Saturday, July 14, 2018

Relevant Retropost Saturday: Take The Rubies From The Demon's Eyes

So, a little context.

It's awards season in gameland again, and the losers' big mood has moved from harassment to simple sour grapes. A twitter skim from this morning...

Looking back, it looks like I predicted this in 2016:

Take The Rubies From the Demon's Eyes

Gen Con is, of course, massive--a brief Disneyland of gaming and of gamers.

However, if you ignore miniatures, boardgames, scenery shops, card game tournaments,"My other shirt is chainmail" merchshops and then run around just looking at and talking to people putting out tabletop RPGs, going to their parties and events, asking about their jobs, a strange thing quickly becomes clear:

While there is a pecking order in the industry, and there are people with and without power, and there are winners and losers, the actual aristocracy of the RPG industry (in addition to being demographically exactly what you'd expect) is:

-Relatively powerless
-Not particularly internally cohesive

To take the Ennies as an example: Neither D&D nor Pathfinder got the most Ennies. Ken Hite and his co-writer Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan won for Dracula Dossier--a sourcebook for a relatively unpopular game with by no means lavish production values or pictures. Why did it win? It's a smart concept, well-written, by a respected author. Next most Ennies was a tie between Robin Laws (for Greatest Hit Feng Shui getting a new edition) and us (with first-time publisher Satyr Press). Even the most bald-faced marketing-vulnerable fan vote award during a dramatic surge in D&D's popularity as a product recognizes that the mainstream is kinda meh. And the mainstream can't do anything about it.

Other indicators:

-There was not a single RPG bigwig I talked to who hadn't heard of Stacy's female-run auxiliary subCon, Contessa.

-Nobody this year has put out more extensively illustrated color RPGs than LotFP and Satyr.

-People working for the "larger" indies still had to reach out to people they barely knew to work their GenCon tables.

-Nobody with their name on anything is more than a degree of Kevin Bacon from anybody else.

-Freelancers working for major publishers kept saying they wished they could do the kind of stuff we do.

-Everything seriously competing with Maze had crews 3-4 times the size working on it.

-LotFP and Satyr are paying out-of-pocket and profiting off larger, more impressive products than shit more established companies have to run Kickstarters to put out.

-Magpie Games pissed off half the Indie establishment just before the con (including folks at the company that put out award-magnet Feng Shui) and still turned a tidy profit.

-I ran an ad hoc 9-person game of D&D for hours in a bar with the entirety of White Wolf's GenCon presence in attendance and happily rolling.

The bar for entry is as low as it's been since the wargame days, and DIY RPG output has never been better. In the past, I've pointed out that by DIYing it you can make more money than pretty much any RPG freelancer, right now I'm going to go farther:

If the DIY RPG scene wants to, in less than 5 years it can run this town.

Just by hanging out and talking games and not putting up with the usual bullshit, we have accidentally created a monster. We've always known we can out-write, out-design, and out-draw the mainstream, but what I'm telling you is folks like Stacy D and Kiel C and Raggi and Ken at Satyr are proving we can out-organize them and out-market them, too, and this pond is small enough that that's about all that matters. All the boxes are ticked.

The mainstream, with these full-timers whose lives depend on the next RPG paycheck, has dwindled down to such a consistent lowest-common-denominator aesthetic just to pay the bills it's getting sick of itself. Years chasing some elusive imaginary middlebrow customer have taken their toll on them. Yeah, they have licenses. And in 2016 that gets you fuck-all.

We can do this. There are three hurdles:

-You need to clear time on your calendar to make your thing.
-You need to coordinate with folks you probably already know or are 1 degree of Bacon away from to get the thing out there. Make sure it is written, illustrated and produced as well as can possibly be done. Do not half-ass any of those three elements.
-We all need to work together to recognize who is doing good work and cross-promote. Pool resources and exchange audiences.

Goodman Games, Mythmere, Hydra Collective, Lamentations, Gygax Magazine, Sine Nomine, people putting out indie products like Yoon-Suin, everybody: there is simply more substance and better, fresher, more excited personnel there than anywhere else.  The mainstream does not have the talent or the energy to get in your way.

D&D with Porn Stars will be throwing a party next Gen Con. It'll be big and it'll be loud and it'll be a year in the making and the paint will peel from the walls. If you can read this, you are invited. If you're going to put out a game thing, you're gonna show up and you're gonna help us. You have a year to plan.

