Friday, June 26, 2020

The Orc Problem

Is this a bad time to revisit this conversation?

Fuck if I know. I'm just the guy who slings the wordcount. Then again, if other people are talking about it, why am I worried?

Also, you don't have to read the previous ramble on The Danger Zone, but these two are companion pieces of a sort. I'm hoping this one will be a little more refined than the last one, but we'll see.

Sometimes I just vomit words onto a page so I can be free of them.

The Dreaded Orc Discourse™ (discorcs?) has reared its ugly head again, this time riding the cultural wave of the Black Lives Matter protests. (I seem to remember The Dreaded Orc Discourse™ appearing earlier in the year, but I can't recall the context.)

For those of you who are reading this in the future or are unaware: the BLM protests in the wake of George Floyd's murder have prompted a re-evaluation of our culture, which is always a good thing to do. However, the fact that revisit cultural sensitivity every few years or decades and then invariably just make a handful of token changes, throw up a couple of censor bars, and call the problem SOLVED invariably leaves me rather cynical with regard to all this. (Make no mistake: things are getting better, but the increments tend to be small, and the pundits who declare problems fixed invariably do so prematurely. The work of making a better world never ends.)

If you don't believe me, here's a Richard Pryor bit from forty years ago, wherein he describes George Floyd's murder. The murder might be shocking, but the problems of class imbalance and racial injustice that have been highlighted in the aftermath aren't new:


(An aside, so you understand my biases: Censorship and rethinking cultural taboos are all well and good, but these tend to be nice, safe, symbolic actions rather than any sort of praxis. They make us feel good, and give the sense that things are changing without actually changing anything. Outlawing racial slurs doesn't make racism go away any more than outlawing sex work makes misogyny disappear. If you want to change how people think, you have to put in the long, hard work to reform society and show people how things are wrong rather than sweeping the ugly parts of civilization under the rug. Also, censorship is usually evil, but occasionally a necessary evil: parents must do it for their children, for example. I know people are arguing for greater censorship — both in artistic collectives as well as from private corporations — in light of the current culture war, which begs the chemotherapy question. Will you kill the cancer before you kill the patient? Will you save the culture before you permanently poison it?)

(A second aside: Always do the work to understand the biases of the people you're reading. It will help you live longer, and help you avoid the predations of personalities.)

Enough ramble. The re-examination has brought the fantasy RPG community to revisit a question that I've heard bouncing around for decades: should we rethink fantasy races?

The basic argument is that bad thoughts and actions regarding fantasy races reinforce bad thoughts and actions about real races — that Othering in fantasy is a stepping stone to Othering in real life (or that Othering in fantasy will act as a speedbump if you are trying to avoid Othering in your personal life). That's a vast oversimplification, but we'll still be having this argument (or a variation of it) in 2025, so you can Google it to get a more nuanced take.

As you should always understand the biases of someone writing, you should never take persuasive anecdotes as reasons to change your thinking, but I want to provide a handful of reactions to the above thesis. Most of these will draw from my own experience, so again, make of them what you will.

1) The old "change the term 'race' to 'species'" argument. This argument usually emerges in any fantasy-race-is-a-backwards-idea conversation, but I always think this argument is backwards. Race is a synonym for species; that's why they called different lineages and ethnicities different races, so as to reinforce the idea that they were different creatures (and to reinforce the idea that some classes of people could be superior to others, given the whole Western obsession with the fallacy of Progress — another rant for another time). But words mean things outside their textbook definitions, so if "race" has become the preferred nomenclature for "ethnicity," then fine. Change it to species, but don't forget that the word "race" was originally there to control you anyway.

2) Context is key. This is one of those top-down societal things, and I know this is the reason why people think censorship is good, actually, in light of the current culture war. But as I said in The Danger Zone, art isn't bad or evil or dangerous — it's only dangerous when devoid of any other context. THOUGHTCRIME isn't a problem, but the lack of greater societal context is. We throw everyone into a culture saturated with information but give them no instructions on how to parse this flood. We have the ability to teach people critical thinking skills and media literacy, but we have yet to institute these as programs on any grand scale. You can argue about why that is, but regardless of the wherefores, the simple fact is that even the nastiest, most transgressive art ceases to be dangerous if people have a broader context in which to absorb it. (We can also get into the whole method by which people isolate and radicalize, but that's well outside the scope of this humble blog post. Still, our lack of cohesion as a culture provides a breeding ground for predators, and that's a conversation we'll need to have. One of these days. Along with all the other conversations we'll need to have about the various civilizations around the globe.)

