16
Jan
13

On Dwimmermount, And Failure

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, maybe in the comments to this post about Gygax, Arneson, and a music video. My mom was a little girl when Hawaii became a state. She’s about the age of D&D’s original gangsters, and the vogue for Hawaiian shirts and hula hoops affected her the way Tractics did them. The world wasn’t changed by my mom’s lifelong devotion to hula dancing, but it did mean my childhood was surrounded by the paraphernalia of a hobby most people left behind decades ago.

In 2000, her halao, a hula group made up of dancers who commuted between Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio (for non-Texans, this is a whole lot of six-mile hexes) to practice together, was the first in the continental-US-other-than-California to be invited to the Merrie Monarch festival. This would be hula’s equivalent of Gen Con, if Indy had this big contest we all cared about so much that just being allowed to enter was a big deal.

A women’s group competing in the Merrie Monarch festival. We had all these kinds of cowrie shell necklaces and coconut shell bras around the house when I was a kid.

The day my mom was getting ready to go on stage – braiding all those grass skirts takes a long time – the rest of my family,  my fiancee, and I went swimming at a black sand beach on the big island. After a while the rest of us went in to build sand castles while my dad looked for coral with a snorkel. At one point we looked up and wondered if he was swimming a little far from shore; when we looked again a minute later he had drowned. My brother and I swam out to try to rescue him, but our attempts at CPR failed.

Kehena Beach can be seen in the background of this shot. Most of the folks who helped with the rescue weren’t wearing any clothes.

Like many gamers I grew up devoted to science fiction, especially everything Robert A. Heinlein ever wrote, and I was strongly influenced by its cult of competence. Years later, in a class on SF, Chip Delany identified this as one of the genre’s fixed ideas – the delusion that an exceptional person should be able to do everything exceptionally well, whether it’s to skin a squirrel with your boot or fix a gourmet meal or repel an alien invasion – but it was gospel to me as a kid. I never built a bomb shelter using rolls of toilet paper as radiation filters the way Heinlein told me to in Expanded Universe, but I did lots of other stuff, from taking karate lessons to getting certified as an emergency medical technician, for the time when my training might mean the difference between life or death. When the time came, I failed.

One failure followed another. The Ph.D towards which I’d invested five years of my time and a bunch of other people’s money stalled and eventually sputtered out, a long painful process of disappointment for my mentor, my friends, and others who’d counted on me to deliver my thesis. For a long time I felt like a loser, hiding myself away in shame to avoid evidence of how I’d let people down or fantasizing about grandiose ways I could re-establish myself as an exceptional person. Eventually I got over the idea that I deserved to have life suck forever; the decision to get myself into therapy was a key step, but that and its interesting relationship to what we do in roleplaying sessions is for another post.

This one is about Dwimmermount. If you supported its Kickstarter, or if you’re reasonably attuned to an online community that contains folks who did, you’ll have heard that the project is in some trouble. As the person at Autarch who’s been the public face for the Dwimmermount crowdfunding effort, I’m doing all I can to make sure that what it promised is delivered – although, since James has both the funding and the copyright that are required to release his work, I’m not in the best position to do so. Autarch is still looking for solutions, but everyone’s best efforts can never banish the possibility of failure.

I can’t talk about what’s going on with Dwimmermount author James Maliszewski and how it relates to the project’s problems – mostly because he’s not telling me, and the desire to respect his privacy covers what’s left – but here’s what I can say from my experience following my father’s death.

  • There are worse things in the world than a delayed Kickstarter or a pre-ordered gaming product that fails to ship. People have to take responsibility for their actions, sure, but the reality is that life contains some tragic fucking shit and the only thing that makes it bearable is our compassion for one another.
  • Sometimes failure is a way to realize you’re on the wrong path. I’d been going nowhere as a grad student long before my dad died, and although this isn’t the way I would have chosen to get there, I’m now happier than most of the people I know who continued down the track I got jolted out of.
  • You have to fail if you’re going to learn from your mistakes. The biggest thing I had to overcome was the feeling that I was a failure, and since that’s all I’d ever be there was no point in trying. The flip side of this is the science-fiction fantasy that I should be good at everything, meaning the best way to evade the sneaking suspicion that this wasn’t so was to avoid doing anything at which I might fail. Either way, I was shutting myself off from the opportunity to see that you win some, you lose some, and meanwhile it’s fun to play the game.

