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World of Design: The Lost Art of Making Things Up

In a previous article I shared differences between entertainment media and how it feels imagination is less often required of people today. What changed?

ideas.jpg

Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

The most important thing that we've ever learned--the most important thing we've learned as far as children are concerned--is never, never let them near a television set, or better still just don't install the idiotic thing at all. It rots the senses in the head. It kills imagination dead. It clogs and clutters up the mind. It makes a child so dull and blind. He can no longer understand a fairy tale in fairyland. His brain becomes as soft as cheese. His thinking powers rust and freeze. He cannot think he only sees! –Mike Teavee, by Danny Elfman, from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

With most forms of entertainment you need to use your imagination because there are things missing that you have to add in. Games are part of that. You need to imagine things that aren't actually there. How much imagination you need depends on what kind of entertainment.

“A Fairytale in Fairyland”

Let's differentiate imaginative play from an unfettered imagination, which is wild imagining separated from reality, with imagination in the service of problem-solving or real-world entertainment. This kind of thinking is something we learn early as children but society gradually becomes considered “daydreaming” as adults, a negative connotation. As such, an unfettered imagination tends to be the domain of children who have more time and freedom to imagine. But even in childhood play, things are changing.

“It Clogs and Clutters up the Mind”

For example, with video games much less imagination is required than with tabletop games, because the video game can show so much more (now with photo-realism). There's a tendency these days to expect games and life in general to be highly attractive. We expect movies to be extravaganzas with lots of computer-generated special effects. We can even make a young Arnold Schwarzenegger as in Terminator Genesys.

These are all aids to imagination. As a result, imagination is no longer required nearly as much in play as it was before, due in no small part because of corporate branding. Kids don't just get a set of race cars and have to imagine the rest. Instead they get cars from the movie Cars, or go-karts from Mario Kart, and so forth.

Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy is an example of the power of imagination. Originally it was a radio program in Britain, which I happened to hear when I was living there in the late 70s. Then it was brought to TV (same actors), then it was a book, then a series of books, then a radio program again, and then a movie, and somewhere in there I suspect there were video games as well. I've always thought the original radio program was more entertaining than the movie or even than the books.

As the history of Dungeons & Dragons has demonstrated, there’s money to be made in creating content. In the past, it was expected that tabletop board games have lots of attractive artwork and bits, often miniatures. The less multimedia a game has, the more imagination required. This is in part a shift for Fifth Edition, which placed “theater of the mind” as a viable playstyle that involves descriptions only and no board or miniatures. Theater of the mind eschews props, but they can easily become a substitute for imaginative descriptions. For example, I rarely use miniatures (but do use a board and pieces); yet many people won't play without them.

“He Cannot Think He Only Sees”

When we stop using our imagination, we are no longer “thinking” but only “seeing” – processing information instead of creating it. In comparison, it seems to me that imagination is used less in gaming than it used to. The sandbox style of play in D&D is very much associated with the old school renaissance (OSR) and thereby older adults. But perhaps it’s just shifted online. Children play Minecraft and Roblox, worlds in which players are encouraged to create something from nothing.

The tension behind open world video games is that it costs money to create them. Emergent play by playing in a sandbox-style world is risky; players may have an amazing experience by interacting with randomly generated monsters and other players, or they may find it boring and quit. Given the upfront investments in these types of games, it’s critical that they have a means of getting players to keep paying and coming back for more. One way is to brand them, which is why corporations want to create branded worlds that have a unique intellectual property. In video games, subscriptions are one means of guaranteeing repeat play and therefore access to the imaginative world.

In tabletop games, designers can try to help player imagination but the ultimate decisions about a designer’s work are with the publisher, not the designer. Because aids cost money. Of course if the designer self-publishes then the designer decides how to spend money in order to get aids to imagination. Since tabletop publishers can’t “turn off” your imaginative play, they can instead produce pieces of a world that you must buy one book at a time, or explore one adventure at a time ("modules").

Modules often provide player maps and other visual aids. The popularity of modules can even be argued as a failure of GM imagination. To be fair, it's also a matter of convenience in a world that poses a great many calls on one's time. Even if you do buy an adventure, the imagination of the DM and players is still required. No two games run from the same published adventure are alike.

In my opinion, the ability to use imagination has atrophied from lack of use due to changes in media. Can we do anything to change it as individual game designers? Probably not. The best we can do is keep producing and hope that tabletop games continue to offer something no other medium can provide: unfettered imagination.

