I was talking with my wife over a nice Valentine’s dinner out on Saturday and we got onto the topic of similarities among the things I enjoy. She identified that I approach all the things that I enjoy the same way:
I love to find the core of a good thing and then embellish like mad.
Lizzy’s insight revealed an unexpected parallel between my enjoyment of (among other things) dancing and games, specifically GMing, RPGs, and my own style of game design.
Learning to Dance
I’m very fond of dancing. Lately I’ve been diggin solo dancing, as in club dancing (whether or not there’s a club) so long as there’s the right music, a good beat, and nobody expecting a show. This latest craze began one fateful day at a friend’s wedding when the atmosphere allowed me that combination of comfort and unconcern to cut loose.
Aside from that new development, most of my dance experience has been couples dances: Though it’s been a few years, I used to heartily enjoy the Lindy Hop scene in the Twin Cities. There was open dance late Thursday nights in Minneapolis and I enjoyed dancing there with friends (eventually my wife) throughout my college years. After graduating, I moved farther from the city, and my 9-5 employment hampered my college-self ability to start a night’s activity at 10pm.
Lindy Hop features a ‘basic move’ called a Swing Out, and I relied upon it heavily. For me, though, the fun really began when I had learned enough to not have to do the Swing Out. I learned more moves and considered myself good. That is until I realized that performing a certain list of moves, no matter the relative size of the repertoire only went so far. I needed to get past the point of only wanting to scope out and perfect the next cool move, which was inevitably bigger and flashier. (Not that I could do any of this, but here are some champions demonstrating what I mean)
Moving beyond relying on certain moves to lend my dances flair, I discovered the creative aspect of couple dancing that made all the difference for me. Out of the core of the dance–the Swing Out and a few trusty stand-by moves–I was free (dancing as lead) to combine and recombine, improvise, and concoct altogether new ways to interact with my dancing partner. The challenge then became whether the dance fit the music at any given point, rather than whether we could pull off the X, Y, or Z move. Maybe a trumpet blast called for something big and flashy, or maybe a slow, sultry part felt better going with long, smooth, gliding passes, or even simple little steps that freeze with the beat. Nothing flashy there, nothing showy and, frankly, exhausting or even dangerous.
At this point, playing to the music, I realized that this approach also made me more fun as a dance partner. Not only could I share enjoyable dances with anyone (rather than only those who know how to do particular moves), but playing to the music was something my partner could anticipate and play along with as well. If I then postponed stringing moves from my repertoire together hoping I didn’t run out or get repetitive, she would then have time and room to play with the music herself. This of course is only courteous, and in my case was usually much gentler. What’s more, joint improvisation is a blast! It was quite an slow but expanding learning process for me.
Dancing and Games?
What does my experiences with dance have to do with games? Well, I’ve had the same process with games. I learned board games, loved what they can do and dove deep into what they had to offer. I loved sharing good games, but it became hard to find people that liked the kind I enjoyed the most. A new level of fun came when I realized I could make games myself, similar to learning to improvise rather than learn new moves.
RPGs were yet another step beyond my first attempts at board game design. In RPGs, at least theoretically, players are truly unlimited in what they can do. The game itself became less important than the story the game facilitated. When I play Pandemic, I am always playing Pandemic, even if it’s somewhat different each time. With D&D, each chapter of our ongoing story is truly unique and we have no idea what will happen next chapter. As a Gamemaster I get to take the creative input from six brilliant storytellers and improvise with it in a way that is fun for all. Instead of a single dance partner with whom I play to the music, I now have six. We all hear the music, albeit somewhat differently, but together we are crafting out of it a never-before-told tale. Our tale has brought real joy, real tears, real dilemmas, tough decisions, and lots of feeling cool and heroic. And these things are the mental and emotional equivalents of the physical and social thrill granted by a really good dance.
All that’s not even touching on the creative outlet RPG game design has become for me. Well, as I said, I love nothing better than finding the core of a good thing and embellishing like mad.