Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Hi, You're Wrong

In the comments to this post.

"...dungeon crawls are dead simple, and the stories are totally familiar.

"They’re ‘boys playing in the woods’ stories, which appeal naturally to those prolonging their shared adolescence. They demand nothing.

"Nearly every old-school campaign chronicle I read these days is like a heedlessly unironic Peter Pan story without the moral content, a geek-triumphalist Lord of the Flies narrated by Jack. (I can’t help thinking of these folks as Robin Williams in Hook, finding his inner child by throwing food and ‘never growing up.’) Even Maliszewski’s campaign recaps at Grognardia come off as children’s stories – there’s nothing to distinguish them from the slow-moving bits of Harry Potter, and if you assume that he knows it then it’s easy to see why he and his buddies obsessively return to the ‘but mass-produced juvenile midcentury sci-fantasy pulp is so daringly amoral…’ defense."

If you see the plot of the story as the sole product of a game, then maybe the commenter MIGHT have a point. (Ignoring the fact that-in terms of word-for-word literary style--Jack Vance isn't far short of Nabokov.)

But it isn't.

The main points of the game are: hanging out with your friends, inventing strange things, and problem-solving--all of which are maturity-scalable activities.

____
spotted by the Eiglophian Press

45 comments:

  1. Fuck, we're supposed to be defending this gaming shit? Why didn't anybody tell me before now?

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  2. Hey Zak, I think you're missing the point here. My post was about the style of "hanging out with your friends" that these fragmentary boys in the wood stories represent, and the kind of psychology underlying it. It was a response to the ongoing dripping scorn for story-based play. It's certainly not a critique of dungeon adventures. Rather, it's a defense against claims made elsewhere that these fragmentary, story-"free" games are somehow better.

    And I really don't think Vance and Nabokov are similar in writing style at all.

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  3. Agreed.

    A well run RPG isn't like a bunch of people sitting around reading a "Choose your own adventure" book. It's a wonderful balance between a group of friends (the players) and the GM. It's challenging, thought-provoking, and above all, fun. That fun, and those experiences between friends, is why we play.

    As far as "boys playing in the woods" stories..... the original poster may have a point when talking about things like the old D&D modules. Most of us old-school players started on things like that, and there's not much plot beyond "go save the captured princess," or "hey, there's loot down there!"

    But that's not what gaming evolves into.

    With some work, gaming goes far beyond those "inner child" satisfactions. Look at games like Call of Cthulhu, where the objectives are to simply survive and sanity is a character stat. You fight and struggle with minions of an angry god that would be happy to roast your entire species on a stick for dinner. Or look at Paranoia, which is a game based entirely on crazy encounters and meant only to be fun.... so much so that they give you 6 lives (clones) at the beginning.

    Neither of these are simple adolescent story settings, but they can be amazing games to play.

    They can also be as dull and boring as any poorly run dungeon crawl.

    What makes the games great isn't the environment, or the plot, or whether you have the right miniatures or props. (Granted, all of those can help.) But what makes the games great is, and always well be, the players.

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  4. austus--

    No, I read it, I understood it and I disagree.

    I wasn't responding to your post, I was responding to the exact textual words that were typed by whoever responded to it.

    If hanging out with your friends drinking and telling weird or funny meaningless stories with strange twists represents "a psychology" it is the exact same psychology represented by nearly every adult human being in the history of the world. It's called "the interesting anecdote" and it's one of the cornerstones of civilization.

    And I didn't say Nabokov and Vance were SIMILAR I said they were comparable in terms of quality when it comes to prose style.

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  5. good point Zak, and thanks for clarifying. The "interesting anecdote" is also, when carried too far, one of the most boring styles of jock interaction, carrying the semblance of communication without revealing any greater emotional depth. If I weren't capable of enjoying that style of interaction I'd have given up on role-playing, hanging out with nerds, and my other hobby (kickboxing) a long time ago. But Lachlann is right, I think, that gaming can develop to a deeper style of communication than this, something with a little more content, and a lot of what I've (and, I presume, Wax Banks has) been reading in the OSR blogosphere over the last few months seems to be inherently scornful of this. Hence our view of these reductive adventures as an attempt to freeze gaming at the level of interesting anecdote, rather than friendly interaction.