Your turn: Do you see a difference in how gamers today use their imagination in tabletop play?
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio
I suppose that it depends if you look at elements of gaming as being replacements for imagination, or facilitators of it. I think there's a valid point to the idea that the more that is done for the audience or participants, the less they need to imagine on their own. But I don't know if it's really all that bad a thing.

Also, what about when a player is struggling to imagine what is being conveyed? A visual tool like a map or miniature or something similar can actually help them. I don't think we can assume imagination is always this unbridled thing that has no limits and needs no encouragement.

And I also think the nature of the specific media or game is a big factor as well. To lean on your example, something like Minecraft seems to be much more of a prompt to the imagination than an inhibitor of it. Other video games would be quite the opposite. I don't think we can paint them all with one brush.

I think that with RPGs, this is a shifting landscape. Especially with the increase in online play and use of online tools during the pandemic. But I also think that there has been a significant shift by some games to change the mode of play and how the fiction is established which is placing more need on a player to use their imagination to help craft the world and its elements, rather than relying on just the GM to present these to them.
 

Bayushi_seikuro

Adventurer
While I think media plays a large part in things being 'imagined for us' - without opening a bee's nest too much, when something is presented in games/movies/tv, there's often an outcry about the depiction being 'wrong', for example the way the Jedi have evolved in media since 1977 - I think also we have a difference in the world.

In addition to downplaying active creativity, I think we can tie it into a change in education. We're not taught critical thinking, which could be useful for coming up with alternate-history settings for gaming and 'what-ifs' for example. The typical gamer also, I would say by and large, is no longer the white male who grew up reading Howard and Lovecraft and Vance from age 7 and moved into wargaming; I would say gamers are much more diverse in every aspect and every cultural exposure.

TLDR - I think that it isn't just imagination that is atrophying, but also critical thinking, while also increasing the chance people may think others are having 'wrongfun'. YMMV
 

Zsong

Explorer
To be honest with you that’s why I don’t like art in rpg books. I don’t like then cementing the way the world looks. I like to paint the picture in my mind based on the text. I don’t like the the forced imagery of the graphics defining a setting. It’s just wrong for me. And I apologize to many of the great d&d artists for feeling that way. They are good and talented people.
 

Bayushi_seikuro

Adventurer
I suppose that it depends if you look at elements of gaming as being replacements for imagination, or facilitators of it. I think there's a valid point to the idea that the more that is done for the audience or participants, the less they need to imagine on their own. But I don't know if it's really all that bad a thing.

Also, what about when a player is struggling to imagine what is being conveyed? A visual tool like a map or miniature or something similar can actually help them. I don't think we can assume imagination is always this unbridled thing that has no limits and needs no encouragement.

And I also think the nature of the specific media or game is a big factor as well. To lean on your example, something like Minecraft seems to be much more of a prompt to the imagination than an inhibitor of it. Other video games would be quite the opposite. I don't think we can paint them all with one brush.

I think that with RPGs, this is a shifting landscape. Especially with the increase in online play and use of online tools during the pandemic. But I also think that there has been a significant shift by some games to change the mode of play and how the fiction is established which is placing more need on a player to use their imagination to help craft the world and its elements, rather than relying on just the GM to present these to them.
I think you're right with online play and other online tools. Even with Facebook messenger, in my local gaming group, it's easy to pull up a picture that is evocative of what an NPC looks like, or might be 'cast' as, to show what a particular tower may look like, etc.
 

Bayushi_seikuro

Adventurer
To be honest with you that’s why I don’t like art in rpg books. I don’t like then cementing the way the world looks. I like to paint the picture in my mind based on the text. I don’t like the the forced imagery of the graphics defining a setting. It’s just wrong for me. And I apologize to many of the great d&d artists for feeling that way. They are good and talented people.
I agree. In much the same way that dwarves are all Scottish, or tend to be portrayed that way. Once that took hold, for a lot of people, they have trouble with a dwarf who's not a Scottish stereotype.
 

jasper

Rotten DM
Psst as one old fart to another old fart. Play with young people who are not kinfolk. Only the heroes and character rip-offs have changed. So instead Drizzt, etc, young people are pulling from their media, like we did from our media.
I am the third oldest in my gaming groups. See some of my game write ups for the imagination coming from the younger people. \
Now could one you younger people rake the OP lawn and get him his reading glasses. (evil grin.)
As to you playing with cars mumbling, Gee a race track from 1960, using 1960 cars.
 

