“An essential element of any art is risk. If you don’t take a risk then how are you going to make something really beautiful, that hasn’t been seen before?”
Francis Ford Coppola, interview in 99u
Allow me to begin by saying this update is going to be a little bit all over the place. The number of ideas in my head right now outstrip the time available to write them all down. I suspect that some of these things will be spun off and expanded into separate essays later on.
Let me continue by saying, as means of illustrating the point, that is piece in and of itself is a risk. I know that these sorts of thinky, philosophical posts are largely ignored by my audience. This time could be better spend on something more popular or profitable. There’s also the risk of backlash, that someone will read it and decide they disagree so strongly that it becomes the hill they’re willing to die on. There was a bit of that when Daniel first announced the Black Box Movement, after all. Sometimes we write things not because we expect them to be read, but because we feel they need to be said.
An Essential Element of Art is Risk
The majority of people in this cottage industry are set in their ways. They have determined that there is only one right and proper way to do things, and that’s the way it must be done. To some degree that does mitigate risk, yes. Francis Ford Coppola, quoted above, was not a formulaic director but he did develop a formulaic means of making films. He mitigated financial risk by having processes and procedures. I can’t help but think that he learned those values from his mentor, Roger Corman, who is also the my personal Patron Saint. In mitigating one area of risk, Coppola was able to take more risks in the art he was creating.
What infuriates me is that these same people tend to complain about the growth of the hobby. It’s lopsided, in favor of D&D. But only in those decades when it isn’t stagnant, or in decline. These are people who admittedly take great financial risks to launch a big, bold book following the formula of traditional publishing, then cry when they lose their metaphorical shirts. They are the writers and artists and designers that follow the well-trod “path to success”, then throw a fit when they find it’s next to impossible to earn a living that way. Pitch them on a different way of doing things, and they’ll tell you you’re crazy. You’re doing it wrong. It involves too much risk.
All Things Happen By Experimentation
This idea of taking a risk applies to both the creator and those experiencing the creation. We need to take risks and discover new things. Trying a new restaurant means not getting the thing we already know we like. Watching a new show means not binge-rewatching the show you love so much you have entire episodes memorized. There is risk involved in buying a new game, when you could have spent your money on yet another D&D supplement or more dice, and whiled away your time playing that comfortably familiar system.
This is the opposite of consumerism. We are trained to be loyal to brands. Stability and reliability are traded for the mediocrity of the comfortable and familiar. In that sense, unpopularly, all acts of creativity are political. Even the worst fantasy heartbreaker took the risk of criticizing the Ur-RPG by changing pieces of it. Small risks sometime, disproportionately large one depending on what was changed and how people reacted to it. Adapting older works to newer cultural contexts gets tagged as political. So does updating an old classic for a modern audience.
Yet we need those risks. Without them, everything stagnates. There is no new art that feels relevant to our own lived experiences.