    I didn't realise you were comparing quality of Vance and Nabokov. I haven't read much of either but I found Vance really juvenile in writing style (liked the stories though). My partner says the same about Nabokov. Don't know that I could agree Vance is as good, but Nabokov is a pretty divisive figure so maybe you're right. How did that enter the conversation anyway?

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  6. So faustusnotes, if should I assume your blog post could essentially be boiled down to:

    "Gaming, be it free-form play or the most rules restrictive system or anything in between, is fun because of who you play with, not what you're playing. Thus any real 'advantages' of one system over any other are somewhere between personal preference and personal illusion."

    AKA "Don't game with dickheads. You'll have fun regardless of anything else if you can pull that off."

    Would that be accurate?

    If so I don't think you'll find many who would argue. If not could you please tell me what you did mean?

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  7. there's more to it than that, Tom! Why don't you go over and ask me - I appreciate the comments :)

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  8. I still don't get it, why do players of later editions think their games are more story based? Every time I tried to play either it just felt like an evening of dice rolling. Your character is already a hero at first level, there is no build up, no origin story you work through, your not Luke Skywalker, your Han Solo.

    With classic D&D you go through ALOT of characters before the party gets to fourth or fifth level, No matter what little bit of background your character has by first level, the bulk of his origin story played itself out at the table, and developed him as a character. He's already lost alot of friends (your other characters) made enemies, and allies, acquired items of might and power, and found out who he wanted to be.

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  9. capheind, I don't think players of later editions do think that our games are more story based. I think that we are told that a lot by OSR gamers, due to a kind of gamers' version of the anthropic principle. When the game started it drew from wargaming, and story wasn't a big part. As it developed over the following 10 years, particularly with the magazine-based theorising (in Dungeon, etc.) story-based gaming became more common. At the same time the systems developed, new ones were released, and obviously products were also released to cater to the wider range of gaming styles available.

    So, when the OSR decided to turn their backs on the later editions, they associated them with this "story" problem. But really the two developed side-by-side. I was doing story-based games with AD&D 1st edition in the 80s, and my reasons for switching to Rolemaster had nothing to do with story - neither did my reasons for switching back to D&D3.5 in the early noughties.

    Similarly this idea that OD&D is associated with regular PC death is also representative of the style of play at the time, not the system. Back when it was a wargaming spinoff, death was all the rage. As the gameplay styles diversified, DMs learnt to balance adventures to match the frequency of death they thought players would bear. It's perfectly easy to play a D&D3.5 adventure and kill your PCs by the minute. But again, when the OSR decided to return to their 80s roots, they also returned to that wargaming style, and they associate (probably in some cases blame) the other styles with later game editions - not with, as is probably more likely, the maturation and diversification of a gaming crowd that was largely teenage when the hobby first developed.

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  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  11. The "interesting anecdote" is also, when carried too far, one of the most boring styles of jock interaction, carrying the semblance of communication without revealing any greater emotional depth.

    So, what, a random dude hanging out with other random dudes isn't an authentic emotional experience for the people involved? Or were you just not very emotionally into playing in the woods?

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  12. Some of us see 'emergent story' and we look for it even while we're running sandboxes and dungeons like Castle Zagyg.

    Take one of our players, C. C is playing a human fighter named Hengist. In true old school fashion, the low level fighter dies at the hands of some orc slavers. Hengist's role in the story is now over - but wait.

    The orcs were using slaves to mine. As we're playing an old school game, C is able to roll his six attributes, pick a race and class at the table. Thus Ethelred is introduced, a human ranger, joining the adventurers that freed him from a short life of slavery.

