's done, the impotence falls back in on me like a breaking wave. Cards and dice are all very well but they build narrative, not mechanics. Perhaps it's time to admit defeat and steal a starting point.

Back in GameTek is a description of a point of Greek law called Antidosis. It translates as "an exchange" and it literally was: the two applicants swapped all their estates and belongings in a dispute over wealth. With that swooping, magpie insight, Geoff spots the potential of this as a novel game mechanic. So that's what I'm going to borrow. To see if I can see further by standing on the shoulders of a giant.  

The theme comes first: if it's a Greek law, then it's got to be a game about Greek law. Let's imagine: everyone gets hidden resources and a series of undesirable duties which demand they expend them. That's your random starting point. Then have players trying to trade duties in the hope of getting one they can more easily afford. Antidosis is the only defence, but do you take the risk? Great: but this is a crapshoot. We need some public clues on which to build a strategy. 

And this is where the feeble edifice come crashing down. Everything up until that point is easy, a simple shoe-horning of history into a game. Everything after seems impossible. Giving away clues deflates the tension of making the exchange. It's late and there's no way and no one on which I can vent my failure. 

So instead, I sit down and write about it. The words come pouring out, fingers flying over the keyboard, metaphors forming and dumping down on screen. It's not much, but it's all I have. Sometimes, you have to admit there are people cleverer than you in the world. I paste it up, add an image, and save a publish date.

The night is hot. But I rest better, disturbed only by dreams of a perfect, storm-tossed sea.

With thanks to Kathryn Scaldwell for her kind permission to reproduce her artwork.

Matt Thrower

Head Writer

Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.

image

Inspiration There Will Be Games
Log in to comment
Posted: 11 Jun 2018 03:24 by Alexava #275077
Alexava's Avatar
I realise this isn't necessarily quite what you're talking about, but I've fonud nothing more useful in increasing my creativity, and 'confidence in approaching a blank page' than Time Clare's Couch to 80k writing course. It might be a bit too tilted towards novel writing for some, but at least the first six weeks will be useful to anyone who just needs to train up their 'sitting down and coming up with ideas' muscles, in a weirdly friendly way.

Not only that, but the first week's activities includes things I want to steal for every session zero of a role playing game I ever run.

Starting to realise that inspiration, while sometimes as automatic as breathing, is also a muscle you can train and exercise, is kind of fascinating and incredibly useful.
Posted: 11 Jun 2018 04:15 by MattDP #275080
MattDP's Avatar
Alexava wrote:
I realise this isn't necessarily quite what you're talking about, but I've fonud nothing more useful in increasing my creativity, and 'confidence in approaching a blank page' than Time Clare's Couch to 80k writing course.

Thank you. I did the first few lessons of that, but I ran out of spare time. I keep meaning to pick it up again but ... things.

What I did was fascinating, though. It had never occurred to me that one could take a "volumetric" approach to creativity: throw as much crap as you can down on paper, and see if any of the crap takes you somewhere more interesting. And it works, and then the remainder of the crap - names, places, situations - can come in surprisingly handy later.

After I wrote this piece, I discovered an album about the great Irish Famine. The songwriter was inspired by reading a story about a couple who were found dead at the roadside, the man holding his wife's feet to his chest in a forlorn attempt to warm them up. It's a grim anecdote any anyone reading it would, I hope, feel saddened. But, behind it, only he saw two entire lives in enough detail to write a song about it. I suppose it's that kind of flash that I'm talking about here. I'm not sure how Tim's course would help but then, as you say, maybe it is as much about creative exercise than anything else.

Maybe this whole piece is a lament that I just don't have the time to do that exercise anywhere as much as I would like.

(This is the podcast if anyone wants it. Turns out Tim Clare is also quite a keen gamer - I've seen him talk about both Through the Ages and Century: Golem Edition on Twitter. www.timclarepoet.co.uk/couchto80kwritingbootcamp/ )
Posted: 11 Jun 2018 05:46 by Alexava #275082
Alexava's Avatar
MattDP wrote:
But, behind it, only he saw two entire lives in enough detail to write a song about it. I suppose it's that kind of flash that I'm talking about here. I'm not sure how Tim's course would help but then, as you say, maybe it is as much about creative exercise than anything else.

Yeah. It's definitely a different thing. But I think it's as much about being prepared to deal with those moments and process them when they happen as it is about something mystic in those moments. I've definitely lost more inspiration than I've held on to, but feel better prepared now than ever to take them on. I hope.
Posted: 11 Jun 2018 07:00 by Shellhead #275085
Shellhead's Avatar
I have more creativity than free time, so I have a dozen incomplete projects awaiting my attention.