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Dire Bare

Legend
Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy is an example of the power of imagination. Originally it was a radio program in Britain, which I happened to hear when I was living there in the late 70s. Then it was brought to TV (same actors), then it was a book, then a series of books, then a radio program again, and then a movie, and somewhere in there I suspect there were video games as well. I've always thought the original radio program was more entertaining than the movie or even than the books.
Huh. I had always thought the book came first . . . and was even ready to reply with a "WRONG!", but thankfully decided to do a quick Google-check and you are RIGHT! Which of course, you already knew that. Interesting.

My first exposure to Hitchhiker's was definitely the novel . . . ah, good times!
 

univoxs

That's my dog, Walter
Supporter
I'm not concerned all too much with other people's imagination. Maybe people spend more time being entertained than entertaining themselves idk. But at the same time, there has never been more role playing games being made. More people are putting their imagination to work and producing a product.

The only problem I see is that there is a glut of IP RPGs and theme mash ups which attempt to make something new, artificially, by smacking together two well worn tropes. But the direction of games being produced bothers me very little. There are decades worth of old games to play as well as little pockets of our hobbie, peoples blogs and podcasts, that produce new ideas. I just bought the d20 Fading Suns book for instance. I had never even heard of it.

When I was a kid, me and my friends would run around imagining ourselves as the x-men, voltron, or ninja turtles. Now kids do the same thing based around video games or youtubers. Its hardly different. Just as my parents didn't understand why I was pretending I had six inch blades coming out of my knuckles, I don't understand a kid babbling about...whatever it is they are talking about (I really don't understand what they are talking about. Roblox? What is that? idk/idc)

If I'm not mistaken, Gygax himself was an advocate for people creating their own worlds but the fact that AD&D produced all the settings we still know and use today seems to say to me that there has always been a great need for guides for peoples creativity.
 

amethal

Adventurer
Huh. I had always thought the book came first . . . and was even ready to reply with a "WRONG!", but thankfully decided to do a quick Google-check and you are RIGHT! Which of course, you already knew that. Interesting.

My first exposure to Hitchhiker's was definitely the novel . . . ah, good times!
Some friends and I went to the theatre to see a Hitchhikers play, and afterwards they started complaining about how the play had changed some of the plot of the book.

I had to explain to them that the play was based on the script of the radio play, which predated the book. Although, give that each version (radio play, TV series, book, movie) is different anyway, it did seem like a strange thing to complain about!
 


Arilyn

Hero
I am actually finding the breadth of RPGs and the diverse play styles are creating a richer imaginative space at the table.

As far as kids go? Nowadays, it might be Cars and Star Wars, but in old days it was Lone Ranger, Captain Midnight, etc. Sometimes it feels like kids are lacking in imaginative play. Not sure. But Lego is still super popular, so that's a good sign.

And it is the younger generation tackling problems and thinking outside the box, so perhaps us old people are just grumbling about youth, like old people have done, probably since we first became human!
 

I am actually finding the breadth of RPGs and the diverse play styles are creating a richer imaginative space at the table.

As far as kids go? Nowadays, it might be Cars and Star Wars, but in old days it was Lone Ranger, Captain Midnight, etc. Sometimes it feels like kids are lacking in imaginative play. Not sure. But Lego is still super popular, so that's a good sign.

And it is the younger generation tackling problems and thinking outside the box, so perhaps us old people are just grumbling about youth, like old people have done, probably since we first became human!

I have to say there is a lot out there that is impressive today but I also do think there is a narrowing of what is viable or creatively permissible for sure. And I don't think it is generational. It is happening with older people too. I think it is a result of social media and people constantly judging one another's creations, of critiques gaining more and more currency. You could almost call it the pitch meeting effect. I think that is leading to people playing more to avoiding negative reactions and negative criticisms, and taking fewer chances. Personally at least, that is my sense. This is obviously quite subjective.
 

So, am I the only one thinking this is just the modern Socrates complaining that learning to read has corrupted the youth's ability to think because it causes them to interact with "dead" ideas (ones written down in a book, which cannot dynamically respond) as opposed to "living" ones (those actually spoken/defended by a live person)? Because that's exactly what this reads like. It may be less hostile than other arguments of its kind, but fundamentally it's the same "new media are ruining the minds of the future" argument humanity has been having with itself for three thousand years.
 