Autarch is a new company, and we’re still making rookie mistakes. Going into the Dwimmermount project, I felt like Autarch’s success with the Adventurer Conqueror King Kickstarter, and the failure of mine for the Arneson Memorial Gameday, had given us considerable expertise. I see now that those those were relatively smooth hits or misses. We’ve learned a lot more from a project that’s been rocky and whose fate remains uncertain; we won’t again put ourselves in a position where we’re holding the bag and have left ourselves so little control over the outcome. Although I still think there’s a valuable role for crowdfunding to act as the testing ground and collaborative inspiration for projects early in their development cycle, the Kickstarter currently on Autarch’s drawing board, Domains at War, will have a basically finished draft ready to give to backers as soon as they pledge and will explicitly be seeking funds just to illustrate, print, and ship a thing that already exists.

Kickstarter is a new thing under the sun too. Without being privy to their process, the fact that they are growing successfully means they must be learning from their mistakes. I’d like to think that the requirements for project creators to discuss risks to backers, which have been put in place since we launched Dwimmermount, might have helped us avoid another serious mistake in not being transparent from the start about Autarch’s contract with James and the ways it could go wrong. But hindsight is misleading, and there are still many ways that Dwimmermount could come out right.

To bring this back to gaming and pay the Joesky tax, roleplaying lets you make mistakes and learn from the consequences in a safe space. I’ve written before about my frustration with party optimization in 4E, where I felt like no feasible amount of play time would give me enough observations to statistically distinguish successful group strategies from sub-par ones. Tim Harford’s fascinating Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure shows that it’s not just statistics that can be make it hard to recognize when you’ve made a mistake (this being an obvious prerequisite to learning from it). Some of the unconscious biases he points out are kind of a benefit for roleplaying: the tendency to retrospectively cast our bad decisions as good ones can make the story of a gang of insanely greedy, stupid, merciless cowards trying to bullshit their way to a wholly undeserved victory seem a little less undeserved.

But the fear of failure is what drives these attempts to airbrush away one’s mistakes, and it makes for bad gaming. Fudging the dice robs us of the ability to learn. The wisely titled Play Unsafe presents techniques like holding ideas lightly (because they might be wrong) and not planning in advance (because no amount of worrying will never eliminate the possibility of rolling a natural 1) that I think are at the heart of the old-school approach. Best of all, they’re things you can try out and see if they work for you right away, no statistical analysis necessary.


26 Responses to “On Dwimmermount, And Failure”


  1. 1 Fred Herman
    January 16, 2013 at 2:24 am

    For what it’s worth, I’m very sorry to learn what happened with your Dad, and I’m glad you were able to pull out of the feeling-like-a-failure spiral. (I never quite managed that last, after a similar PhD fizzle and a couple of imploded careers.)

  2. January 16, 2013 at 2:29 am

    Well said: this whole post is fucking fantastic.

  3. January 16, 2013 at 2:38 am

    Thanks guys. @Fred, as a New Yorker you are as entitled to psychotherapy as to bagels and Woody Allen sightings, let me know if I can give you a recommendation. It’s not the One True Way or anything – that honor goes to bagels – but I can say it works for me within a 95% confidence interval.

  4. January 16, 2013 at 2:46 am

    There’s a lot of content in this post that I’d like to hear more about and respond to, which leaves me full of questions that stray from the bits that seem most relevant for discussion here. I’ll throw my hat in for glorious failure and say that having things go awry is not always such a bad thing in the end. Having my career aspirations frustrated has led me to being a lot happier and wiser (and having more fun, more empowerment, having more honest and open relationships, I could go on…) – that’s what we’re all after in the end, anyway. I’m excited for Domains at War, and having a couple of my own Kickstartable irons in the fire, I’m happy to have learned from others to make sure the work is done before putting it out to market… And sorry that you guys had to be the ones to teach me.