3) Look at the intent. This is also another discussion for another day, but a lot of the discourse about "evil races" reflects the evolution of D&D and fantasy gaming over time. The game's fundamentals describe a world where the various races are on different cosmological teams, and although Law and Chaos don't get along, it doesn't matter to your warband, because you're just trying to get paid. (And don't forget that early adventuring parties often had members of radically different alignments, and it didn't matter because they were all looking to score the same treasure. Law and Chaos don't play well together unless they have a common goal. I severely doubt that Arneson and Gygax had any grand plans of promoting cultural egalitarianism in their work, but you can absolutely get a multicultural read on early D&D if you squint.) When you look at the AD&D Monster Manual and see orcs list Number Appearing as 30-300, you realize they're not there as dudes you're supposed to kill, but problems to solve. If you're hiking through the mountains and come across a warband of 165 orcs, you won't have the resources to fight them until high level, so you're going to have to figure out some other way of dealing with them, probably either involving fleeing or negotiating. (And if you have a skilled negotiator with high Charisma, they probably won't even be hostile, assuming you roll well on the reaction roll.) It's only somewhere in the 2e/3e era that violence becomes the assumed way you're going to solve your problems, and while 5e has done a little to scale that back from the 3e/4e era, it still isn't a common playstyle.

4) Art is subjective. Here's where we get into the personal examples. I still list H.P. Lovecraft among my favorite authors despite the rather exhaustive examination of his racism. Why? Because that's not my connection to the source literature. Lovecraft might have written through his racial anxieties with such hits as tribal cultures worship the Great Old Ones because they're stupid degenerates and the alien DNA in your lineage is a metaphor for mixed-race heritage disrupting your superior Anglo-Saxon ancestry, but when I was reading these stories as a kid, that sort of interpretation wasn't in my wheelhouse. I had the cultural context to know that so-called "primitive" cultures were just cultures with a different set of priorities than our own, so the sinister backwoodsmen and degenerate Bantu tribesmen of pulp literature were a metaphor for the frightening, hungry wilderness rather than people I actually thought I was supposed to hate or fear. (I admittedly thought it was weird that Robert E. Howard's N'Longa was treated as being sinister when he was both one of the heroes and more powerful than Solomon Kane himself, so it's not like it all went over my head.) As for the alien heritage that Lovecraft's protagonists constantly feared, that jibed with my understanding of Lovecraft himself — like Poe, Lovecraft had a lot of tragedy in his past, so the idea that one's family was a millstone around one's neck seemed a perfectly logical conclusion — as well as my interest in biology. It was a body horror thing for me: we do have alien ghosts in our genome, the hungry fragments of our ancestors, of proviral DNA, of faulty transcription that can result in cancer. That resonated, and even though the art may have been made with bad intent, my enjoyment of it reinforced a very different worldview. In the case of evil fantasy races, I never took it as people different from us are evil, instead interpreting the message as if we're extremely lucky, we'll be able to see evil intent before it arrives. It wasn't a warning or a fear, but a hope.

5) Sometimes you just gotta kill an orc. I understand why dark-skinned races that are dumber or more duplicitous than the "standard," European-style folk is intensely problematic, but I never saw those as stand-ins for real-world cultures. As mentioned in other places, I got my start with World of Darkness and other sorts of horror conspiracy games, and those games are all about moral relativism — asking hard questions, and realizing that every faction tends to think it's the "right" one while they all have good and bad aspects in them. That's what RPGs were for me. So I came to see D&D and its related games as a welcome change of pace: sometimes you can identify the evil thing by looking at it, and sometimes you can solve your problems just by punching them. It's a sometimes food for me, but not one that I begrudge anyone from enjoying: the real world is infinitely complex, and the more you delve into an issue, the more likely you are to find common ground with your enemy, or that the issue is more complicated than you first thought. But being able to play a game that paints in broad strokes, and that makes its villains obvious, is a nice change of pace sometimes, and one that tends to get rejected. (Full disclosure: I'm absolutely a hypocrite in this regard. Despite the fact that I think you should just be able to punch an orc if you want, I'm not sure I've ever run a straight-up orc punching plot. The drow invasion of Scandshar comes the closest, but even then, that course of action might seem perfectly reasonable if your former elf clans drove you underground and into the arms of a demon-goddess — sometimes the real enemy is the imperialism we met along the way. Evil races usually have reasons for doing what they do, and devoid of that imposed cultural context, they usually turn towards good if given the opportunity. Even my standard fantasy plots that lean on "evil races" tropes tend to be subversions rather than straight adaptations.)

