Monday, June 13, 2016

Basically yeah the devil makes work for idle hands

Assumption 1:

Online communities produce good stuff when a large number of people who wouldn't otherwise meet can trade ideas with a minimum of noise and abuse. 

(Note that abuse and criticism aren't the same thing, criticism can be constructive. Abuse: lying, trolling, etc, can't.)

You get enough people talking with a low enough cost to talking and some statistically inevitable fraction of them will be smart and talented and learn from each other, becoming a whole greater than the parts. I consider that inevitable.

Assumption 2:

Abuse and noise come from dickheads.

Conclusion 1:

You get a good community producing good stuff by making a big community and excluding or rehabilitating dickheads.

Assumption 3:

Communities have a hard time agreeing who is a dickhead, or doing anything about it even when people clearly break rules the community espouses. This is familiar territory.

Any list of things not to do (guidelines, codes of conduct, strident Twitter hashtags about not being racist or sexist) falls by the wayside when contemplating members of that community who can claim to have some other value--they're productive,  they're powerful, they're entertaining, they're friendly, etc. Practically speaking, everyone can claim to have some other value--there's no douchebag so douchey that nobody in the community can't at least make an argument that some good outweighs the bad they do.

In the end most communities end up judging people more on whether they fit that community's genre of behavior than on whether the person did something to violate the community's explicit standards. Which just makes them into abusive, harassy echo-chambers.

Conclusion 2:

Communities need better ways to determine who is a dickhead.


Gaming's most dickhead-rich subcommunities can give a helpful negative example. You can look at places where there's lots of participants, but so noisy or intolerant that no useful ideas ever get generated: When the desperately low level of discussion at was criticized, the founder--Andy Kitkowski--defended it by going "Hey man, this is just a place for people to hang out and talk, people don't necessarily want to be challenged" when RPGnet's bigoted mods and sexism are brought up, Shannon Appelcline defends it by saying "The rules there create a pleasant community", Something Awful's purpose is, allegedly, to tell jokes--but the RPG threads aren't jokes, they're fairly earnest contests over who can most effectively smear people who don't play their preferred games, theRPGsite and Gaming Den have no rules or statement of purpose beyond "talk about games" and the same goes for many of the more hostile old-school forums.

What these places all have in common is describing no explicit reason to be beyond continuing their own existence.

Think for a second about the difference between two different definitions of the purpose of a community:

-To talk about games

-To learn about games

These both seem kindergarten-level innocuous but the first one suggests that members should be censured, excluded, avoided, rehabilitated or removed (practically speaking people are usually just avoided) if they interfere with talking about games--which is an almost impossibly high standard. Even the most douchey members of the game community are fully capable of harassment or abuse while still talking about games.

If we assume the point of a community is to learn about games however, we suddenly have a guideline with teeth, that can be used to judge behavior:

Somebody a sizable chunk of the community considers a charming rogue keeps shitposting? That doesn't help anyone learn about games.

Somebody is very earnest and well-intentioned and accuses a game of being broken yet can't provide any proof?  That doesn't help anyone learn about games.

Somebody's kinda funny while lying about someone's game? That doesn't help anyone learn about games.

Someone asks questions about how games work that make some members stressed out because they don't have the presence of mind to realize there's no penalty for answering "wrong"? That's fine: it helps people learn about games.

Obviously that doesn't solve all problems, and I don't think "learn about games" should be the one-size-fits-all purpose of game communities, but the point is...

Assumption 4:

The more specific and explicit a community is about goals their ongoing conversation is pursuing beyond "to have a conversation", the easier it is to collectively and fairly identify people who are acting against that goal and being dickheads.

Conclusion 3:

In order to be healthy and worthwhile and not abusive, communities need to focus as much or more effort on describing why they are talking at all as they do on what kind of behavior they consider shitty.

(Assumption 5:

For some people this conclusion is anathema because talking about games is itself the main entertainment, and it serves no purpose being pursued out in the real world. These people are too boring to care about and should get lives.)