  5. January 16, 2013 at 2:58 am

    @Ryan, I’d be glad to stray from the point either in comments here or further posts that might have room for pictures of coconut-shell bras. I think there are some projects for which Kickstarter is best used before doing all the work – the core ACKS book got a ton of useful input from backers whose investment made it better than it would have been if it had already been set in stone – but it’s riskier, not right for every project, and especially in the current environment needs to be spelled out very clearly.

  6. 7 NUNYA
    January 16, 2013 at 2:59 am

    DOAN’T TO BE WORRY DEWD!!1 I WAS HANGING WITH A JIMMY MALEPOOSKY JUST THIS WEEKIND IN A VEGAS!!1 HE WOS SNORTING LINES OF COAK OFF THE BEYATIFUL ASS OF AHOOKER DRESS UP LIKE A MM1 SUCKU-BUST AND DETAILING THE LEVELMAPS BETWEEN. LET ME HAVE MY FILL TOO CUZ HE SED HE COOD ALWAYZ SKWEEZE A DIMMERDUNCE BICHES FOR MOAR CHEEZ FOR HIS RANDOM DUNGINS GENEARATED FROM TEH DMG!!1 DOANT WORRY –HE’S A GONNA MAIK IT RITE FORE YUO BRA!

    :p
    -NUNYA

  7. January 16, 2013 at 3:12 am

    @NUNYA, I was pleased to see when contemplating a link to the Joesky tax that he’s blogging again after a long hiatus. You haven’t been around in a while either – is this not a coincidence or do you guys just buy your keyboards from the same thrift store?

  8. January 16, 2013 at 3:21 am

    @Tavis: most of my questions are things like “you lived in Houston? That’s where I grew up, how did I not know this?”, “holy crap the story about your Dad’s passing is crazy and tragic” (well, that’s not a question at all, but…), and “someday you should tell me more about your life as an aspiring sci-fi writer and grad student” (also not a question – 1 for 3) – you’ve alluded to those experiences in the past and suggested you were somehow not in the right place back then.

    As far as my possible Kickstarter projects go, I’m pretty sure I need to have them near to completion before rolling them out. Since they’d be art heavy, I could run into deadline trouble. Predicting the time it takes to make a picture is not something most artists can do on a consistently accurate basis if – I fit neatly into that lot. I’m also not sure my idiosyncratic ideas would go over well with a large enough body of people – that remains to be seen, so some playtesting and feedback would be in order for a written project.

    Seriously though, this is a great response to a difficult situation. Thanks for handling it gracefully.

  9. January 16, 2013 at 3:33 am

    My folks moved to Houston in ’86 following my dad’s job. He was a VP of purchasing for Union Carbide, his career trajectory being a little like mine. He did get his degree as a scientist before realizing that chemistry at the professional level didn’t involve blowing stuff up. (He and his friends started a UFO scare in the ’50s by attaching cherry bombs to dry-cleaning bags full of hydrogen.) I only spent a semester here and a summer there in Texas, but enough to think about whether you have to disclose Kickstarter risks like “Our offices are in Texas City which entirely blew up within living memory” or “We’re in Galveston, which is a shifting sandbar with a single bridge to the mainland.”

    Sometimes James Nostack is like “you should use your neuroscience background in your gaming more” and for the most part this is 100% wrong, but I do have some insight into the behavior of high-level wizards like Jolly West: http://www.whale.to/b/west_q.html

  10. January 16, 2013 at 3:53 am

    Thanks, Tavis, for the post and the honesty.

  11. January 16, 2013 at 5:49 am

    You should be awarded the Golden Piñata award for best PR in service of a OSR product.