    What is to become of Ethelred? Months later, the party finds a trail of a different band of orc slavers. Instead of other options like the plant creatures that the party had set out to kill, Ethelred insists that they track the orcs back to their lair in the Menhir hills. They over come obstacles and other monsters, but Ethelred refuses to leave the trail. Within the dank caves, Ethelred is battered to unconsciousness by an orc lieutenant. The orc is out numbered and will soon be dead. He knows it. He can run if he fails a morale check, but he knows he's cornered.

    As the DM, I hold up an 8 sided die and announce to the group. "The orc knows he's going to die. On a 7-8, the orc will call out a sacrifice to Grummsh the orc god and bash in Ethelred's head in a coup-de-grace."

    Everyone watches the die roll. It's a 7.

    The orc yells out for the glory of Gruumsh and swings his hammer down.

    By pure accident, by choices made in game at the table, we've got a bit of pathos to the too short story of Ethelred. I'm no writer and this wasn't poetry, but there can be story in dice and choices if you look.

    And yes, after he and the group mourned Ethelred, C got out his 6 sided dice to make a new character at the same table.

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  13. faustus--

    "I found Vance really juvenile in writing style (liked the stories though)"

    This comment instantly invalidates anything you could possibly say about any creative activity, ever.

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  14. "but I found Vance really juvenile in writing style (liked the stories though)."

    Speaking as an unrepentant OSR elitist, I'm really interested to know what exactly about Vance's work seemed juvenile to you, as a fellow player of D&D?

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  15. how is that Zak, because Vance is objectively Teh Greatest? The flow of narrative in the Vance stories I read was rushed and the tone constantly breathless, and the sentence construction was literally that of a 15 year old creative writing story - sloppy use of commas to join disparate ideas, short sentences to add to the breathless prose style, that sort of thing.

    From memory it carried the story well but it was definitely not polished. Nabokov, on the other hand, writing in his second language, crafted some beautiful passages. Most complaints about Nabokov seem to be about the characters and the self-referential tone, rather than the writing style itself.

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  16. "the sentence construction was literally that of a 15 year old creative writing story"

    Do you recall which story this was? I only ask because you're talking about one of the most respected prose stylists in the mystery, fantasy and sci fi fields. I imagine that many authors would give their left nut to write like Vance.

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  17. faustus--
    Basically, if you think one of the most sophisticated writers in english is "juvenile" PLUS you think it's meaningful to say that you "liked" a story while finding the writing style "juvenile" PLUS you actually believe any of the "deep fun" vs. "shallow fun" rhetoric you've just spouted then you're so aesthetically distant from anything that I consider sane that I don't really feel like there's much point in trying to convince you of anything.

    It's like you just said you think the earth is held up on a turtle's back. Ok, dude, go have "deep fun." I'll be over here, enjoying life.

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  18. see zak, floating around the internet right now there are a bunch of people wondering why the OSR blogosphere might be characterised as judgemental or even a little elitist. Some even find it hard to believe that there are those in that blogosphere who might occasionally be a little scornful.

    Does it occur to you to wonder why that view might exist? The clue is in your comments here.

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  19. faustus-
    I have never claimed to be anything other than extremely judgmental. Just ask owlbears.

    Unlike your commenter, however, I've never told anyone that I know about their inner psychology based on the kind of game they play.

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  20. How does that saying go? "First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win!"

    The OSR continues to take new ground, fear our mighty dice-hand!

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  21. "I've never told anyone that I know about their inner psychology based on the kind of game they play."

    I, however, have no compunctions. I've been taking notes in my armchair all night! :-)

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  22. Zak, just ignore faustus. I've been reading a lot of blogs lately, and he appears to be trolling all of them.

    But I do think the "judgemental" comment is funny, coming from someone who just "judged" Vance's writing style. :)

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  23. I'm the commenter in question.

    1) I disagree about Vance (comparing his prose to Nabokov's is silly unless you actually think their use of language has the same purpose) but there's no point discussing that here.