The Bastille waits, and the guards are drunk.


Here you go.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Terrible Takes On Frostbitten & Mutilated

Click to enlarge I don't think you'll regret it

So a while back I announced this Terrible Take Contest for Frostbitten & Mutilated.

We have our winners!

Now, in these heady days of cartoon dogs claiming major game companies are secret fascist conspiracies, Poe's Law can take over quickly, so let me unequivocally state: these are genuine fans of the book writing intentionally bad takes. Any resemblance to the typical vocabulary and usage of actual angry gamers is strictly talent. Alright...

Don't forget to vote for Frostbitten & Mutilated in the Ennies,
voting is open and it's nominated for a lot of things including best interior art

Brother Juniper wrote this...

There’s no doubt that stories of orcs and goblins are told into a world which has been fundamentally ordered by the categorical denial of the humanity of large groups of people.  The rhetoric of dehumanization – uncivilized, bestial, violent, evil – can be heard in the descriptions of such creatures; Tolkien is a particular problem here.  Tolkien’s work is also a source of hope and inspiration for all sorts of folks, pressing against the boundaries of our world’s certainties, questioning its limits and impossibilities, and offering a source of wonder in a technical age. An ambivalent legacy (like most things).

One direction RPG players have taken is to humanize the orcs and goblins.  Generally, this is the sort of thing we need to do in the world – to cultivate empathy, to extend our imaginations in ways that allow us to recognize the dignity in every being, that the deaths of others become “grievable deaths.”  So in many stories you see orcs reframed as complex, often tragic figures, even playable races.  This, too, is ambivalent; while it moves beyond these creatures as sheer “other,” marked for destruction, it also reifies race as species, still organized around an image of a singular (human) norm.  I’m all for fantasy opening up our sense of the range of possibilities for human life, but I’m not sure making orcs “more human” is the best way to do that.

My concern is as much as we make monsters more relatable, as we develop complex ecologies, as we make them less strange, we lose much of what fantasy was about to begin with.  Tolkien’s work echoed English Romanticism, with its longing for the world unscarred by modernity (i.e. industrialization, urbanization, secularism and capitalism).  The pre-modern world of wonder and terror had been replaced by a world where everything was knowable, explainable, and capable of being mastered.  The violence of colonialism was constitutive of this operation of world-mastery.  Questions of meaning and the supernatural were cordoned off into the privatized category of “religion.”  Anthropology, sociology, and biology emerged to know and order the world on a “scientific” basis.  The project of knowing, measuring, and positioning all things is a central operation of colonialism.  Against such secular mastery, fantasy remembers an enchanted world, full of spirits both helpful and malignant, beyond the discipline of reason and rifle. monster/adversary...


Perhaps, then, if we’re concerned with colonial patterns and rhythms in RPGs, the most colonial thing of all was giving monsters PC abilities and statblocks in 3E and following.  Weirdness and strangeness was replaced by the universal, mathematically regularized grid of challenge ratings.  System mastery has its consolations, but so does an encounter with the weird, strange, awesome, and uncanny.  If we’re serious about decolonial play, statblocks should be three lines MAX.  

With that in mind, let’s take a look at Frostbitten and Mutilated from Lamentations of the Flame Princess.   Other reviews will comment on the information design, the art, the usability, and similar bourgeois themes.  I want to talk about Trolls and Giants.  They are terrible, monstrous, utterly strange, utterly frightening – not just frightening, horrific.  They are not species (as in 3E), they are catastrophes.  I’m tempted to say, “This is what a monster should be.”  But I won’t, as they are still saddled with relics like hit points, AC, and special attacks.  For all their fearfulness, just about any DM could bring them to the table, without the aid of crystals, mushrooms, or fairies.

There’s wasted potential elsewhere.  The book begins with a hate-summoning ritual, which I’m not a fan of, but I understand why it’s there.  However, there is nothing comparable for marmots, which seem to be at least as central to the environs as hate.  The lack of a marmot ritual, or even guidance about furry marmot play, seems like a definite gap.  In a quick online survey, I was able to find a number of sites giving advice in this general direction, but quickly realized I lacked the tools to weed out the good advice from the bad.  If a second edition is published, it should definitely include a more robust marmot section, including tips on costumes, artistic inspiration, conventions, etc. writing....