  12. January 16, 2013 at 5:00 pm

    In regards to the original post: I can say I have been there myself, meaning I have failed, I have known that feeling of being a failure, the sting, the trauma it carries, and the domino effect it can have in one’s life. I can’t but agree with the sentiments expressed here. There is a way out, to realize you are human, that failure may happen, and may be a good thing in its own formative ways, if you learn from it and concentrate on finding solutions and adapting to whatever outcome comes out of whatever endeavor you choose to commence, instead of focusing on the problems each will invariably spawn, sooner or later.

  13. January 16, 2013 at 6:21 pm

    Having worked in the games business, I would like to reinforce something I’m sure you’ve observed; gaming communities can be some of the most acerbic, vindictive and mercurial of any on the web. As a marketing/pr/community person, it is very hard to not react by just locking the communications channels and restricting access to any inside detail/development when the community only seems to want to bite you.

    I’ve been reading some of the stuff over at Autarch and around our little corner of the net, and some of the hate speech leveled against Jamie Mal (and to a much lesser extent you guys) has been abhorrent. Of course, the vast majority has been super cool and supportive, but it’s hard not to hear the screams and screeches of that vocal minority. It’s heartbreaking to see someone who has contributed so much to the community get turned on so quickly and ruthlessly.

    It perplexes me (surprises is the wrong word, as it is amazingly consistent) when folks can take something that is intended as a source of FUN (these are GAMES for chrissakes), and turn them into such an arena for aggravation, rage, and hate. As an observer, I know it’s because people have vested time, energy and money into something and feel some ownership, but as a participant it is hard not to feel betrayed and attacked.

    Anyway, +1 to what folks have said above re: the candor of the post and the excellent community management in the face of some serious dickery. I look forward to receiving my copy when it’s done, and at the least am more than happy to have contributed to the ongoing development of our hobby in some small way.

  14. January 16, 2013 at 7:25 pm

    @Greengoat, this would be a hell of a way to run a PR agency.
    @Benoist, the kid in our ACKS afterschool class who best takes a bad roll of the dice in stride is also a baseball fan; I wonder if sports are like other games in being ways to get used to losing as often as you win = doing very well.
    @LoBo, are there game outfits that do it well – manage their communication and transparency and interaction with fans in ways that earn continued loyalty? What’s the largest of ‘em, if any? I wonder if there isn’t a sweet spot; as an individual I’m more likely to let you down than Autarch is because the others would step up for me, but we’re not so big that we can’t say what our left hand is doing.

  15. January 16, 2013 at 8:24 pm

    The ones that come immediately are the indies like minecraft (mojang), dwarf fortress (toady), and similar. Mojang in particular has ultra-transparency with fans. I suspect this gets harder as profit margins/resources/time get tighter. It’s tough to have your developers off on deep twitter conversations when they need to work 18 hours a day to hit a deadline. These guys have had such a massive hit that they are just spending their days creating tons of free content to give away, so grain of salt.

  16. January 18, 2013 at 10:35 pm

    Life is full of pit falls. As long as you can get back up, dust yourself off, and keep moving, then things get better and better. Death is part of life. We are all part of the same gang where we lost either a father or a mother or both. Good lord, my sister was murdered in 1990 in a horrible way but guess what, the “shit wagon” decided to stop at my family’s house and drop its contents. I will NEVER EVER use the excuse of a death of a family member to skirt my responsibilities in any situation. Failure of any kind is a learning tool provided one understands the failure, learns from it, grows from it, and rebuilds around it. Making promises, taking money, and failing to fulfill such said promises using the excuses of sickness, emminent death, and simply finding writing to be “unenjoyable” is not a failure but more less an excuse to just jump ship or throw in the towel.

  17. January 19, 2013 at 1:20 am

    William, not all responsibilities are created equal, and when they come into conflict, people have to prioritize.

    I think there’s more than enough room here to say, “It’s wrong to steal from people” versus, “Hey, I understand if you need more time meeting this deadline.” But I think what Tavis is saying is, “I have found that when I screw up, which happens frequently, it’s better to admit it, move on, and try to ensure it doesn’t recur.”