So, is the concept of "evil races" bad? As with most art questions, it depends. Are you using it as a dumb escapist fantasy thing to be used as a counterpoint to the complexities of modern life? You're probably fine. Are you doing something interesting with the source material, or using them as some elaborate metaphor for a real-world issue? Again, that's probably okay as long as your motives are well-considered. Are you using them as a metaphor for real-world cultures, or to desensitize your players to real-world racism? Well, now you might want to take a step back from the fantasy RPGs for a while, because you're getting into that danger zone where the line between fantasy and reality becomes exceedingly porous, and that's frequently a bad trip no matter what your motives are.

As with most of these posts, the dirty secret is that there's no good answer, no hundred-question quiz that will definitively identify whether or not you're using fantasy races responsibly. As long as your actions in a game don't make you more of a jerk in real-life — something to remember in the midst of your next Twitter argument — you're probably still doing okay.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

RPGs as Art: The Danger Zone

I've had this post brewing in my brainmeats for a couple of days, and then Cavegirl posted a thing yesterday about this topic, so I guess it's time.

With SARS-CoV-2 and the Black Lives Matter protests and Trump being homophobic, I've seen The Dreaded Discourse™ raise its ugly head again, this time regarding what content belongs in games. Is it appropriate to set a game during the coronavirus pandemic, or to set a fantasy game during a plague pandemic, or to have some plot dealing with the current anti-police brutality protests and rioting?

As is often the case, the answer is, "it depends."

The other day I found myself in a Facebook comments section (my first mistake, I know) reading a series of comments answering someone who asked if it was appropriate to set a World of Darkness game amidst the coronavirus pandemic, and to make the pandemic the result of some supernatural agency, or to have them otherwise profit from it.

The overwhelming answer was, "No!" The reasoning being that these events are too close and too raw, and to include them in a game is inappropriate to those who have lost a loved one, suffered, or died from these events.

(Contrast this with an answer that mercifully didn't occur in this particular comments section, but which you occasionally see: edgelords saying that SJWs are ruining games, and that you should run whatever content you want, that the World of Darkness should be dark, and that anyone who objects is a whiny little pissbaby.)

But both of these answers ignore the purpose of art and the social contract that goes along with it. (And RPGs are an artform, remember?)

The purpose of art is to express an idea or emotion and to hopefully convey something of that to the viewer. (Sometimes, you just make art for yourself to try to exorcise something from your head, or to remember something, or to try to grapple with an event you experienced. The definition still applies, but it just so happens that you're the only intended viewer; the artist observing itself.) People make art for all kinds of reasons, and people consume art for similarly diverse reasons, but the core concept is one of catharsis. You make and experience art to think and feel about things, and to avoid feeling alone — the fact that someone out there is grappling with the same emotions as you means that you're connected to the rest of the species, no matter how distant in time or space.

We make art to understand the world and our place in it.

That's the first half of the social contract with art. We make art to understand. And because of that, people make all kinds of art. There are seven billion living perspectives on this planet, all of them searching for the same measure of understanding. Some art is pleasant and mindless, while other art is savage and bleak and potentially offensive to you. But the key part of this is that you don't get to dictate what art gets made.

The trade-off is that you do get to dictate which art you consume.

(And I absolutely know the long list of caveats here: the capitalist system favors art that can draw investors and generate revenue; social media lets someone thrust art at you in a way that might be disingenuous and you may end up consuming art that you did not want; the long debate as to whether or not art is harmful, particularly in the context of the modern culture war. In a broad sense, though, you still get to choose what art you consume, even if the permutations are a little more complicated.*)

Out in the world, if you dislike a piece of art, you can walk away from it. What's more: the modern world has enough resources to give you context before you consume a piece of art. You can ask about the content of art on message boards, or browse Wikipedia summaries, or even check out doesthedogdie.com for comprehensive coverage of triggers across multiple kinds of media.

You cannot prevent art from being created, but you can curate your own interaction with art. This is the second half of the social contract. Some people might make art for malicious reasons, or they might make art that deals with taboos to better help them grapple with the state of the world, but if you find these things offensive, you can walk away.