So, am I the only one thinking this is just the modern Socrates complaining that learning to read has corrupted the youth's ability to think because it causes them to interact with "dead" ideas (ones written down in a book, which cannot dynamically respond) as opposed to "living" ones (those actually spoken/defended by a live person)? Because that's exactly what this reads like. It may be less hostile than other arguments of its kind, but fundamentally it's the same "new media are ruining the minds of the future" argument humanity has been having with itself for three thousand years.

There is a reason we have those discussions. Socrates wasn't entirely wrong in that it changed how humans thought (and certainly must have impacted creativity). I mean it is without doubt that it impacted our ability to remember things (you don't have to remember information as much if you can look it up in a book). I think there is always a change that comes with any massive media advance (the printing press, the radio, the television, certainly impacted the way we approached things creatively, and the way we interacted with one another). There is going to be good and bad in that, and there is going to be a period where we adapt to the new technology. I think social media has given us many wonderful things, but it does have downsides. And we are contending with many of those downsides now. I am optimistic that we will adapt once we understand what it means. But one change I do see is a growing homogenization of creativity, and a tendency to create in anticipation of snark and a narrow range of critiques that gain traction online.I think it is also creating more of a conformist culture as well (especially in the arts). The solution isn't to say social media is bad and needs to go away, it is for us to realize what it is doing to us and resist the negative side of it (to see where it amplifies the bad aspects of our nature and not give into that).
 

Argyle King

Legend
I think a barrier to being able to use imagination in some tabletop games is a drastic difference in what "makes sense" (even in the context of a fantastical world) from the perspective of a player's imagination versus what "makes sense" in the context of how the game is built.

For example: Most people have some general idea that being surrounded while in combat tends to be bad. However, my D&D 4E character was built around the idea that having as many enemies around me as possible was a good thing. I understand this because of experience with the game and understanding the mechanics and design mentality of the system, but it runs counter-intuitive to the general ballpark of how I believe most people would imagine approaching a fight.

"Yeah, but it's a fantasy world, so reality has no..."

I'm not saying that a fantastical world needs to adhere to reality. However, I do believe that some common ground is helpful for an audience from whom a game wants imaginative thought and in-game engagement of the in-world narrative.

Oddly, professional wrestling is (I believe) a good case study for roleplaying game designers. Obviously, pro-wrestling is choreographed and is an exaggerated fantasy portrayal of "sports." However, when it is done well, an audience can suspend their disbelief and be sucked into the story and the action.

As a matter of fact, contemporary wrestling has been on a drastic downturn (in terms of number of people watching) precisely because of a lack of what gamers and fantasy writers might call verisimilitude. I have no idea if anybody else on these boards watches wrestling, but some guys in AEW are terrible at this when putting together a match. Of course, it's a choreographed show. However, if a match starts with two guys fighting outside and a dude being kicked in the testicles by his opponent, it doesn't make much sense to then have both guys roll back into the ring and proceed to have a sportsman-like technical-based match. If the guy who was kicked in the junk isn't incapacitated, it makes more sense that he's (even if he's a good guy) probably angry and wants to punch his opponent in the face rather than do chain wrestling. Those small details matter to believable fiction.

"Well, okay... but magic and dragons."

Those things can still exist but be presented in a way which is easier for people to buy into. Going back to the wrestling example, the Undertaker being some sort of undead creature who can occasionally command lightning is obviously fiction. However, that character was portrayed in a way which was believable and came with "in-game" fictional rules, which remained largely consistent throughout the life of the character. Likewise, Hulk Hogan being able to "Hulk up" and be rejuvenated after having the crap kicked out of him for 10 minutes defies what would normally make sense, but the portrayal of the fiction still attempted to have some level of "realism," even if it was an exaggerated and cartoonish version of realism. When it is done well, you believe it; you feel the emotion of it; you can buy into it. When it's done poorly or something jarring is introduced to the story, it's harder to buy into the imaginative space of that world.