At this point you might be wondering what I think the reason I write on this here blog is. It's been the same since the beginning: the purpose of this blog and any activity connected to it is to improve my game at my house. I write my ideas here so people can read them and maybe give me new ideas, I write books so that I can use them and so that other people will steal the ideas and write better books that I can use for my game, I talk about what a game community should be so that I can benefit from the ideas a good community produces. My goal is practical and selfish in that regard.

You don't have to have that same goal, but I do think you're better off if you know why you're writing and so is everyone else. Like once I remember Joethelawyer said he wrote his blog so everyone would know how smart he was--that definitely helped me know what kind of conversations I do or don't want to have with Joe.

I think a lot of people, consciously or unconsciously, do have this same goal as me in DIY D&D though: they have a game, they have ideas, they want to trade so they can have a richer and more fun game. Once you've explicitly said "this is why we're talking" a lot of bullshit can be cut through very quickly. For example: we collectively produced The Hexenbracken very quickly by describing a problem we needed solved--we want an easy-to-use hexcrawl--and then creating a thread that only allowed for behavior directed toward that goal.

The thing is: after a while you get what you need. You learn how to run the kind of game you want to run. When you need less, you give less, and the community tumbles past you. So just as the tree of liberty needs to be fed with the blood of tyrants, DIY D&D needs to be fed with problems to solve. When people have no real problem to solve they either don't show up or just show up out of loneliness, and you haven't got any decent reason to cut the good from the bad--after all you're just there to pass the time and shittiness passes time as well as niceness. This is why people tend to post better stuff when they're actually playing.


In the past few years, the DIY RPG scene has had a lot more success than anyone might've expected. It rescued lots of good ideas from the trash and invented lots of new ones that keep getting used, it introduced a new diversity to gaming, it produced publishing companies that actually turn a profit, it influenced a new edition of D&D that's proved to be popular, it put out products and web widgets that will probably be sought after for as long as tabletop RPGs are a thing, it exposed the pretensions of many of the worst elements in the game scene, and, more than all of that but less tangibly, it got information and new ideas into the hands of thousands of people who are using the ideas at tables that they might not have been inspired to play at before. It does, broadly, what it set out to do. But in order to keep doing it, it needs challenges.

So I guess the point is: cherish and share your problems. Tell people what you're trying to do right now and why it's hard to do it. Make it difficult. We're at our best when we have something to think at.
Get one here.


  1. the purpose of this blog and any activity connected to it is to improve my game at my house"
    That's a bingo. I put my purpose right under the banner of my blog. While it still lies unrealized, the effort has put me in touch with a bigger, healthy gaming world than I thought existed. I have more information, more product available now via the diy community to help me elavate my game just by plugging in. My rpg experience has grown exponentially.
    Once again I get to ride on the shoulders of those who are working hard. I use there product and have a better game. I get taught.
    Before I saw the OSR in 2012 I couldn't put into words why I still had rpg books on my shelf. Seriously, in 2003 I had a great date go south because I left GURPS Aliens on my coffee table.
    So for folks such as yourself Zach who bring the good fight with award winning product, I now game again because you all have given me a seat at the table, the opportunity to ask questions, to doubt, get schooled and play, play, play.

  2. I blog to trade. It's like showing all your pokemon cards during lunch time at summer camp.

  3. I am in agreement. I love playing and constantly looking for ways to make playing better. This was the reason why I wrote my own game, because at that time TSR was running D&D into the ground. Once I had this game that I had made, I couldn't give it away. I worked so hard on it and oh my poor ego. I do not deny this is a part of it and constantly keeping it in check so that it's not tripping me up. I have been doing the blog thing now for a few years and feel like I have a feel of the new paradigm. I have found many wonderful things which have opened my mind and vastly amplified my game play experience. I have also found the inane swill of trolls and have to remember what the goal is and not let that stuff bother me. You get better at playing and solving one particular issue simply makes you aware of three new problems. As a creative person, this is a wonderful thing indeed. Painful sometimes, but better than watching reruns of Cheers.

  4. So this means I am a freeloader...

    I need to get to work.

    Thanks for all the goods.