(We can get into the morality of whether or not art that is designed to be actively harmful should be allowed, but in many cases, you won't have that kind of clarity. Somebody might find understanding and empathy from making something horrible, and they might be doing it without malice. You don't have to watch it.)

All this rambling is to return to the main point: what content belongs in role-playing games?

And the answer is: whatever you and your group are comfortable exploring.

Coronavirus is real and scary, and a lot of people probably don't want to deal with it. But if your gaming group thinks it would be cathartic or interesting or "fun" (for certain values thereof) to include it, then you should. Some groups will even find a heavy catharsis in the idea that they can solve the crisis, or that some supernatural agency is behind it. (Using the World of Darkness as an example, however, most players and GMs will advise against this — as will I, frankly — and the books themselves tend to recommend against turning real-world tragedies into grist for the supernatural mill. But if your player group is on board, sometimes it can be cathartic to think that our problems aren't fully our fault or our responsibility. Just don't go throwing your ideas around where they will offend people.)

Likewise, there's a lot of question about whether it's right or proper to play people of other cultures, genders, sexual orientations, or what-have-you. This, again, depends on the individual group: everyone needs to be okay with it, and ideally, you're doing it with an eye towards empathy and understanding. But it's ultimately your group with your friends in it.

While you're only beholden to your small group of friends at the table, there are a couple of things to keep in mind:

  • If you talk about your game outside your circle of players, you might get pushback — remember, those people didn't agree to the same social contract, so they're going to have different ideas about what is appropriate in a game. Related: if you add a new player, you have to go through this rigmarole again to ensure they're on board.
  • Absolutely make sure everyone is on board without exception. The dirty secret is that, even with safety tools, you might have a player who feels uncomfortable drawing attention to themselves by using safety tools. You might want to have some conversations one-on-one to avoid peer pressure, or solicit feedback through Google Forms so the data is anonymous.
  • If you're a publisher or a streamer, though, you have to think about your wider audience. That's the third part of the social contract implied by the other two parts: once you have an audience, you have to decide how much of a duty you have to them. As with your home group, you don't just want to drop potentially upsetting or offensive on them without warning.

A lot of wordcount to say: make the art you want, but make sure the people involved all consent to the experience. Even if someone on the outside would look inside and be horrified, it's okay as long as it works for your group.



* Important permutations for generating and consuming ideas:

  • Every author has an agenda. Make sure you have a good grasp of the author's biases as you consume their content. You might only learn their background as you go along, but they'll probably let you know in some fashion.
  • We're a species that deals poorly in abstract concepts but very well in concrete certainties. As such, most models — metaphors and frameworks for understanding a complicated series of concepts — tend to simplify the enormous complexities of life to a few key components, and that means that any given model or explanation will have a whole host of exceptions or edge cases that don't fit the theory. (For that matter, the pointillistic structure of humanity means that some perspectives might be totally unique, found only in a single individual or a small group. Not every idea is equally applicable.)
  • Just because you disagree with an idea or are offended by it does not mean that it's invalid. Even an abhorrent idea might just be the author's way of grappling with something alien to their background. Don't assume malice where carelessness is more likely.
    • The caveat is that you shouldn't feel the need to engage with an idea that offends you, even if it has merit. Life is too short, you know?

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Tales from the Dungeon #1

A couple of my dear, old friends released a zine yesterday. Designed with fifth edition D&D in mind, Tales from the Dungeon #1 focuses on the concept of death, featuring mechanics, magic items, NPCs, and a dungeon adventure based around the theme.

You can find it (and Name Your Price!) in pdf on itch.io, or buy it for $11 in print+pdf on gumroad.

The mini-review: It's rough. It's their first published work, and it could have used more attention on layout and editing. You can tell the authors are passionate, but aren't terribly comfortable with the writing part of the zine.

But the art is top-notch (I'm a sucker for sweet lineart, and Andrzej Rybus provides), and there are bits of brilliance in there: I love the hangman's rope cursed item, and the included dungeon, Temple of Vanth, has some neat ideas.

And the whole thing is pay-what-you-want over on itch.io.

I'm particularly keen on seeing where they go with this zine as they get more comfortable in their writing and acquire more contributors.

Go support new art!

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Prophecy of the Accursed Eight

In my Arctic Ravenloft game, my players received a prophecy about their fate. Since we're playing over the internet now, I did a little sound editing and uploaded it to YouTube so that I could broadcast it over Rythm on Discord without stumbling over my words while reading the script. If that's your thing, enjoy!

