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.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Greed in the Heart, Doom in the Mouth

I published a post on Monday and will publish another on Friday that are both blathering about the state of the industry. (The Short Answer: It's the same mess as it ever was.)

Both pieces elsewhere in the week are serious, so I'm hard-pressed to pay the Joesky tax on those posts, but I'm posting it here. Since a lot of my current content is bound up in scattered notes, 5e statblocks, and other such ephemera, I went with the recent Joesky tax writing prompts from Throne of Salt. (I rolled a 16 and a 52, if you're into that sort of thing.)

Timely!

The Avarice Beast

Have you ever met someone who hates? A real Ebenezer Scrooge-style bastard, someone who just takes and takes and takes. A bottomless pit for food, money, and affection.

Most of the time, these are just standard-style jerks, but occasionally, their festering hatred is almost a disease unto itself. (This usually occurs in men and always in humans. Whatever affliction menaces men is unknown to demi-humans. So far as we know.) Physicians have occasionally found small calcified stones in their hearts, the beginning of some sort of bezoar. (These bezoars are prized by alchemists for love potions, potions that allow the imbiber to smell gold as some dwarfs do, or other preparations that enhance the user's ability to covet.)

But the bezoar is less an accretion and more an egg. If the avaricious wretch continues on its path, the bezoar will continue to grow. (Any amount of genuine affection will halt or even reverse the bezoar's growth at this point. It's not too late for a redemption arc.) During this time, the person might notice a shortness of breath or increased fatigue, but most of them are so sedentary that they never notice the change.

Eventually, the egg will hatch.

If it hatches, the miser is living on borrowed time. The creature always hatches in the person's sleep and latches into the heart muscle. From there, it starts taking over the function of the heart over the course of a month. (It is apparent as a dark stain in the heart muscle, eventually turning the heart completely black. Once it has devoured the heart and assumed its function, it looks like a shriveled but overlarge dead fetus implanted into the circulatory tissue, curled in the middle of the victim's chest.) If the person is slain during this time, the creature cannot survive without the host, and will probably die within a matter of hours.

The creature will continue to consume additional nutrients (and negative emotions) from the host, growing to full size in 4d4 weeks. At that time, it messily tears itself out of the chest cavity, unfurling to the size of a small dog, all black skin and gristle and bone. It seems slick with moisture, but whatever is upon it either evaporates quickly or is merely the sheen of its skin.

(No doubt a number of alleged serial killings and botched robberies are actually the work of avarice beasts birthing themselves.)

From there, it begins its nightly hunts. It is a patient and cunning predator, seeking not only food but to cause the most harm possible. It typically targets people who will be missed, often children or lovers, stalking a lone child or half of a couple silently. When they are alone, it will strike quickly, snatching them away to be swiftly devoured. It will either leave their remains near where they disappeared, or in some other place where the family can find them.

Within the span of a week, the avarice beast will hunt enough to grow to roughly the size of a human. The upper limit of its lifespan is unknown.

Avarice beasts are intelligent, and understand the languages of their former hosts. They cannot speak, but can attempt a sort of mimicry, often mimicking children's laughs or cries, or speaking words and phrases of a couple of syllables. ("Come here" or "help me" are frequent favorites.) When the creature becomes aware that people are becoming aware of its activities, it often hitches a ride underneath a cart or other conveyance to leave town as soon as it is able. (On the road, it will hunt by night. In a bit of dark irony, having an avarice beast silently hiding among a caravan is good luck, as the creature often hunts or frightens any random encounters that might occur by night.)

It is entirely possible an avarice beast may not even originate from the town in which it is found.

The Avarice Beast: AC 15, Move 120’, HD 3+3, claw/claw/bite 1d6/1d6/1d8, Morale 10. Climb walls 99%, hide in shadows 95%, move silently 95%. Surprises on 5-in-6.

The Conch of the Damned

Recovered from an ancient shipwreck in the Weeping Bay outside Sorgforge, the conch of the damned is a wicked version of the horn of Valhalla, a way to summon the spirits of the dead to defend the user.

The conch's interior is gilded, and the exterior is decorated with black opals carved to resemble human skulls. When blown, 4d6 zombies arrive within 1d3 rounds, either staggering from the sea if it is in range, or arising from the ground if it is not. (If you want to draw parallels between the conch of the damned and the horn of Valhalla, make the zombies appear as draugr, dead Norse warriors.) They will follow the conch owner's commands for one hour; at the end of this time, they will turn and attack the blower of the conch and their companions, seeking to seize the conch. Where they take it afterward is unknown; in all likelihood, it is placed in some other remote place to cause ruin.

Assuming a conch blower survives the shell's curse, smart conch blowers will typically use the zombies for one task, then order them to destroy one another. Still, there is always the chance that one will not have the opportunity to do such a thing, or that the dead will still come for the conch eventually...

Monday, February 10, 2020

One Year Later

An Apology: I hate writing this. The worst parts of us are the parts that take someone else's pain and contextualize it, packaging it as a thinkpiece for public consumption. It is the height of vulgarity, a snuff film produced for others' pleasure.

And yet, these thoughts infest me, and I must put them somewhere. If you're anything like me, you shouldn't read them. And if you're anything like me, you will read these thoughts. Every wretched word. You will read them looking for the humanity in them, hoping to see a glimmer of something real and honest, rather than yet another schmuck making a tragedy all about himself.

I am sorry to constantly disappoint you.

One Year Later

One year ago, Mandy Morbid made accusations of sexual assault against Zak Smith, including accounts from Jennifer and Hannah making similar sorts of accusations. Three days later, Vivka Grey did the same thing.

