Learning To Draw (Again)

In the list of habits I seem to have dropped over the years, sketching and drawing is fairly high up. Considering the sheer amount of tabletop gaming I do, you’d think that I’d be more inclined to stretch my creative legs, produce some maps, sketch characters and monsters, so on and so forth, but like many hobbies it has fallen a little by the wayside as life has encroached upon my time.

Finding Inspiration

Sitting in front of a blank page is daunting, especially when words come so much more readily than pictures. Much like everyone else, when there’s no paper in front of me there’s no end of images we want to bring to life, but the moment the pencil is in hand they all seem to vanish. Now there are two easy options to help resolve this common problem:

Always have paper – Easy enough, surely? Little sketchbooks are easy to come by, even for tiny pockets, as are tiny pencils, and even in the workplace there’s often a ready supply of paper, even post-its will do. Whenever inspirations strikes (as it so often does at those highly inconvenient moments you’re already prepared to start doodling.


Just draw – Harder option. Draw something even when you lack inspiration, draw things you don’t want to draw necessarily, just put pencil to paper and start moving. Momentum will eventually take over and you’ll find yourself drawing more and more over time, and things that you actually want to do.

As for finding those things that you want to draw, you’ll find nothing sitting blankly  before that blank sheet. Read, play games, watch films, trawl Deviant Art or  steal ideas, mash them together. Original ideas come out of nowhere in a very literal sense, practically every idea you’ll ever have when you pick it apart for long enough will be very similar to this thing or some combination of those so draw without shame. So many of us have drawn a few pokémon in the past, maybe draw some more, we’re not exactly running out.


Adobe’s seminal picture manipulation software is practically an essential life skill these days, that or GIMP. It’s an expensive piece of software if you leap straight in with the full version but there are ways and means of getting older versions for free that are entirely legal. But even for someone who enjoys randomly pressing buttons to see what they do, trial and error can only take you so far. Courses teaching you how to use it exist for a reason.

Mercifully this is the age of the internet, and any specific task you want to accomplish almost certainly has a video with someone who knows better telling you how to make it happen. What’s most important when watching these things is not to be put off by how much better their work looks than yours, practice will eventually make perfect and you haven’t practised nearly as much as they have.

Taking different approaches to learning photoshop might help too. I for one struggle drawing basic shapes with a mouse but fair better by hand, so I’ve taken to sketching elements of an image, shrinking them, applying them to the larger image and then using the far more useful colouring options in photoshop to finish the job, because I have no idea how to use inks.


These are but the shambolically assembled thoughts of one who has barely begun a journey that may very well take years of productive time-wasting. Here are some fantastically useful videos from people who know better:

Mary Doodles is a YouTube artist who only recently started doing the occasional advice and tutorial video. I say recently, I caught hold of her first one shortly after she released it, but there are more than a few videos up there. Here’s the first one, and it may very well be the best piece of advice I ever recieved on the subject.

Draw with Jazza is almost entirely tutorials, plus competitions, advice, showcases, yadda yadda yadda, you get the idea. Of all his videos though, possibly the best to watch when you’re only just getting started is how to get over the horror of the blank page, tips that I have unashamedly ripped off a little bit further up.

When I went hunting for advice on how to get started in map drawing for RPs and for generally creating fantasy worlds as a whole I found plenty of YouTube channels that tried to help, but actually I found that the simplest advice came from this guy, Jonathan Roberts, simple step by steps that I found more useful than anyone else’s attempts to educate me.

But what’s important is not to take their advice, or my advice, but find someone whose advice works for you, whatever tips and tricks get you started.

Much of this advice is also applicable to other creative things! Can’t write a book? Write an idea, write a scene, write a monologue, it doesn’t even have to be a good one. Take this article for example, do you think I’m happy with it? Don’t you think I’d rather be writing the random books that you find in Elder Scrolls games and making absurd amounts of money for it? Get whatever is in your head out onto paper and make it real, and eventually you’ll be happy enough with it to show the rest of the world.