Friday, April 10, 2020

Up and Around

The horrible paradox of running the ol' hobby blog is that times of heavy gaming mean less time to maintain the blog.

Do you find that sort of thing happens to you? I'm in... let's just say several games at the moment, and while that means I'm constantly generating content, I don't have enough time to polish those plans for public consumption. (For that matter, unless I've planned a whole dungeon or something, those "plans" might just be a list of names and a vague idea of what sort of trouble the PCs are about to encounter.)

So it goes.

Anyway, I have a couple of half-formed posts floating in the aether, but haven't had much time to write them. In the meantime, the RPG Archivist put out a review of No Rest for the Wicked last month, and I have been meaning to post it here. He's been running an RPG review channel on YouTube for just under a year, and although I've not yet had an opportunity to watch much of his stuff, he seems like someone whose channel could use some more love. (Also, near and dear to my own heart, it seems like he focuses on OSR and modern horror. Which, as you'll no doubt notice, comprises most of the content here.)

Without further ado, enjoy!

Friday, March 13, 2020

A Sense of Perspective

I have now run the Battle of Scandshar five times, all told, for different player groups who all had a different view of events. (There could be a sixth or seventh on the horizon, for all I know. I have a group still running around before the Battle of Scandshar.)

Admittedly, I didn't plan it that way — a death-god appearing in the mortal world and leading an invasion force of a major city was just a plot hook for my core, high-level group, not something in which I necessarily expected other player groups to participate. I figured they would hear about it, but not necessarily experience it from multiple, overlapping perspectives.

But here we are.

It's been an interesting experiment, largely because I often include multiple groups in the same world for verisimilitude, but rarely do so many of them interact with the same event from so many different vantage points. (In my old Mage: The Ascension game, the cabal heard about a massacre from my Sabbat game and investigated it, before determining it wasn't connected. That's roughly as intricate as previous encounters have been — ships passing in the night, or the occasional meeting between two groups.)

Here's what we've seen so far:

1) The Shields of the Sorrowfell are shopping, contemplating two apocalypses on the horizon, when they receive a panicked sending from a patron, saying only, "Wherever you are, you need to come back. Something is attacking Scandshar. It’s bad." They arrive and feel the horrible dread that comes from being within a few miles of a death avatar, eventually making their way through deserted streets until they find the death-god and her cohorts. When they make contact, the battle lasts maybe half a minute, but it's an intense thirty seconds before the goddess is banished and her cohorts are all slain. They take out the rest of the invading army between sessions, because running thirty combats doesn't sound like anyone's idea of fun. They leave behind one dark elf to be interrogated by city officials.

2) FLAILSNAILS muscle wizard Barnabus Sleet is working on a scam to claim the bounty on the Shields of the Sorrowfell, and the timing is such that he contacts them just as they're moving into the city to fight the dark elf invasion. As such, Sleet actually arrives on site first, and begins fighting dark elves and trying to get building fires under control while also trying to figure out just what happened here.

3) FLAILSNAILS Specialist Ribbon, her girlfriend (Sapphira), and a dark elf ally (Alaic) spent the morning of the Winter Solstice running from assassins. When they used a teleport to spend solstice with Sapphira's family, they missed the battle, although sometime in the late afternoon, everyone in the settlement of En'amanisrahd could feel the creeping dread whenever they looked at the cloud bank forming north-by-northeast. By midnight, they learned what happened; they also learned Alaic was a turncoat elite assassin from the invasion force, who fled ahead of the coming of the death-goddess because she started to doubt her mission. In the aftermath, however, she will reveal all she knows to the intelligencers of En'amanisrahd.

(Spoilers for Castle Whiterock: the FLAILSNAILS crew saved Alaic Sorethin before she bled to death in the secret domain of House Forlorna. In my game, since I knew the drow invasion was coming, I made her one of the drow harlequins sent ahead to help make sure the city was ripe for invasion. Alaic and some allies made a detour to the megadungeon ensure there was no interference from House Forlorna. The superweapon House Forlorna was attempting to torture out of her was actually intelligence regarding the approaching death-goddess; they only knew the dark elves of Cinlu Tlurthei had acquired some manner of trump card that would let them invade the surface, although they did not know the particulars.)

4) The others in the FLAILSNAILS crew were at Castle Chilikov when the invasion hit, and so maybe noticed the storm clouds and the weird sense of foreboding, but otherwise only heard about it after the fact. However, a small trickle of refugees has since populated the castle as it's being rebuilt.