Once a shared narrative baseline is established with the audience, a connection is made with that audience, and they (the audience) can be invited into the story. In the context of an rpg or a cooperative narrative, having a shared baseline helps give mental and emotional cues from which to mold the imagination and buy-in to being a part of what is going on. Also, once a baseline is established, it is easier to push boundaries because a framework is given from which to make sense of why something deviates from that baseline or why something defies expectations. It helps give context to both the current state of the imaginative space and future narrative developments, and that helps someone participating to think, process information, and make choices from the point of view of that imaginative space.

So, how does that apply to imagination and game design?

As stated, even a fictional world needs to have some established baseline which can be understood by the players.

Let's say a group of PCs are confronted with a hostage situation: the villainous wizard BBEG is holding a magic wand to the head of another PC who had been subdued earlier, during a battle with the wizard's servants.

From a narrative and imagination perspective, there's a big difference between mechanics which lead to the expected situation of "our friend might die if we don't back down" versus "Joe has 100 HP because he's a PC, so even a coup de grace won't kill him." This is related to some of the comments about minis and video game visuals because the underlying point is viewing moving pieces rather than imagining being one of the pieces or the situation around the pieces.

A better example might be a player trying something "cool" in combat. For example, maybe they attempt to throw a rope and snare a fleeing enemy's legs -causing them to fall down. Or maybe they're a fighter using a shield, and they want to bash the villain with a shield to subdue the villain. Those ideas seem heroic or like something they may have seen in an action movie. Unfortunately, the game says that ropes are an improvised weapon, so attempting it means no proficiency bonus and you're rolling at a penalty which is impossible to produce success at your current level. In the case of a shield, the game might say you can't even attempt that without a special class ability or a feat. So, failure after failure while attempting to use imaginative ideas leads to the player eventually thinking it terms of what the game says is correct rather than what the player imagines.

Anecdotally, I've seen a lot of new players start with the first expectation and trying to come up with an imaginative solution, but eventually learn that how they would normally imagine a situation doesn't match up with how the game says they should be thinking.

Again, fantasy and gaming aren't real life. I accept that. Changes are made both due to fantastic elements and for playability. Certain things are tropes or accepted ways of doing things which fit a game or a genre. To return to the wrestling examples, the idea of whipping somebody into ropes and them continuing to run is ridiculous, but it's an accepted genre convention, so it gets a pass. Those exceptions are easier for the audience to accept once a shared baseline is established, and an audience is often willing to give a pass on a handful of things if most everything else fits their imagined expectation.

Even considering that it's fantasy and a game, I believe it's possible to have deviations from reality and still maintain a baseline which prompts and enhances thought and imagination, rather than getting in the way of it. When it does get in the way of it, I believe that good design clearly communicates that and gives an understanding of why -or does so after having used other elements to build narrative rapport with the audience.

The more steps taken away from a shared understanding, the harder it is to effectively use imagination to approach a shared narrative.
 

Ace

Adventurer
Your turn: Do you see a difference in how gamers today use their imagination in tabletop play?
SNIP various

Not really. Gamers are just as imaginative or unimaginative as they were in the decades ago when I started. In fact given the plethora of ready made adventures and supplements that have proliferated over the last 20 years and the number of DM's using only homebrew stuff out there I'd argue gamers are a bit more willing to flex their story telling imagination than in the past.

What I have noticed is a shorter player attention span . Even when time allows, long running campaigns seem to be a thing of the past. Everybody has a story to tell or a game to run but a lot less people want to be a player for any length of time.

This isn't because of a lack of imagination though. Long term play and being a DM both require creativity.
 
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What I have noticed is a shorter player attention span . Even when time allows, long running campaigns seem to be a thing of the past. Everybody has a story to tell or a game to run but a lot less people want to be a player for any length of time.

I have seen this at the table as well as with myself. I especially noticed it when I would sit down to read or watch a movie. I stepped away from the internet and gave myself whole days with no social media to break the attention loss (it worked, it is a bit like having cabin fever at first but I think if you moderate your use you can definitely shave down this problem).
 

Ramaster

Explorer
I always give lewpuls a hard time with his articles but this one... this one is good. Broken clock syndrome, perhaps?

Anyways, these observations are keen. It's not something new, by all means, by its something that doesn't get nearly enough attention.

I, for one, appreciate visual aids in RPG media and related forms of entertainment. Take Magic the Gathering, for example. Now the art style is pretty homogenous but in the olden days there were a bunch of different styles within the same set that created the sense of a really broad and lived-in world, so I'm not sure I 100% agree with the conclusion of the article but it at the very least got me thinking.
 


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