Monday, October 7, 2019

The Psi-Wars Fallacy

There's a comment I often get from people who have read a lot of Psi-Wars, especially from the beginning, and it goes something like this:

"I like Psi-Wars, but it's funny.  At the beginning you talked about getting a campaign done with a minimal amount of work, and then you proceed to put years of work into it."

The comment is always given in a light-hearted "I don't mean anything by it" sort of comment, but it reads to me as an attempt by the reader to resolve a tension: either I was selling you goods at the beginning by promising that something would be easier than it was, or I was wrong and setting design is, in fact, hard.

The problem here is a misunderstanding of the underlying meaning of minimal work.  I've been seeing some videos, and I got some time, so I wanted to talk about what I'm trying to show with Psi-Wars, why I do it the way I do, what I think you should be doing with your setting design and how you can avoid some major pitfalls.


"Minimal Work"


I think most people see RPG material and grow intimidated by the amount of work that it requires.  Something that I see from a lot of people who read Psi-Wars is this excitement that it means that they can do what takes most people years in mere days or weeks.  They think they can use my methods to write up their campaign with a fraction of the effort.  Is that true?

Well, it depends!

If you want to write the next Tekumel, nothing I'm going to suggest to you is going to make you write those million words in less than a million words.  Work is work, and if you plan on doing a project that takes X amount of work, sorry, you have to do X amount of work.

The first thing you should ask yourself if you're taking my approach is "Do you actually need X amount of work?" Do you need to write the next Tekumel? Does anyone actually care? Would they be happy with a bog-standard D&D campaign with this one little twist? Because that's a lot easier than writing Tekumel.  If you want to get a campaign up and running in no time, you do it by not writing the next Tekumel.

Write the minimal amount of material you need to achieve your objectives...

This is the first rule: create a minimal viable product: do the least work necessary to achieve your aims.  I think the fundamental misunderstanding is that Psi-Wars "still isn't done." It's done, it was done ages ago.  Do you know what some of the most popular posts I have on this blog are? The original "Create, Don't Covert" and my Iteration 1 stuff.  Iteration 1 was Psi-Wars.  It was done.  I even did a playtest.  It worked, and it only took me a couple of days.

Did I need the Ranathim or Communion? No.  Did I need intensely detailed vehicle design system and new version of action vehicular combat? No.  Did I need updated psionic rules, robot templates, and a list of bespoke templates as long as my arm? No.

Then why did I write those?

...then Iterate

Once you've finished your product, stop, look at it, see where the pain is, see what you want to change and update, and then do it.  And when you do it, do the minimum amount of work necessary to get your campaign up and running.

I tried to do this with Iteration 2, 3, 4 and 5, and I think I succeeded, but especially with Iteration 5. If you had to ask me what the "definitive" Psi-Wars was, I wouldn't give you one version, but several, and the Iteration 5 rules would rank as number 2, with the eventually completed wiki as #1. You can still get the documents over there in the Psi-Wars index, and they'll stay there.  To me, Iteration 5 was the "finished version" of Psi-Wars.

Why am I still working on it? Because my readers asked me to.  Because I talked to them and they said they wanted to see a specific setting.  I even said upfront "That will take a long time." If we're going to make a galactic setting with rich history and nuanced races and crazy-cool philosophies and a ton of character concepts, then we're building a Tekumel.  Because that's what we've decided we want.  So, yes, that takes a long time.

I think if I've done anything wrong at this point, it's to sort of break out of the iteration cycles, at least, to not explicitly talk about what I'm doing. We're not actually in Iteration 7.  We're in Iteration 157 or so, and if you go back through the material, you can see what I mean: I pick a topic and spend a couple of months exploring that one specific topic until I'm happy with it.  Then it gets solidified, released and it's done and I move on, and I keep doing this in tight little cycles of "the minimum necessary to achieve these ends." I do this because it's intuitively how I work.  By not explicitly calling it out, it gives these impressions of giant "Waterfall" approaches where I seem to say "I AAAM BUIIILLLDDING A SEEEEETTTTING!" as opposed to what's really going on, which is little tiny whirlwind focuses on little things.  I just want to save on my numbers and keep from getting people confused as to where we are, because at this point I pretty much pick the bits that my readers want to know more about, or I want to work on, and I work on them.

Okay, but if that's so, I hear you say, why aren't you running Psi-Wars? If you're "done" at all times and you could run Psi-Wars, why don't you?

Well, that's easy, it's because...

I'm having fun

I write right now because I enjoy it.  It relaxes me.  It's like exploring: I look at a topic, do some research, see how it all fits together, and then post it, and enjoy whatever comments and/or likes that i get from it. 

I'm very busy as a father and a husband, like busy like you wouldn't believe.  Running a campaign requires carving out a niche of time at regular intervals and then carving out more time to make sure that material is prepped, and all of this means, in the zero sum game of scheduling, that something else has to go, and given that I can't forego family or work, that means that writing would have to slow.  Of course, you can prep and write for a setting at the same time if writing for the setting is prep, but it doesn't always work out that way.  I plan on doing something like that for Tall Tales of the Orochi belt, and it's going to work fine because once I've finished with tech, the only thing we really have left is getting stuff on the wiki and doing detail work on specific areas which, oh look, campaign prep is.

