This is RPG-ology #20: Pay Attention, for July 2019.
When Multiverser was first going to publication, artist Jim Denaxas suggested that from henceforth everything in my life had become tax deductible.
My job today is to create worlds, and to find ways to import worlds to games—my games and the games of referees around the world. Whatever I do in pursuit of that job is a business expense.
If I go to see a movie, I’m researching plots, stories, and sometimes fantasy or science fiction settings. If I read a book, it’s the same thing. The newspaper is a source of world ideas; so, for that matter, is the television. But those are the obvious things.
I could go on vacation, and justify it as a study of other parts of the world. How much more realistic could my development of a Greco-Roman culture feel if I’ve walked the Appian Way, or stood before the Parthenon? Could I write as convincing an Asian setting without visiting China and Japan? If we’re setting this in the mountains in the summer, a trip to the Poconos is helpful, but wouldn’t it be so greatly enhanced by traveling to the Rockies, the Alps, and perhaps the Himalayas? I can visit the beach and learn much; I can visit Historic Gloucester, legendary Malibu, and even the black beaches of Hawaii and learn so much more.
And no world experience could be quite complete without understanding the food. Fine restaurants offer the opportunity to understand the culture, my own or any of a hundred other nationalities and ethnic groups. Concerts, whether longhair in my father’s more traditional sense or in my generation’s reactionary sense, add to my comprehension of a people, a place, a time. And I could spend hours wandering around museums—natural history, science, art, culture, or technology, all great sources of ideas, information, background. No matter what I’m doing, I am involved in research, finding ideas for worlds and stories and games. And since that’s my job, it’s all tax deductible.
Well, I’ll argue that with the Internal Revenue Service another time. Don’t get me wrong—I usually win when I’m dragged into court. I just don’t know that they’d be so willing to accept my definitions of business expenses as I propose. Meanwhile, there’s another point.
But in order to get to it, I’m going to wander away from it.
I took a Creative Writing: Fiction class back at Gordon College. At the time (probably 1977), I had no expectation of ever using it in life. I hadn’t heard of role playing games, and saw my future as a musician and composer, not a writer. (If you’re in college and you aren’t in some highly technical field that guarantees you a job in a lab somewhere almost before you graduate, the best advice I have is keep your options open, learn broadly everything you can about everything they offer, and keep your books and your notes. If your degree isn’t something very specifically in demand, it isn’t your primary goal. Yes, you are there to get a degree; but far more important than that, you are there to learn everything you can, to know what is taught, and to understand how to learn and how to think. Those are the real things you learn in college: how to think first, how to learn second, how to find information third, and the lessons themselves fourth. The degree, a scrap of credential, only shows that you had the opportunity to learn these things. It’s not the goal, but evidence that the goal may have been reached.) I took this creative writing course because it sounded interesting, and I wanted to learn about writing; I thought I might one day write the next great fantasy novel, in the far future, but it certainly wasn’t on my list of career objectives. Yet it has proved in several ways to have been one of the most valuable courses I took.
One of the basic requirements of the course was the maintenance of a writer’s journal. We were to carry a notebook with us at all times, and every day to write something—anything—in it. It could include descriptions of things we saw or people we met; plot ideas or story concepts; dreams and fantasies; drafts of bits of required papers; mental observations; images and similes and metaphors. I started it because it was required; but I kept it up intermittently for years thereafter, and have three notebooks packed with such writings. In there you’ll find story and world ideas for fantasies and horror and science fiction. You’ll find my realization that mysteries have to be written backwards—that the author has to know who did it and how from the beginning, and then unravel it by presenting the clues available to the detective. You’ll find the original notes which became my Confessions of a Dungeons & Dragons™ Addict article. I wrote about the technical details of some of the jobs I had; I described landscapes and skyscapes from many times of the year in several parts of the world. Co-workers were sometimes sketched as potential characters, and conspiracies were hatched. I wrote a few entire short stories in those pages, and from these taught myself much. In one, I examined the difference between what a wizard might have done and how his victim might have perceived it, recognizing that magic is less about what the user can do and more about what he can make others believe he did. And you’ll find the moment I realized that Frank Herbert broke perspective to capture a moment, and the moment I realized that he and J. R. R. Tolkien held my attention by splitting the action in their stories between several stages and moving from one to another. So much that I learned about people, places, plots, and ideas can be found in the pages of those notebooks.
And every once in a while I go back through them, looking over the old ideas. I wrote a few short stories for my sons’ teachers to use in their holiday celebrations in school, and dug through the books for color and descriptives that would make the scene more real. They have proved quite valuable.
And that brings us back around to that point I mentioned a few paragraphs back.
Every minute of your life, every step that you take, you are surrounded by story ideas.
The clerk at the grocery store—look at her. Is she young and pretty, and expecting a wonderful life ahead of her? Is she old and tired, doing this to support her three kids? You don’t know; but notice her, watch her, make some guesses.
There’s a gas station on the corner; they just built it last year. What was there before that? I drove through my home town a few months ago on my way to visit my parents, and realized that I did not recognize anything familiar but the road itself—if any of the stores were there when I was a boy, I did not notice these. Each building can be part of your world, or an inspiration for part of it; and in a matter of only a few years, some will be gone, and most changed in some way. Capture the present. Make notes on the past, what you can remember of it. No, I’ve never used downtown Ramsey in any of my game worlds (or, not yet, anyway); but the bits of it that I remember make good fodder for other worlds.
Look at the sky, the trees, the ground, the roads, the houses. What month is it? How many times have you run a game in which the season for the characters was different from that of the players? Do you really know what summer looks like, smells like, feels like? How July is different from August? How summer rain and spring rain differ? Can you convey that within your descriptions? Can you convey the difference between December and January while sitting around the pool in June, and make your players shiver from the cold? Learn the settings.
I read an interview with a successful French photographic artist. In it he gave the obligatory word of advice to those who aspired to a career akin to his. His was quite interesting. Ignore the standard social convention, he said: stare at people. You must see them to be able to understand what they look like. I would say the same thing: stare at everything and everybody, at least in a figurative sense. Don’t think of anything as mundane or insignificant; it is in fact the mundane and insignificant that provides the best color, and often the most interesting ideas.
Do you need a notebook to do this? Probably. Maybe right now you don’t—maybe you can draw from your current experience pretty well, and create things from what you know. But there are many things I wish I’d written when I saw them. I would have a much larger base from which to create had I done so. I have many years of experiences which are faint memories now, good and bad memories lacking the detail for which I could wish. I suspect no matter how thoroughly you preserve your observations, there will always be things you forget and wish you could remember—the pleasures and pains of life, the family gatherings which seem so routine at the time and so poignant later (“the last time we saw Grampa alive”), the daily activities of school or work that you would rather avoid but which will not be here forever. Life is packed with these moments, stories, people, places. You don’t need me to give them to you—you just need to preserve them and shift them into new combinations.
So in a sense this entry in our series has been about keeping a notebook. But it’s more essentially about keeping your eyes and ears open, paying attention and noticing things around you, and finding a way to keep those observations for future use.
This article has been slightly updated from Game Ideas Unlimited: Pay Attention, published at Gaming Outpost in the summer of 2001.