Running Frostbitten & Mutilated may require careful contextualization to bridge the historical and cultural distance between you and the ancient Norse – or even you and the metal community.  For those in the United States, I think you’ll find an easy bridge in the cultural resources of the upper Midwest (including northern Minnesota and Wisconsin, and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  You could throw in the nice parts of Canada.)  In these lands, Scandinavian farmers braved the cold and snow to bring their culture to the new world.  Thus, Frances McDormand’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Marge Gunderson offers a superb guide for roleplaying the various Amazons.  While a naïve reading of the text points to something like Heilung (, I submit it should be more Conga Se Menne ( setting...

Evey Lockhart 

Looks like that animated pile of shit, Zak, is at it again, along with that fat bastard from the frozen north. It's just like PUT A SHIRT ON, ya know.

Anyway, I won't be reading this new "book" for a couple of reasons:

1. Zak is mean to people, just a harassing & name calling garbage person!. (And believe me I WILL be spreading this message on EVERY online space he inhabits. I will not allow harassment to foster in online spaces, you stupid asshole.)

2. He's a body shamer!! Have you seen those too skinny girls he draws?! He clearly hates fat women. That's not what real women look like!

So you shouldn't buy or examine or read anything about this frosty Hate Book!! He does not allow conversation so DON'T BE SHOVING ANY INFORMATION ABOUT THIS GARBAGE IN MY FACE!! OK?

Originally I was just going to have one winner, but I can't get the phrase "frosty Hate Book!" out of my mind so we're having two. Email zakzsmith AT hawtmayle dawt calm to collect your fabulous prizes.
...and product of the year.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Why Are There No Female Ennie Judge Nominees?

Indie game developer Robert Bohl asked a provocative question yesterday:
Why indeed?


Oh gosh. Let's check around the first time I was nominated for a bunch of Ennies...

I guess we'll never know.

Vote Frostbitten & Mutilated--Best Art, Interior, Best Monster/Adversary
Best Writing, Best Setting, Product of the Year

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Ennie Voting Is Live

Vote Frostbitten & Mutilated, mark it #1 for:

Best Art--Interior
Best Monster/Adversary
Best Writing
Best Setting
Product of the Year

Also check out

Best Cartography: Midderlands by Glynn Seal

Best Adventure: Hot Springs Island by Jacob Hurst and co.

Best Aid/Accessory: Hex Kit by Cecil Howe

Best Art, Cover: Harlem Unbound by Brennen Reece

Best Electronic Book: The Scenario from Ontario from Kiel of Dungeons & Donuts and Zzarchov Kowolski.

Best Free Product: Vaginas Are Magic by James Edward Raggi IV

Best Game: Zweihander by Daniel Fox

Best Podcast:Rey and Kiel Can Do! featuring Kiel Donuts and Reynaldo Madrinian of Break!
Vote Frostbitten & Mutilated.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Rob Donoghue, Evil Hat, and the Dead Baby and 6 Million Jews Want An Apology

I'm Jewish.

As some of you might know, I have a longstanding interest in researching how Nazis dealt with art and culture and how they used the theory of "Degenerate Art" to lock up artists and destroy their work.

I asked my dad a long time ago about this--I asked him if anyone in the family knew anything about that, from the war.

He said he'd ask around, maybe, then said "You know about the Vilnius story right?"

"Nah what's that?"

"Well, when the family was in Lithuania and the SS came, they were hiding in a false basement or something..."


"And they could hear them upstairs knock down the door and walk around. And down in the basement the baby was they had to keep their hands over the baby's mouth--and..."


"...yeah, they smothered the baby. But...they got out."

That's my family. That's the kind of stories I grew up with.


So imagine my surprise when me, the Jew, and my (three queer and one genderfluid, hard-lefty) players finished playing D&D last night...

...and found an article by a guy who writes teenage vampire erotica with a cartoon dog avatar was calling me a gamergater and a Nazi.

Ok, fine, you guys have been on the internet, this is not a surprise: since 2004, probably every one reading this has been called a Nazi by a some dude who writes teenage vampire erotica with a cartoon dog avatar.

But then imagine my somewhat more genuine surprise when I saw that a grown-up man with a job as a game designer was promoting it, as if it was a real thing:

See that little "Rob Donoghue retweeted"?

Rob Donoghue is co-founder of Evil Hat, who makes Fate. He affects a feckless bearded dad pose. Who me? I am just a harmless smiling gamefellow!