    2) As faustusnotes pointed out, this is intelligent and irrelevant:

    "The main points of the game are: hanging out with your friends, inventing strange things, and problem-solving--all of which are maturity-scalable activities."

    You'd be right on the money if it wasn't an article of faith and obsessive refrain in the OSR that these are not in fact features of modern adventure gaming, that the real point of D&D is a specific kind of pulp-narrative emulation, etc. If you're right about the 'main points' of the game then your Paizo Adventure Path fun should be isomorphic to your Precious Sandbox Play fun.

    So though I agree with you as far as your initial post goes, I think it's an inadequate response to the sort of rhetoric you see all the time at Grognardia and throughout the 'OSR' blogosphere.

    As for whether we're talking about 'psychology,' I suggest your commenters reread my comment - which is a response to Maliszewski's intensely personal post about his own psychology, but which only talks about the formal features of emergent 'dungeon crawl' narratives. Since nostalgist OSR play is in a literal sense about adolescence and recapturing memory, I'm curious as to what's so wrong.

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  24. faustusnotes sez:

    "But again, when the OSR decided to return to their 80s roots, they also returned to that wargaming style, and they associate (probably in some cases blame) the other styles with later game editions - not with, as is probably more likely, the maturation and diversification of a gaming crowd that was largely teenage when the hobby first developed."

    This brings up a related point: the rise of the 'story game' and the (let's simplistically say) post-Ravenloft obsession with structured RPG narrative is not a corporate imposition, nor did some separate 'designer class' (or god help us 'theorists'!!) impose these games and styles on the world. The various 'new school' styles were demanded, designed, built, bought, and played by gamers. Maybe this is a 'careful what you wish for' thing, but there's a level of self-fictionalization in the OSR blogosphere at times, presenting 'grognards' as defenders against the loss of some precious essence...which so many gamers have been happy to give up in exchange for an experience that must, for them, have some value. The absolutist claim that it does not - and can not - is something faustusnotes and I seem to be objecting to.

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  25. You know, I was going to make a long post about OSR and Forge being two sides to the same coin when it comes to their rhetoric, but I've decided I'm not.

    What I am going to say is, "If you're having fun playing the game you're playing, you're doing it right. No exceptions."

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  26. I was going to comment...but honestly I have no idea where to begin. What I'm getting is the most intelligent conversation possible on the subject of "is not" / "is too!"

    Having had a 'story' in my games since my friend first ran one for me in '77 when I was 8, I don't see gaming one way or the other as seperate entities as most people seem to. Your modules don't have stories. Ok. Not for me but that's cool. My stories only barely use traditional 'adventure design' but I doubt you'd notice. You think my 'stories' are no more than childish flights of fantasy. As you wish.

    Granted, someone might look at my game(s) and say, "Now Adam, you run 'this style' of game". I will say, "Ah really. How interesting", but in truth I'll likely not give a crap.

    I play table top rpgs as a hobby. That means I play games. Sometimes I feel not enough of us step back and laugh about that simple fact.

    You can analyze that if you like but unless analyzing it is fun for you my recommendation is to sit down at a table and play.

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  27. High comedy, this! Maybe I'm an emotionally stunted alcoholic, but I'd rather play D&D at 1AM with KK and beer than LARP around with Wally and his stories. That's just me though.

    Party on, indie vampire nerds!

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  28. "The main points of the game are: hanging out with your friends, inventing strange things, and problem-solving--all of which are maturity-scalable activities."

    Well put. I haven't posted here before, so I just want to say I really reading enjoy your blog, Zak.

    I think there's four seperate things going on in the old-school movement:

    Nostalgia.

    A preference for low-power fantasy games, as opposed to superheroic ones.

    A preference for simple rules.

    And a desire to include more creativity, atmosphere, roleplaying, problem-solving and player-choice in fantasy games, and take them away from fantasy-fiction cliches and hack'n'slash railroads.

