Monday, March 2, 2015

Thirteen Ways Of Looking At The Terrible Thing You Just Made

When you say a thing is bad, you are usually using it as a shorthand for one of these things.

There are 13 of them.

So, instead of just saying "bad"…maybe say which one you mean next time?
They wanted it to stay up. It didn't.
(1) The Hindenberg

What you really mean:
It Fails to Do What The Author Wanted It To Do
This is a poorly crafted game. People say "broken" a lot here. This also covers things like typos and literal math errors (like the author expects one outcome but it inevitably produces another, things meant to be weak are strong, etc). It is the kind of "bad" where a designer (if they were honest) would agree they missed the mark.

"I co-wrote Mythus with Gary….One of the first things I did when I started playing was to throw out half of the rules we wrote…."
--Dave Newton, co-author of Mythus)

What's a helpful thing to do? 
Show the author saying it does a thing, then demonstrate that it can't, under any circumstances, do that. Then you're right. After that you then might have to prove that that thing is important or outweighs all the good things about the game, but you have proved--at least--a failure of craftmanship.
They were lying
(2) The X-Ray Specs

What you really mean:
It Fails to Do What The Advertising Said It Would Do
People also call this "broken", too. This is a dishonestly made or poorly-tested product.

Seclusium of Orphone says you can make a Seclusium in half an hour (or an hour? Can't remember. Anyway:) You really can't. If you can I haven't heard anybody say you can. You might say Mythus is this, too, if you assume Dave and Gary knew they'd throw out half the rules they wrote before they played.

What's a helpful thing to do? 
Point out the advertising says one thing and demonstrate it's impossible to do that thing. If the advertising is ambiguous and you're railing against it, you're back at (10).

(3) The Left Handed Scissors

What you really mean:
It's relatively unpopular
Not very many people like it. Often conflated with (4).

Torchbearer. All RPGs ever, really.

What's a helpful thing to do?
Explain why anyone should care whether a game is popular or not. I mean: what's wrong with left handed scissors? Left handed people need scissors, too.

(4) The New Coke

What you really mean:
The Thing Is Underperforming in Terms of Popularity
Less people than you'd expect like it, considering everything it had going for it in terms of advertising, licensing etc. More of a big deal than (3) above--but only if somebody claimed it was supposed to make money. If part of the designers' goal was to make lots of money and sell lots of copies (true in the case of Marvel Heroic, not true in the case of many DIY D&D products) then this is a bit of (1), as well.

Marvel Heroic RPG

What's a helpful thing to do?
Explain why anyone not working for the company should care whether a game is making as much money as somebody expected it to. Are you evaluating the ability of the designer to guess the public taste? Sometimes that's important, sometimes it isn't.
In case you had any doubt, Dave Sim's comics had
loooooong text pieces in the end telling you in the
first person that he's sexist.

(5) The Cerebus

What you really mean:
The Thing Accurately Reveals the Author Is A Douche
The words or images in the RPG reflect attitudes on the behalf of the author that only douchebags have. Games called racist or sexist are often this.

Frequently conflated with:
(6), (7), (11)

Example: Those dumb novelty RPGs people make that just make fun of other peoples' RPGs

What's a helpful thing to do?
Explain how there is no possible way anybody but a douchebag could've written what's on the page . The easiest way is to find some nonfiction piece the author wrote which echoes the bad ideas in the piece. The most tortured and fraught path is to assume that whatever the author depicts it's something they like--that's almost always wrong and very hard to prove. Ask yourself: are you guessing the author of Ghostbusters hates ghosts, or just assuming?

(6)  The Garfield

What you really mean:
The Author Chose To Do Less Than Their Best Work
A variation on 5. The particular douchebaggery in question being the author clearly could've done better. A lot of stereotypes are supported by this kind of bad because stereotypes are easy to write.

Ruins of Undermountain.

What's a helpful thing to do?
Prove the author knew a better way to do a thing--or grasped that finding it would've been useful--and then show how what's there isn't that.

(7) The Russian Roulette

What you really mean:
Literally the world outside the game gets worse because of this game existing. Games called racist or sexist are often this.