After sharing the cartoon dog's hatespeech, he then started a very pious thread ...
"It's damning"?

The cartoon dog teenage vampire erotica writer's accusation that Jews are Nazis is "damning"?

Why is a man in charge of one of the biggest indie RPG publishers throwing in with this shit?

Could it possibly be that this thing I wrote got nominated for more awards than any other book this season and not only did Evil Hat get nominated for almost nothing it gets recognized less and less each year?
I get it, Rob. You never swear and never talk about sex and you look like a bearded dad and we look like ...what we look like, but this is so far past the line of any human decency I can't even imagine what was in your head.

There no way you can possibly see yourself as a good person after this.

People in my family were baked in ovens and smothered alive on account of these people. I've personally had to deal with their shit almost as much as I've had to deal with yours:

You're a person. I'm a person. We make games for fuck's sake.

I want a public apology from you, Rob Donoghue. I want a public apology from Evil Hat. I want you to apologize to every member of my family and everyone in my game group for what you just pulled in the name of your declining sales figures.

This is beyond anything--if you can't even slow down whatever is going on in your head long enough to see the wall of red lights you just ran through...
ps due to the uptick in harassment we may be hiring some security for the Gencon booth, if you've got any suggestions, go here.

Addendum, this was Evil Hat's first response:

On July 11, they were prevailed upon to admit their shittiness:

The people you're resisting will never approve your form of resistance. 

Anyway, Ennie voting is live, please vote Frostbitten & Mutilated.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Ennies We're Not Going To Win (But We Already Won)

So on July 4 I found out Frostbitten & Mutilated was nominated for 6 Ennies this year! That's more than any other product but we're going to lose them all. This is good news--because we're not gonna lose because of the expectable backlash against a product about half-naked women giving people abortions in the snow, we're going to lose because there's so much that's fucking good this year.

This is the best Ennie year yet for DIY RPG stuff, and I feel like I already won everything I wanted to win just looking at the nominees:

Best Adventure: Hot Springs Island by Jacob Hurst and co.

I have been running this at home now for months. That's the highest recommendation I can give to an RPG product and literally something I've never said before. There's never been a hexcrawl book like this in terms of usability plus making Ela's eyes light up when she got the special players' "notebook" accessory. Wonderful.

Best Aid/Accessory: Hex Kit by Cecil Howe

The first time DIY D&D met the Ennies, Vornheim lost to a bunch of dungeon tiles. I'm 100% sure Cecil is gonna take this because it's something people actually use.

Best Art, Cover: Harlem Unbound by Brennen Reece

It's awesome to see some diversity in horror, and they had the good taste to hire some people I have a lot of respect for: Brennen Reece and Alex Mayo. And Brennen's cover is not the same photobrush-concept-art look. It references the Harlem Renaissance without being a bloodless pastiche. Harlem also gets a nod for best rules!

Best Art, Interior by me. But my book's black and white and up against Starfinder so fml.

Best Electronic Book: The Scenario from Ontario from Kiel of Dungeons & Donuts and Zzarchov Kowolski. Terrible title but these guys' credits are getting seriously impressive. Blood In the Chocolate Thulian Echoes: these are modules people will remember when the dust clears.

Best Free Product: Vaginas Are Magic by James Edward Raggi IV. Just having this said into a microphone at the Ennies is winning. The fact RPGs have gotten their head out of their ass enough to even talk about this dope magic system even though it has a title that scares nerds is a sign of how far we've come in the last 5 years.

Best Game: Zweihander by Daniel Fox. A Warhammer do-over, which is a good thing. If it loses to Delta Green that's ok--that's a good one, too.

Best Monster/Adversary: me again. And again up against Starfinder. Guh.

Best Podcast:Rey and Kiel Can Do! featuring Kiel Donuts and Reynaldo Madrinian of Break! who was my DM for a long-ass time also: I'd be happy to see Hobbs and Friends of the OSR win.

Best Setting: me again. But up against Harlem Unbound and Starfinder. Though the important thing here is Green Ronin and their sexual-harassment-supporting-non-freelancer-paying-asses lose.

Best Writing: me again. Up against Delta Green and Harlem Unbound. Super ok with losing to them.

Spotlight Winners: Fever Swamp by Luke Gearing AND Operation Unfathomable by Jason Sholtis over at Hydra Cooperative. Pulpy slimy goodness all around.