5) Fresh from a delve into the Barrowmaze, a group of lower-level adventurers happened to take an extended stay in Scandshar in the hopes of finding a black market for magic items. This extended investigation took them through Winter Solstice, and so they were at ground zero when it started. (The only reason why they weren't in the Market Square when the drow goddess first emerged is because they noticed something was wrong, and started heading back to their inn rooms to resupply.) After battling their way through dark elf assassins and rampaging ghosts, they finally found a safe place to hide, only to be totally surprised that the invasion was already over when they checked the street the next morning.

I found that the players in scenarios #2 and #5 were initially confused by what was happening, as they had little context for it. (I haven't determined if this is good or bad yet — the characters should certainly feel confused and overwhelmed, but I don't necessarily want the players to feel that way. On the other hand, how do you prepare someone for an outside-context problem?) Scenarios #3 and #4 were much more gentle, as people heard about the aftermath rather than participating. (And those sets of players knew something was up by the time I broke the news in-game.)

Scenario #1 of course had the highest stakes — this was their city and their allies, and if they lose, it might mean the collapse of the whole world, given time. (The FLAILSNAILS people can always leave if the world becomes an uninhabitable thanatopic theocracy, but for everyone else, they live here.)

It's probably also noteworthy to mention that the fight with Kiaransalee had five potential phases, each with varying levels of difficulty and stakes. We only encountered four of these potential outcomes:

1) The Shields of the Sorrowfell stopped the goddess' cultists from acquiring ritual components in the giant tombs beneath Tovelka, the event which kicked off this whole plotline.

2) Someone (probably the Shields of the Sorrowfell) stopped her cultists from performing the ritual in the Vault of Gnashing Teeth.

3) Someone stopped her while she was freshly summoned in the Vault of Gnashing Teeth. The death goddess is still here, but in her weakest form.

4) Someone stopped her when she was freshly summoned on the surface. She has gathered power from annihilating a city in the Underdark and from killing people in the streets, but she is not at her full deific strength yet.

5) The occupation of Scandshar grants enough supplicants and notoriety that her presence in this world now bears the strength of a fully-incarnate deity.

Also, note that the defeat of a drow goddess of death and slavery did make the world a better place; slavery is likely to be outlawed in Scandshar after centuries of somehow remaining legal. Sometimes, just punching the symbolism makes a difference.

Friday, February 14, 2020

RPGs Aren't Art

Last year, I made the assertion that RPGs are a unique artform, something that requires a specialized language to describe.

But perhaps solely looking at RPGs as art is also the wrong idea.

I operate in a lot of indie gaming spaces because that's roughly where I started and because those games are fun. (All games are fun, you cowards!) At their best, these spaces are a showcase for new and innovative games, or an interesting place to discuss game design. At their worst (which, since this is the internet, is much of the time), they're a place to bash other people's design, invoking the dreaded badwrongfun and decrying certain games as "not real roleplaying games, like we play." (Make no mistake, though: if I were in more forums centered around traditional sorts of RPGs, I'm sure I would see someone's terrible discourse about "imagine wanting to play regular people" or "who wants to play a game about feelings?" or whatever. I just notice the bad indie RPG discourse because that's where I am.)

The timestamp tells me I downloaded this in 2006. Your argument is not original or interesting.
And the real shame is that we could still have interesting conversations about the failings of RPGs, but we don't. Using D&D as an example (because that's often the target), we could have interesting conversations about the domination of corporate art in a folk art scene, or how popularity breeds homogeneity, or even have an in-depth discussion about how rules and writing reflect the state of play at the table. But instead, we rehash the same, tired complaints about how people who try to do something creative with D&D or use it to emulate certain storytelling tropes are doing it wrong, how other games do it better, and how the state of the industry would just be so much better if other games had an equal shot.

(Completely ignoring that our hipster asses would be hollering about Apocalypse World or GUMSHOE or Noumenon if those games were the top of the heap. Popularity breeds contempt while somehow also disrupting critical thought on both sides of an issue.)

