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Talent, Experience, and John Baldessari

by Mike on 19 January 2016

My good friend and all-around fantastic D&D guy, Teos Abadia, wrote a thought-provoking article entitled Talent vs. Experience. Before you continue, give his article a read and then come on back.

Teos and I had a chance to work together on the D&D adventure Vault of the Dracolich along with Scott Fitzgerald Gray. It was a hell of an experience, and one Teos mentions in his article.

This article is more introspective than others on Sly Flourish. If you're not interested in the self indulgence, here's a quick summary of my main points on this topic:

Is Good GMing Talent or Experience?

First, for the sake of this article, we're going to consider running a roleplaying game as its own form of art. I certainly think so and many others do as well. It doesn't have to be fine-art or bullet-in-the-ass progressive art, but it's art none the less.

That takes us to the question of whether making art comes from raw talent or experience. There are thousands of books on the topic and probably a billion words on the web about it so we won't dig too deep here. I think that good artists come from both their actions and their environment. There are lots of variables that come into play. Some internal and some external. Someone having a knack for a creative enterprise isn't very useful if they don't actually practice it.

I tend to think that talent exists but it probably isn't as important as drive, effort, experimentation, and repetition.

In a documentary about the artist John Baldessari, Baldessari offers three pieces of advice for young artists that I think are relevant here:

  1. Talent is cheap.
  2. You have to be possessed which you can't will.
  3. Being in the right place at the right time.

He might have meanings for these different than my own, but I think these relate very well to running RPGs.

Even if talent matters towards running RPGs, there's a lot of talent out there. I think it certainly helps being a GM if you have a bit of a performer in you. I think good GMs don't mind, or are even comfortable, being the center of attention. That might be natural or it might be something someone learned to get used to.

Baldessari's second rule is the most important for creative work. You have to really want to do it. You have to have to do it. As lazy as I like to pretend it is, GMing is hard work. People may try it out and then step away. Others couldn't let it go if they tried. If we want to get good at it, we have to do it all the time which isn't hard because we want to do it all the time.

Burning History

10,000 hours of experience on its own doesn't make someone awesome if they aren't taking the time to continually review their work and evolve it. To me, GMing is a lifelong persuit of improvement. We have to learn together. We have to throw away bad ideas. We have to try stuff out and throw away what doesn't work for us.

In the She DM's excellent response to Teos's article, Davena Oaks had an interesting insight into the importance of experience for GMs:

"I learned experience is no guarantee of skill or quality. It can be a yoke, weighing down a good DM, making them inflexible, unable to adapt or improve despite any superior qualities they might have. It can make them strangely jaded, lacking in enthusiasm and creativity. Now when I recruit DMs I don't express interest in learning too many details about a DM's gaming history I've found it helps me focus more on the DMs other qualities."

In 1970, John Baldessari burnt 13 years worth of his art, baked the ashes into cookies, and then put them into an urn with a plaque that described the birth and death dates of the artwork along with the recepe for the cookies.

Now there's a guy who knows how to throw away the past to focus on the future. Like Davena Oaks says, experience can lead to inflexibility and an inability to adapt or improve. The more experience we take on, the more we owe it to ourselves to throw away past misconceptions and learn new things.

On Writing D&D Stuff

Here comes the self-indulgent navel gazing on writing I warned you about earlier. You can blame Teos for bringing this up in his article:

"Working with Mike Shea, he made his work on Vault of the Dracolich seem effortless. And I work so hard to finish my half of Confrontation at Candlekeep as quickly as Shawn Merwin does. Is that their talent? Or am I just not seeing their effort?""

That's a nice thing to say but a lot of the creativity in Vault of the Dracolich came from the ideas of Teos and Scott Fitzgerald Gray.

I am a consistent writer. I can meet deadlines. I can publish regular work. I know how to break down projects into chunks that I can do regularly. I try to write 500 words a day of something and, over 2015, I was able to do that 274 days of the year. Often I edited or ran a D&D game on the off days. For the past five years I've written or updated an article a week for this website.

That consistency helps me finish projects like Vault of the Dracolich.

While consistent in output, I don't consider myself particularly imaginative. It is far easier for me to write an article like this one than it is to write an adventure like Vault of the Dracolich or the Drowned Tower. There's a reason it took me a year to write the first draft of Fantastic Locations. That was not effortless. That was a pain in the ass (and it still is but you guys are worth it).

Consistency helps me get through pain-in-the-ass creativity. Having a nice daily quota to meet means I can push through even when I'm not feeling very creative. There's a lot of science behind the idea of consistency. A lot of writers, myself included, feel that good writing comes from keeping up a long pace, not waiting for inspiration or spraying out beautiful blasts of fireworks three times a year.

I might argue that this machine-like method of writing hurts creativity. For me, it might. It doesn't stop Stephen King from hammering out awesome books like Revival, though.

Here's a peek into King's process:

"I used to tell interviewers that I wrote every day except for Christmas, the Fourth of July, and my birthday. That was a lie. I told them that because if you agree to an interview you have to say something, and it plays better if it's something at least half-clever. Also, I didn't want to sound like a workaholic dweeb (just a workaholic, I guess). The truth is that when I'm writing, I write every day, workaholic dweeb or not. That includes Christmas, the Fourth, and my birthday (at my age you try to ignore your goddamn birthday anyway)."

Embracing Childlike Wonder

There's one other criteria I think is important when we think about being great GMs: our willingness to embrace our childlike wonder. We tend to lose our childlike wonder as we grow up and become fearful of going there. Beyond experience and talent, we need to embrace the fantastic. We need to remember why we're playing these games in the first place. We need to become kids again.

Where Does That Leave Us?

On the question of talent versus experience in GMing, where does that leave us? I think it's an interesting question to discuss but I also think it can be a dangerous one. All sorts of mind-tricks try to get us to stop making things, whether its the great American novel or our Sunday afternoon D&D game. This question of talent versus experience could easily become an excuse not to try running RPGs or to quit doing it after a few attempts.

The question doesn't matter. What experience you have doesn't matter. What talent you have doesn't matter. Only running RPGs matters. Give it a try.

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