Product of the Year: me again. Up against a lot of shit I'd be happy to lose to: Harlem, Hot Springs, all good.

So this is awesome!

When Ennie voting time comes around I'll probably be like "Hey vote for me!" but I really do mean it when I say I feel like we already won. There's an increasingly diverse body of work that truly deserves it and is often doing something totally new nominated in almost every category.

I'm proud of the people who got nominated and, seriously this is not a rhetorical gesture: I am proud that there is enough of a community to support all these folks. If you're not one of the authors on this list and want to be: you are looking at the tide that is going to carry the thing you make next.

And one more stupid thing:

Kicking the trolls out made all this possible. Unfortunately the trolls don't like that

So as usual, Ennie season has resulted in the usual suspects organizing their usual annual harassment orgy because the things they like aren't nominated. Here, for example is Ettin / Paul Matijevic harassing a trans woman for asking why he's smearing people on twitter
And here he is complaining I called out a sexual harasser. Please report Ettin.

Here's the Dungeon Bastard harassing me for having Charlotte and Stoya--who playtested my game--part of the team--come up on stage with me:

Obviously, as I always say, don't harass them back, but I am verified on Twitter and they are part of a targeted harassment campaign which is against their rules, so if you click over to their tweets and hit the "report" button, sometimes it works and they get suspended. And you're helping save creatorslot of grief in the future and guaranteeing creators and friends can do their game stuff in peace.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

The Show

Many of the problems with show business are just problems with money—certain people have it and it insulates them from the consequences of doing bad things—but show business has another wrinkle: indispensible people. If the CEO of Audi turns out to be a cannibal tomorrow they’ll put another CEO in there and they can still make cars in the morning. If the woman playing the ice princess on your thing about the ice princess that fights the iguana zombies for the fate of the fantasy kingdom turns out to be a cannibal, well—can we at least not talk about it until the prequel is shot?

Movies are bad this way but popular tv shows, athletes and musicians are even worse—because they go on and on for so long. This is why these industries are rife with stories of high-profile performers who work together while hating each other to the bone: firing either of them is effectively firing everyone on the project. How do you get someone to do what you want if you can’t effectively threaten to let them go? Why do you always hear people saying this or that actor “demanded” this or that line be added or cut? Isn’t the director or producer supposed to be the boss? In effect, at a certain level of indispensibility, a star has no boss, only moods.

Handlers are a real thing: people hired, often secretly, to basically befriend an indispensible performer and get them to behave themselves by literally any means necessary. This often means keeping them away from drugs or alcohol, but it can just as often mean getting them drugs or alcohol—quickly, without making them leave their hotel room or stay up or out too late. A handler often has to walk the fine line between giving them enough of what they want that they’re in a good enough mood to perform and not giving them so much of it that they wake up a half-hour after their call time in a parking lot in Williamsburg without their wallet asking local kids for subway money to get to set.

These demands can extend well beyond mere substances, of course, literally any whim or human passion (or, in Demon City—inhuman passion) under the sun could take over a star and the rest of the crew just has to work around it. I know of one project where the (secret) handler’s job was to get the star to watch the film the production was parodying. The entire set becomes, in effect, a conspiracy to please their tiny god and cover up anything terrible they might do. They’ll try other solutions as well: sometimes it’s distracting the star with some new hobby, sometimes it’s trying to get them romantically involved (or keep them romantically involved) with someone who’s “good for them”. And while the star’s indispensible, the crew is not—so the only people with equal leverage are the other stars.

So there’s Mom, who’s played Lady MacBeth in fifty-seven different productions and, after three seasons, is ready to move on to something more challenging than That’s The Petersons!, there’s Dad, who’s begun collecting used bullets from around the world and whose skin is starting to dry out in a way the make-up people are starting to have trouble covering up, there’s the Daughter, who is in school for photography and sometimes follows Dad after shooting ends to see what he’s been doing because he’s so strange these days, and there’s the Son—who is working on his hip hop album and who had his jaw broken by Dad once in the alley behind 1 Oak. And there’s a whole backlot full of people trying to pretend this is normal.

See also: Library—Horrors—The Machine, Library—Horrors—Cultist, Library—Horrors—Demons of the Fourth Order,  Tables—Random Trait, Interpersonal Conflict, Organized Criminals, Relationship to Next NPC, Murder Motives