I think some people have the impression that Psi-Wars "isn't table ready," but it's not true.  I've run Psi-Wars, I've seen other people run Psi-Wars. The only thing you miss right now is the latest and greatest.  Running with the Iteration 5 rules right now is a bit like running the previous edition of a game when the next one is right around the corner and the writer keeps dropping tidbits of the great improvements he's making.  So I can see why people say "Hurry up with your collation, man!" but it's not strictly necessary.  Psi-Wars is table-top ready and has been for years.

Writing your own Campaign, the Psi-Wars way

Okay, so, you're with me, right?
  • Create, don't convert.  You're going to build your own GURPS material using whatever actually inspires you, rather than sticking slavishly to someone else's material.  Great.
  • The minimum viable product. You agree that you're going to just grab what already exists in GURPS, as best you can, and get your game "tabletop ready" as soon as possible.
  • Iterate: And then you're going to look at what doesn't work and fix it.
Great! So... why don't you have a campaign up yet?

#JustStart

So, this video is really what inspired today's post.  I see this sort of mentality in people everywhere.  I have it myself.  "I need to lose weight but..." or "I'll get back to dancing just as soon as..." or "I'll buy this one RPG book, it's key to getting my campaign up and off the ground."

The purpose of the Psi-Wars method is to break you out of this "toolbox fallacy."
  • Fact: you don't need official permission from a major fandom to run your campaign, and you don't need your game to play exactly like a fandom to run it.  People will show up for your bad Harry Potter knock-off as quickly as they'll show up for your bad Harry Potter conversion, and the first is easier, so do the first.
  • Fact: you don't need a constructed language, a richly detailed map, bespoke templates, and a million rules to run your game.  GURPS has given you everything you need to start and to start now on pretty much any game you want to run. It won't be perfect, but it'll be a game.
  • Fact: if you're not happy with something, you can always change it later, and changing it later is not an excuse for not running your game now.
We use the weight of campaign design work as an excuse to not run our campaigns. "Oh, I don't know GURPS well enough" (There's no better way to learn than to run) "Nobody in my area runs GURPS" (If you start running, that ceases to be true) "Nobody will play in my games anyway" (Have you tried? And if so, ask them why they don't like your games? Have you looked broader, on the internet perhaps? There are loads of people constantly complaining about their lack of game.  Surely one of them is interested). "I have a vision and I need to get it out" (But in the meantime, you can still run, right?)

We fear failure.  We fear putting together a game and getting it wrong. "No gaming is better than bad gaming" was a particularly destructive meme running around RPG.net for awhile, up there with the Fantasy Heartbreaker (I've noodled on a post called "the Myth of the Fantasy Heartbreaker for awhile), which suggests that you're weird fantasy ideas about Gelfs and Gwarves is somehow stupider than Tolkien's Elves and Dwarves and thus you should stop trying and be ashamed of yourself, because people like Tolkien and George R. R. Martin sprang fully formed from the brow of God with their sacred works intact and never made mistakes, unlike you, mere mortal.

Man, go make mistakes.  Sit through a bad game.  It won't actually hurt you.  It will only waste  your time.  I've sat through a lot of bad games; a friend of mine joked that his game must have been the worst game I've ever had.  Of course, I've had worse, much worse, and some of my best, funniest stories come from these most horrible games.  And the people in them learned how to run games better.  Some of the best GMs I've played with have run some of the worst games I've played.

Life is about learning. You learn by doing.  If you design and run a campaign, than you're doing.  The sooner you start doing, the sooner you learn what you're doing wrong, and the sooner you know what you're doing wrong, the sooner people start bitching about how horrible your game is, the sooner you'll know how to fix it.  Often, what's really wrong isn't what we think it is (You might be super-worried about campaign balance, but it turns out people hate your GMPCs, or your NPC characterization, or  your poor grasp of the magic rules, or pacing).  The only way you can know is to test, and the best test is experience.

Reflections

Me, I'm still happy just writing, but not perfectly happy.  I have a lot of people on my discord that chat at me, and some of them are more annoying than others.  The most annoying are those who have the most divergent viewpoints from mine, who complain often about how I do things, and they're annoying because they force me to get out of my rut and think about what they're talking about.  One often talks about "just in time gaming" and he's got me thinking that I probably worry overly much about what I plan for my sessions. so I've had to think about my scheduling and how I do things.  Is there a way I can balance my writing, my family and my gaming (in addition to the couple days a month I already game, once with my dad, and once with my gaming friends) so that I can squeak out another game? I'd need to manage expectations, but it should be possible.

Writers write; if you're not writing, you're not a writers.  Well, gamers game, so if you're not gaming, you're not a gamer.  If you want to be a gamer, start gaming!

I'll have to talk to my wife about this, but I'd rather not wait until the kids are older, the days warm and golden and the stars align or, as my friend calls it in regards to Magic: the Gathering, "Magical Christmas land," to start gaming.  Expect to see something soon.

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