In the aftermath, the OSR (and the greater RPG community) collectively turned its back on Zak, and over the next several days and weeks, people shared their own thoughts on the subject. Some of these were soul-searching, a few were gloating, and many were self-serving — a chance to take the tragedy of four women and make it about oneself, or an opportunity to tell everyone "I told you so" and prove how smart one is, or a chance to ramp up blog traffic by capitalizing on the story of the day.

Scattered among the smug posts were accounts of people's own encounters with Zak. Many strange anecdotes about the man himself asking for support here or there: cut this person out of your friend circle, don't support this product, do this weird favor for me. The standard cult leader schtick.

There's still some lingering controversy as to whether or not Zak actually victimized anyone — but if even one tale out of the multitudes is true, then it seems enough for serious examination and reflection. Zak is still out there, crowing for proof, but the hard reality is that you don't get to claim you didn't hurt someone when they say you did. Even if you think the other person's accusations are unfounded, you kind of just have to apologize, move on, or both.

If someone hates you, you don't get much say in how or why they dislike you. You either change their opinion by being a better person, or you move on with your life.

What Did We Learn?

In a word, nothing.

Or more accurately, perhaps we learned too much. Once you read the Necronomicon, you can't un-read it. I reject absolutely the thesis that some knowledge is poisonous, venom for the soul, but maybe I'm wrong. Maybe some things are too dangerous to know and stay human.

Collectively, the community took its ten seconds of public contrition and self-reflection and then decided to make the same mistakes over and over again.

It's fitting that all this came at the end of Google+, that the punk, grassroots, do-it-yourself RPG community fractured in its aftermath. While the greater RPG community took it as yet another controversy in a subsection of the hobby, wrote their thinkpieces about it, and moved on, the Old School Revolution (or Rules or Ruckus or whatever pithy term we're using now) still hasn't fully recovered.

The OSR and associated artpunk RPG movements fractured into Twitter circles of influence and private Discords and a thousand thousand tiny communities flung across social media, each typically crystallizing around one or two prominent personalities. (And a year later, half of those luminaries aren't even speaking to one another.)

We can't even agree on the name of the old-school movement anymore — some people find OSR too acerbic, too problematic, too reminiscent of past failures.

(An aside: Personally, I keep using the term "OSR" as an act of defiance. Every time we cede something we enjoy to someone else, our island shrinks. If the Nazis invade your subculture and you give it to them, then you have less stuff to enjoy and they have more. I certainly appreciate the Russian strategy of pulling back into the frozen wilderness and burning your villages as you go, to leave nothing for the invaders, but that strategy only works if you go somewhere they can't follow only to someday return. If they get it forever — I guess I can't like this thing because assholes like it now — then they won. You don't necessarily have to be the person to fight for your community, but if no one does, everyone loses it.)

(Another aside: But people also like to use their subculture as a weapon, a pointed dagger to keep people separated. I wouldn't actively consider myself part of the OSR, both because I tend not to think of myself as a member of any given community, and also because I play many varied sorts of games. The D&D/OSR/storygame/whatever divide is a set of false dichotomies, another front in the culture war designed to keep focusing on our differences rather than our similarities. Another rant for another time, I guess.)

But more worrying than the fracturing of the gaming scene and the emergence of several new cults of personality is the venom. Zak Smith still casts a long shadow over various parts of the RPG scene, but instead of being the guy who shows up to yell at people in a thread, now he's just this malignant presence, an unspoken threat in every conversation. (For example, I've typed his name several times in this post simply because no one else will. I usually see him referenced by innuendo or pseudonym like he's fucking Voldemort. Everybody treats him like the goddamn bogeyman, a lingering shadow who ought not to be named lest he is invoked. If you treat somebody like a god, they become a god, so don't be too quick to give your divinity to everyone you meet.)

While people were quick to throw out his writing, they certainly did keep his rhetorical style. Social media nerds have always been adept at vitriol, but Zak indoctrinated many RPG people in how to win an argument through brute force and how to quietly drive people out of a community, and then they used it. Starting last February, people sharpened their knives and started settling scores. Every corner of the community is now a battleground where people are encouraged to stay in their respective lanes, and if you say the wrong thing, you will be exiled from your corner of the hobby without any opportunity for contrition. (Sorry, buddy. If you want to keep making or talking about RPGs, you're relegated to TheRPGSite with the alt-right guys. Have fun in racist jail.)

This behavior is hardly new, but the tribalism has almost certainly become worse in the past year.

The Antidote for Cynicism

Lest you think this is overly cynical, there are a handful of positive changes over the past year. The core RPG community is still overwhelmingly white, male, and American, but we've been talking about that a bit more in the past year, and we've been trying to encourage more women and more people of color in the community.

While the tribalism leaves a lot to be desired, the small collectives of creators have been doing excellent work, and we've been seeing more experimental projects. The blog scene is making a comeback after the death of Google+, if only because that's the only centralized place where we can have certain conversations.

And nothing is permanently written, right? I usually don't offer solutions in posts like these — there is a certain amount of messiness we have to accept from our fellow humans if we're going to coexist in this world — but we can always strive to be better. We still have a chance to change our course, to remain vigilant for predators in our midst and to allow people to make some mistakes without calling for their permanent exile. It is entirely possible to do both.

Remember: you're just as error-prone as anybody else. Take no shit, but if someone is willing to do the work or apologize or just show that they're coming at a problem from a different angle than you, you can probably find some common ground.

And if that sense of compromise is too much hippie shit for you, and you think total war is the only way to bring peace to your world or your slice of it, I suppose I can't argue. Come back in a decade and we can revisit the egalitarianism vs. tribalism debate.

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