But these arguments somehow completely ignore the fact that RPGs aren't just art; they're also tools. We've already briefly delved into RPGs as their own artform, but it's just as relevant to recall that the overwhelming majority RPGs are also game engines designed to model certain situations and then give the player group the tools necessary to overcome those situations. Comparing different RPG systems is like comparing different computer languages: while different languages are better at performing different sorts of tasks, some people just like programming in specific languages based on their ease of use, flexibility, ubiquity, or whatever other criteria meets their needs. (This ignores the fact that people also appreciate art for a host of personal reasons that they often cannot articulate, and also ignores the fact that some people use tools because of the simple fact that they learned how to use them. Why do you speak in your native language all the time? Or if you don't, why do you speak the language of the prevailing culture in which you live? I ought not to presume etiquette on this wretched internet of ours, but you wouldn't go up to someone and say, "Japanese is more poetic than English, so why are you trying to write poetry in English? It's so much easier to create new words in German, so why are you attempting to make new lexicon in English? Imagine trying to talk about snow and the coastline without speaking Tlingit.")

It's useful to remember that people gravitate to certain games for various reasons, including:
  • Cost. While many indie games are low-cost or free, don't forget that D&D (as an example) is technically free and also ubiquitous enough to be easily pirated from The Trove or other sources. If you're building stuff, you probably started stocking your workbench with Craftsman tools (or the local equivalent) because of the price rather than the quality.
  • Availability. People shop where they shop, so they're going to get what they find. Your local game store isn't going to have every game, and if you don't know about OneBookShelf or the thriving indie scene on itch.io, you're not going to look there. You might assume that people can easily research any RPG on the internet, but remember that assuming good Boolean search techniques or even steady internet access is sometimes a tall order.
  • Ease of Use. An RPG that is dense (either in mechanics or setting) is probably going to have less of a fanbase than one that is easier to understand. Although even some particularly complex RPGs can be made accessible through...
  • Ubiquity. Not only are you going to pick something readily-available, a starting gamer is going to pick something with a burgeoning community and with a lot of information available. Unknown Armies only has a handful of Actual Plays, and you have to hunt for them. (Shameless Plug: That's why the Unknown Armies Fan Club has an Actual Play thread.) On the other hand, I can think of at least four D&D Actual Play streams/podcasts without heading to Google to confirm. And the fact that gamers are often taught the rules by someone else rather than reading them means the bigger games tend to get passed down from gaming group to gaming group.
  • Support. Have you heard nerds crowing about how their favorite game is no longer making new material? Since the game police don't confiscate your out-of-print books, it's clear people like playing games with lots of content, and with the promise of new content to come. If you want to make a thriving game, support your local gaming community with new material!
I've seen people's social media feeds blasted into oblivion when they suggest the "play more RPGs" argument comes from a place or privilege, but they're not entirely wrong. Access doesn't just mean cost or complexity, and while there might be a system out there that does the thing they want better, they might not know about it, or might not have the resources to understand it, or might not have the time to learn a second RPG even if it's technically "easier."

Every RPG has its high points and low points, a complex alchemy of factors that determines whether or not it's right for you and your group. Don't let some social media chump who doesn't know the needs of your table tell you you're playing RPGs wrong just because they don't like what you're doing. How you use your tools is your business.

Never forget: Once a game enters your house, it's yours, and you can do whatever you want with it. The idea that art or tools are somehow sacred and must be used as intended is a false claim. Have fun however you want.

Basically how I live my life.
I'm going to leave you with one last thought, one that is (admittedly) quite selfish. I know the desire to see your favorite RPG succeed comes from a good place, and in this capitalist cyberpunk hellscape of ours, you want to see your favorite content creators get paid so they can make more of that content you love. (And also, you know, so they can live.) But think about what you're asking when you want your personal game to lead the pack. Do you really want every two-bit weirdo with a handful of dice to invade your local fandom? Do you want all the grognards invading the Ryuutama community, trying to bend a light game about cozy journeys into a wargame simulator? Do you want every person unironically playing FATAL and laughing about sexual assault playing Bluebeard's Bride? Do you want a group of munchkin Vampire: The Masquerade players trying to cultivate a cube of Physical Attributes and combat Disciplines coming to your careful, investigative Fear Itself open table at the next convention?

Of course you don't.

You don't want these people at your table anyway, so why are you trying to hard to dissuade everyone from having their own fun? Every genre has a mainstream, and the MCU people aren't necessarily going to like Mulholland Drive or Sorry to Bother You just as the core Call of Duty audience isn't guaranteed to enjoy Braid or Gone Home.

Don't worry about selling to them. There are over seven billion people on the planet, and you have an audience somewhere. Target the weirdos you want to encourage in the world and the rest is but smoke.

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