    Now, there is some overlap between these four things. Old-school games are old, more low-powered, and have simpler rules that encourage different play-styles. This overlap is the reason why there is an old-school movement. But there is no *necessary* connection between them - I know from experience that there are people who like to play through 3e modules and story-paths while using retro-clone rules, for example. Identifying with one aspect of the old-school movement doesn't mean one has to sign up to the whole package.

    Also, "creativity", "atmosphere", "roleplaying""problem-solving" and "player-choice" can mean different things to different people. For example, for one DM "more atmosphere" might lead to grittily realistic low-fantasy, while for another it results in anything-goes science-fantasy.

    So the old-school movement attracts a lot of different people. It's a very broad, diverse movement with fuzzy edges.

    As for the original criticisms of old-school play, well, I'm sure there are people playing old-school games whose games are just power-fantasies without any type of depth, but I can't personally see any evidence of that in the old-school blogs I read. Quite the opposite. And, in my experience, following a story-path written for you by someone else (be that the DM or a games company) does not on its own add any depth to the game or encourage roleplaying. Depth requires players to be engaged in what's going on, and player-engagement means players making meaningful choices and become the heroes of *their own* stories.

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  29. Not having read Jack Vance, would it be possible to ask for an example of a particularly well-turned paragraph, or perhaps a recommended starting point into his oeuvre?

    Even the examples in the highly complimentary article here: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/19/magazine/19Vance-t.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2

    are crippled by awkward nomenclature and overly precious word choices that call attention to themselves rather than serving the narrative. The article brings to mind Harlan Ellison and Trevanian/Rod Whitaker, strong genre stylists like Vance, whose experiences growing up during the depression seems to have inspired the same sort of mild misanthropy and genre-philia (genre myopia?) that the article writer ascribes to Vance.

    At worst, I've found passages like this one:

    "Jubal climbed down the slope to the rock-slide. He rolled a stone into the sling. The line remained slack. Jubal looked up the slope. The Djan were listening, graceful heads raised. Jubal also listened. From far away sounded a curious pulsing whine. Jubal looked around the sky but mist obscured the view. The sound dwindled to nothing."

    which do appear to back up Faustus' claims of the "15 year old creative writing story - sloppy use of commas to join disparate ideas, short sentences to add to the breathless prose style".

    Overall, I can't find anything even remotely close to the level of a Nabokov; and Vance's more baroque/mannered passages, which the article singles out as his best, seem less vibrant and graceful than Steven Brust's work in a similar style (in his "Khaavren Romances"). So the question is, what am I missing?

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  30. Re: Charlie Bottoms

    Excerpts taken out of context won't serve you as well as looking at a complete text. Try 'Eyes of the Overworld' or 'The Last Castle'.

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  31. Ignore the haters, Zak. I'm a 40 yo guy with all the bills and troubles that implies. My friends and I have been playing all kinds of RPG's since high school. We do it as an escape from the hectic trouble of every day life. For a few hours every week, we put all the BS of real life aside, drink beer, and focus on the problems of a fantasy world. It's nice to know that we're not the only "adults" out there enjoying this method of relaxation. Keep up the Blog. I feel like less of a geek knowing you're out there enjoying the same thing.

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  32. "...crippled by awkward nomenclature and overly precious word choices that call attention to themselves rather than serving the narrative"

    That's part of the joke; the word game he is playing with the reader. Vance does not always write like that but if you "get" the joke, it's great fun when he does.

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  33. Wally--

    ""The main points of the game are: hanging out with your friends, inventing strange things, and problem-solving--all of which are maturity-scalable activities."

    "You'd be right on the money if it wasn't an article of faith and obsessive refrain in the OSR that these are not in fact features of modern adventure gaming,"

    If you think that, you're mising something when you read all those play reports.

    But right here, I'll say it:

    I roll Old School and these are the main features of MY game.

    Go over to James Mal and ask him if he feels the same.

    Go ask him.

    Go ask him.

    Your argument is meaningless until you ask him.

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  34. Wally--
    The rest of your argument--that's you and someone else arguing about a phenomenon that I don't care either way about it.