DragonRaid (an '80s Christian D&D alternative), Fate

What's a helpful thing to do?
Prove it with facts. Like DragonRaid for instance made money for some shitstain who had a problem with D&D on Christian grounds, plus maybe granted legitimacy to bigoted attacks on the RPGs that made a lot of peoples' relationship to their hobby (and parents) pretty traumatic when they were young. I'd probably have to do some more research to confirm all this if I really wanted to go after DragonRaid, plus prove that this wasn't balanced out by the fact that it probably introduced people to RPGs who otherwise would've had nothing because their parents were fundamentalists.

If a thing is, objectively, Russian Roulette and will cause harm and the author knows it and agrees with that and puts it out anyway, you have a clear case of (5).
(8) The Offensive Thing

What you really mean:
The Thing Upsets You (When extreme: Triggering)
Games called racist or sexist are often this but it doesn't necessarily mean they are racist or sexist because culture offends people, period. Like any game with gay guys in it will offend someone but whoever it offends doesn't count. People taking offense usually implies they believe it's bad in some other way, too.

Frequently conflated or combined with:
(5), (7)

Blue Rose--the setting purports to be an egalitarian paradise but sweeps class issues completely under the rug. I'm offended. I have no evidence that the authors were classist (5) or just didn't think through egalitarianism very much (1) or that RPG people became any more classist because of it (7), however. It wasn't exactly a popular game (in which case (3) may have led to it not being (7)).

What's a helpful thing to do?
Make a case for whether the people who are offended are just offended alone (in which case who cares?) or whether the offense might indicate (7) or (5). Here's a thing: are people offended by two guys kissing actually not harmed even though they think they are or are they harmed but who cares because fuck them they suck?

(9) The Bad Influence

What you really mean:
It's A Harmful Influence On Other Games

Caves of Chaos, most other early adventure modules--companies realized that authors paid by the word could bulk out 5 pages of ideas to 15, 30, 100, or even 200 pages of text and people would buy it. Thus leading to a lot of (10) and arguably (2) and undeniably (6).

What's a helpful thing to do?
Point out how the tendency didn't exist until that thing came along and make a case the new tendency was some kind of bad.
(10) The Thing You Just Don't Like

What you really mean: The Thing Is Not To My Taste
Like the game is broccoli flavored and you hate broccoli.

Apocalypse World

What's a helpful thing to do?
Describe what kind of person you and/or your group are, what you like, and why that game doesn't do those things or doesn't fit. It's as much about you as it is about the game, acknowledge that, it'll help people who are like you and who aren't decide what to do with the game.


What you really mean: Not To My Taste Plus It's Part Of A Whole Trend Of Things Not To My Taste (Aka "I'm so sick of these games like…")
You like pizza, this game is a hot dog, plus it seems like every ten seconds there's another hot dog.

Apocalypse World Engine-games

What's a helpful thing to do?
As (10) plus describe why you think anyone else should care that there are a lot of these games that you don't need to buy (if you are). Are you arguing (9)? Are you arguing that a critical mass of (11)s result in (7)? Are you just sort of irritated at not being a majority? If it helps: you play RPGs, you're not and never will be.

i.e. Are you saying "less of this, please" when the problem could be just as easily solved with "more of that, please"?
(12) The Game For Douchebags

What you really mean: Not To My Taste Plus It's Only To The Taste Of Shitty People
This is like (10) on overdrive: You don't like it and can't think even imagine a worthwhile human being enjoying this thing, nor have any such people come forward.

Bliss Stage. Maybe it does what it's supposed to and what it advertises and does it to the best of the author's ability and hurts no-one but what it's supposed to do doesn't seem to appeal to anyone who isn't a moron.

What's a helpful thing to do?
Describe what shitty characteristic of a person links to the shitty part of the game. If someone you like is into the game, then you have to revise your opinion. Like so even thought tons of terrible people like Monsterhearts, so does Shoepixie and I like Shoepixie and don't begrudge her entertainment, so I guess that game is ok.

(13) The Chew Toy

What you really mean: One or More Of The Above Plus the Author is a Douche
It has flaws that may or may not be objective. But the author is pretty objectively terrible.