For example, I spent a few productive hours yesterday on my squash cage, which will serve the dual purpose of protecting my squash garden from squirrels while also protecting my main garden from the squash. I built a larger garden cage last year, and was startled to see the squash gradually climb the cage and then overrun the top with huge leaves. While I got some great squash last fall, the garden failed to produce anything else except some tomatoes (which also climbed the cage).

But I am often interested in the creative processes of other people. Where they get their inspiration, how they develop their ideas into something workable, how they overcome obstacles, and how they feel about the finished product.

Last weekend, I was at a birthday party/boardgame event, and one guy brought Cthulhu Wars with enough expansions for an 8-player game. I would have loved to finally try Cthulhu Wars, and I am always enthusiastic about a big multi-player game. But he forgot the boards, and lived too far away to reasonably go home and come back with them. I joked that we could probably play with a Risk board, but it always seemed obvious to me that Cthulhu Wars was probably first play-tested on a Risk board. Pandemic, too. People have been talking about Spirit Wars lately, and that was clearly a game that started life with Settlers of Catan components.
Posted: 11 Jun 2018 07:32 by xthexlo #275088
xthexlo's Avatar
Really wonderful piece, Matt. I enjoyed your exposition and commiserated with your travails. And you sparked a thought: why do people shy away from blind chance in games, like an antidosis swap made without information (other than observed player behavior)? Sometimes, life is like that. Why all the effort to beat it out of games?

Perhaps we need to reconsider our definition of “game” vice “contest.”
Posted: 11 Jun 2018 09:29 by Jackwraith #275097
Jackwraith's Avatar
Great thoughts, Matt. Thanks.

My creative process is one of rushing and then stalling in many cases. For non-fiction (stretching the definition of "creative"?), it's a bit easier, since I'm usually writing about something (game, movie, political event, basic concept) and I've experienced the subject matter and/or have it in front of me, so I can keep bouncing off that if I get stalled. But I usually start with an question ("Why did Team 5 come out with the whole Freeze concept in Shaman and then let it die?" "Why is Lady Bird just a more thoughtful version of Superbad?" "Why is the current version of the GOP basically the party of Goldwater to the Nth degree for the last 50 years?") and just roll with it.

Fiction is similar, in that I'll start with a question and rush out either an entire world or a detailed scene. Then I either have to write what happens in said world or expand that scene into a full story. Sometimes it works: I have several hundred pages of script for a world I created for our old comic studio. Sometimes it doesn't: I have a dozen worlds/novel ideas that are still sitting basically untouched. But the worst are the "halfway-worked". I have a few thousand words written on a novel idea, some of which I was just creating 24 hours ago, but I've had the ideas sorted for roughly 20 years now and have simply lacked the inspiration to keep going with it. But you were just working on it yesterday!, you say. Yeah. I was. Maybe I'll do more of it today...
Posted: 11 Jun 2018 13:42 by Frohike #275116
Frohike's Avatar
The fizzing frustration begins to seep out as poison.

That night is hot. I cannot sleep.

Next day I am reduced to looking at shallow self-help sites on being more creative.

I'm not sure why I thought I was the only one who did this.

I've come to realize that most of what I'm looking for in any creative act of verbal or representational framing resides in poesis (be it games, critical writing, fiction, whatever), and it's torture when I feel it slipping away from whatever I'm writing.

So when that poesis is elusive, I read poets.

The great poems do so much with so little that it forces me to pay less attention to the craft of composition and more to the craft of thought itself. It doesn't always get me unstuck, but it at least reminds me of what I'm writing for in the first place. Attached is something by Larry Eigner circa 1972. Look him up. His composition operated under a very specific set of circumstances.
Posted: 11 Jun 2018 14:30 by MattDP #275124
MattDP's Avatar
Frohike wrote:
The great poems do so much with so little that it forces me to pay less attention to the craft of composition and more to the craft of thought itself. It doesn't always get me unstuck, but it at least reminds me of what I'm writing for in the first place. Attached is something by Larry Eigner circa 1972. Look him up. His composition operated under a very specific set of circumstances.

Thanks for this. I don't read enough poetry, so I will go look. In the meantime, you might enjoy this rather wonderful poem about the creative process of poetry. A sort of meta-poem, if you will. It's one of my favourites, not that I've read all that much.

www.blueridgejournal.com/poems/rst-poet.htm