    Here's MY point--you said this:

    "You I can’t help thinking of these folks as Robin Williams in Hook, finding his inner child by throwing food and ‘never growing up.’

    ...this is offensive. This is indefensible. This is you making personal remarks about someone based on the type of game they play.

    This is absolutely inexcusable. this is what prompted all this. You are not allowed to do this to other people--especially ones you've never met.

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  35. The rest of your argument--that's you and someone else arguing about a phenomenon that I don't care either way about it.

    Believe me, brother, I'm doing my best to reach the same point.

    "I can’t help thinking of these folks as Robin Williams in Hook, finding his inner child by throwing food and ‘never growing up.’"

    ...this is offensive. This is indefensible. This is you making personal remarks about someone based on the type of game they play.


    Offensive, apparently, and I'm sorry to have given offense; personal, obviously, but that doesn't seem off-limits given the personal nature of fellas' discussions on this topic - which is after all about pining for the past and so forth.

    As for 'indefensible,' it doesn't seem too wild a speculation about the dynamics and ritual practices of a subculture, and it's relatively mild, all things considered. It's nowhere near as mean-spirited or coarse as the shit that regularly appears on various OSR blogs.

    [I wrote a bunch more, then read an earlier post of yours and realized where I knew your name from, and deleted what I'd written because I was forced to confront how very little I care about this topic, in the long run, compared to other things..)

    You're that Zak Smith? Thanks for that project. (You can guess which one.) It's awesome, and filled me with some serious OSR-style nostalgia for reading Pynchon in college.

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  36. "Offensive, apparently, and I'm sorry to have given offense; personal, obviously, but that doesn't seem off-limits given the personal nature of fellas' discussions on this topic - which is after all about pining for the past and so forth."

    This reads: It's okay if I'm offensive and make personal attacks because you guys take a personal interest in this stuff.

    Which makes no fucking sense whatsoever.

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  37. Wally-

    I can't speak for anybody else, but I'm not interested in nostalgia and don't think of my childhood as having been all that fun compared to shit I get to do now. My games are about having fun now doing things that I like to do now.

    Anyway--you don't get to "speculate". It's just another word for "assume".

    Plus, you don't need to--eveyrone you're talking smack about is right here and you can ask them.

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  38. Hey, I never knew you were an artist!

    You should link to your other site from this blog. People are missing out!

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  39. This blog isn't about self-promotion. I get enough of that at work.

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  40. personal, obviously, but that doesn't seem off-limits given the personal nature of fellas' discussions on this topic

    The difference is that if someone wants to tell a personal story about what the game means to them, that's okay, because it's their story and their choice to tell it. They don't get that choice when you decide to make a personal comment about them, and that's not okay.

    I'm not sure why this has to be explained.

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  41. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  42. Charles-
    On Christmas Day, James M posted "Merry Christmas!". I posted a comment that said "Hail Satan!". He deleted it.

    I assume this was because he thought it might've started a conversation (perhaps with other commenters) he didn't feel like hosting on his blog.

    I respected that, 'cause hey--it's his blog.

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  43. Okay, that's all I wanted to know. Sorry for troubling you.

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  44. I assume this was because he thought it might've started a conversation (perhaps with other commenters) he didn't feel like hosting on his blog.

    Just so. With a couple of specific exceptions, other than spam (which is becoming more common of late) I only delete posts I think would lead to unwanted acrimony in the comments. I catch enough flak as it is for saying stuff as innocuous as "The weather is cool today and I like it like that" without allowing free-roaming digressions into religion, politics, or the eternal Dick Sargent vs. Dick York debate.

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  45. (I can’t help thinking of these folks as Robin Williams in Hook, finding his inner child by throwing food and ‘never growing up.’)

    If the hypocritical bigotry evident in this sort of name calling is the mark of maturity, I think I'll happily hold on to my childish pursuits for as long as I am able.

    Throwing food at friends, rather then hurling insults towards people I've never met, seems a much more productive way spend my time.

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