  18. January 19, 2013 at 12:55 pm

    @James, I think it’s wise to say that not all responsibilities are created equal. When we say “remember, it’s just a game” or “an average American family’s income worth of money is at stake here”, we’re talking about yardsticks for measuring responsibility. This is a good conversation to have.

    I think that a way to understand what @William is saying is “not all failures are created equal.” Last night maldoor and zapicm and I tested out a prototype of the megadungeon tracker – one panel of a vinyl screen with a printed insert (in this case showing a chart with an x and y axis, and a logarithmic scale from 1-14) on which we could write with a wipe-erase pen – to share ideas about, among other things, a theory of stupidity. I first read this in an ’80s issue of the Whole Earth Review, and maldoor encountered similar ideas somewhere else which my thing may be a satire of. Anyway the first premise is that some percentage of people are stupid, and that this will be true in any group you choose: roleplayers, Nobel laureates, your family, whatever. The second premise is that this percentage is always higher than you think; you will forever be surprised by stupidity’s ability to pop up even when you thought you had it fully accounted for. The third premise (and here is where the tracker, and the point of this story, come in) is that once you realize you are dealing with a stupid person it is helpful to classify them as “effective / ineffective” and “harmful to others / harmful to self,” with points on a Cartesian coordinate grid being a useful kind of alignment to track. Note that, although the theory is expressed as talking about other people, nothing in its premises grants special immunity to the observer. Remembering that you are frequently among the stupid, and that this will happen more often than you think, may not make you less stupid but it will move you along the “effective” axis.

    We can, and I think it can be useful to, similarly divide failures into categories. There are noble failures and ignoble ones, expensive failures and ones that cost you nothing. There are also guaranteed failures and uncertain ones. To throw in the towel is a guaranteed failure, although Adapt also makes clear that another persistent kind of error (born of the difficulty in admitting you’re sometimes a stupid person and make mistakes) is the refusal to throw in the chips when it’s clear you’ve got a losing hand.

    The relevance of the above to Dwimmermount is indirect and theoretical. To speak directly, the project’s failure is far from assured, and I am neither throwing in the towel nor convinced that I am making a mistake in persisting.

  19. 21 Michael (Gronan) Mornard
    January 21, 2013 at 2:32 am

    Tavis, I am so sorry about your father.

  20. January 21, 2013 at 1:58 pm

    Thanks, Michael. You have a lot of training in thinking about the unknowable, but my dad’s father was an engineer and he never came to grips with a world in which his son could die abruptly without a definite cause ever being established. I asked my son to read this post and he gave me a hug (and forgave me for using bad language), so I can’t see living in a state of fundamental uncertainty as being all bad.

  21. April 1, 2013 at 6:01 pm

    i’m late. but i just wanted to say this is a beautiful post. thank you, tavis.

  22. 24 Matt
    April 8, 2013 at 9:22 pm

    Tavis,

    I agree with you that failure… can truly become a tonic for later success. I read your posting with much sadness, as we are (quietly) linked in so many ways. My father, also passed away in 2000 (two weeks after yours). I have been (2001; 2004) many times to the black sand nude beach near Puna… my childhood friends live in Pahoa. I had never before, heard your version of what had transpired; this truly touched me and I hope I understand what you have been through. I know that we come from different worlds; and I know that this is INCREDIBLY late, but I want to tell you how sorry I am for your loss… what it did to you; and what you endured. Great to see the upside, now, so many years later.
    I, like yourself, have moved on. I have remarried (a previous girlfriend from the 1980’s). We have a set of triplets (hers) and I have my two boys (via your ex). My oldest (13) is headed to Wake Forest University this summer… in the Duke TIP program. I too have spent some time in NYC, via the USN in the 80’s. Great city. Great food. I even played golf on Governor’s Island, long before the Coast Guard ceded it to the city. I’ve heard that you and Jennifer are happy, with children. I’m glad to know that.

    Best of luck to you, and take care.

    Matt

  23. August 20, 2014 at 5:52 pm

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