Enjoying Failure

I suck at computer games, that’s a fact. Actually I’m not incredible at games in general with a few important exceptions. Weirdly there’s no consistency, I’m pretty good at chess and yet my strategic skills seem to fly out of the window as soon as I sit down to play any other game that needs them; luck does not favour me, my dice have shown me this, and only the presence of someone with considerably less luck than me can fix my dice.

So why, in the face of such constant defeat do I persevere? I’m certainly no glutton for punishment, and success is always preferable, that’s universal. Yet time and time again I will revel in my failures, and often they’re far more memorable than my victories… but in a good way.


For those of you unfamiliar, Besiege is a game still under development that was opened for early access about a year ago (January 2015) in which the player is presented with a simple task, something along the lines of “destroy that building” or “get past all those things and sit there”. The challenge then becomes building the vehicle that moves and destroys.


You never really know exactly how much effort goes into making something steer until you’ve actually tried to build something that does. It’s also a fascinating process incorporating fire into a structure made almost entirely of wood. Time and time again I have scrapped the lot and gone back to the drawing board amidst a heap of burning rubble, defeated by a stationary windmill positioned infuriatingly on a ridge that I can’t quite climb, and yet still I will try again.

Now failure itself is an enjoyable experience in Besiege, watching the vehicle you spent better part of half an hour on shake itself to pieces the first time you attempt a turn, or gods forbid anything so radical as a trebuchet arm. Yet going back to the beginning repeatedly becomes a pleasure too, revisiting simple problems from the ground up leads to a process of trial, error, failure, tweaks, adjustments, failures, and eventual, accidental success.

I daren’t even attempt flying machines.


There’s a recurring issue I have with platformers, and that is every time I fall to my death it seems to take me a long time to return to where I failed last. I’ve been playing Alice: Madness Returns, and I got increasingly frustrated with one very simple point. It wasn’t a puzzle to be solved, something hidden to be found, or a fight I found beyond my abilities, it was a couple of jumps that I was struggling to judge, and the walk back to the point where I could attempt it again took a while to get back to.

Also, the invisible platforms are kind of mean

Extra Credits did an entire video on the subject [skip to around 4:10], but the moral of this story is very simple: the faster you get to try again the more fun you’ll have. Platforming games in general tend to leave you with a long walk back to where you fell and you’ve usually managed to get through a few tricky obstacles in-between times.

Moreover, defeat in a platformer is rarely that fun. Instead of the wildly disastrous explosions of Besiege, we have disappointing falls as a result of bad timing. It’s a genre that finds a lot of love amongst people for whom skill is a pursuit and success is its own reward, but so help me I love a spectacle and a good story because I play to be entertained, and I prefer to tax my mind more than my reactions. A failure can be – and so far as I’m concerned, should be – as entertaining as a victory.


We fail so that we can learn, that’s a fairly simple fact. If we succeed at everything then we will be no wiser for it, although paradoxically our lives would be perfect.

Every failure is an opportunity to learn, trial and error, to see what brings you closer to your end-goal, and what takes you further away. This is true of everything in life, so each and every time your defeats become smaller it comes with the slight twinge of success, something that you carry forward to your next attempt and an opportunity for a new discovery.

These rules apply to gameplay, design, practically any skill you can name except for base jumping. It’s a learning process that is both enjoyable and highly effective.

Educating Yourself


How Everyone’s A Massive Geek And Probably Doesn’t Know It

I’m sitting here chain-watching a lot of Extra Credits videos. If you don’t know, they’re animated, educational mini-lectures on the subject of games design, games industry, and the socio-economic impact of games. It’s an elegant series, and while many of the lessons are things I’ve considered and discussed from a less educated perspective in DMing 101 I have learnt vast amounts and have had new avenues of thought opened to me as I design a new campaign that I’m starting this year (a serious attempt at a tabletop sandbox) and it’s deeply gratifying to find an intelligent and edifying thing available in a rapid-delivery format on a subject that I love and feel passionate about to want to dissect in detail. Continue reading “Educating Yourself”