Example: FATE

What's a helpful thing to do?
You can keep calling the game "bad" because the only person it's unfair to is the author and they're a douche. But if someone asks then you need to point out what made you decide the author's a douche.
So this simplifies life. Most critiques are 10 dressed up with other stuff to make them seem more objective, like

The standard knock against White Wolf is a lot of mechanical (1) with either (10) ("I'm not a goth") or (2) ("I am a goth and it wasn't goth enough").

The 4venger attacks on Old School D&D were a lot of (1) and (2) with, at least on some sides, some (7) leading to (3).



Unknown said...

i am fairly surprised that 7 didn't come with a laundry list of ne'er do wells... lookin' at you FATAL...

brackish meadows said...

im sorry to add sjw bullshit to a totally well-defined stratagem but as well as this the word 'bad' comes from 'baeddel' which is old english and used to shame dudes for being too girly.

brackish meadows said...

there's a baeddel community of trans-women and similar on tumblr, and they have their own scheme of bad discourses that are totally alien to those people outside.

Jeff Heikkinen said...

The problem with New Coke - and with the RPG thing it's most often compared to, which is 4th Edition D&D - isn't anything inherent to the product, true, but it's not about commercial performance either. The main thing people had against those two products is that they *replaced* beloved products that already existed in such a way that it was really hard to get the beloved old product anymore. And so people who wanted the old thing got angry and often took out their anger on the new thing, but they wouldn't have had a problem with the new thing if it existed *alongside* the old thing; their real problem was just that they couldn't get the old thing anymore.

If 4E had just been called "Dungeons & Dragons Tactics" or something and marketed as a separate semi-compatible game *alongside* something actually recognizable as D&D, it would never have gotten anywhere near the backlash it did. Same with New Coke, with the added bonus that that's something Coca-Cola, unlike WotC, could actually feasibly have done.

Zak Sabbath said...

You are talking about your ideas about New Coke and 4e, not about the idea that I put forward in #4 above.

Also: it was NEVER hard to get "the beloved old product" in any RPG.

Jeff Heikkinen said...

Harder than it needed to be, then (especially if you wanted to do it legally). At one point 3.5 Player's Handbooks were like a hundred bucks on eBay.

I think what I said about new coke and 4E is pretty close to objectively true. It's certainly not just my idiosyncratic idea, at any rate. The problem with New Coke in particular wasn't commercial failure, it was PR backlash. Sales were at worst mildly disappointing and wouldn't have caused the turnaround to Coke Classic by themselves, or at least not as fast. At the very least that makes New Coke a misleading example for the thing you're trying to illustrate.

I also think what I said illustrates a 14th thing people can mean by "bad". It's sort of a variation on your 11 but there need not be a general trend, just a perception (accurate or not) that the "bad" thing has taken the place of the "good" thing. (And again, there's a good chance the solution is "more of the thing I like" rather than "less of the thing I don't like".)

Zak Sabbath said...


Again: you're being sidetracked by the analogy and not engaging what I wrote:




say "bad" what they mean is a thing is commercially underperforming.

That is the sum total of what I said there.

You're saying another thing unrelated to that thing inspired by the associations you have with the words "new coke" and perhaps even by the realities of New Coke

Jeff Heikkinen said...

And I'm not saying that's false. I'm saying two other things: (1) that the example used to illustrate this true thing is potentially misleading, and (2) that there's this other reasonably interesting thing you could also add to your list.

Zak Sabbath said...


I think that 14th thing is not it's own thing simply because it unless there were some other source of dissatisfaction then nobody would just call that "bad".

I think replacement makes people mad--but because the replacing thing has qualities they respond poorly to.

Jeff Heikkinen said...

Okay, now we're on the same page I think, and onto something reasonable people can disagree on.

I don't think the qualities they respond poorly to need go beyond "it's not the thing I'm used to". (Though sometimes they do.) I like to think I'm somewhat an exception to this and I get the impression you are too, but *most* or at least *many* people are creatures of habit and don't respond well to having their toys taken away. Even if they haven't really been taken away, merely put somewhere a tiny bit harder to reach.

Zak Sabbath said...

even if they are reacting emotionally, i am addressing

_the arguments people make_ not _what's in their head_ every "you took my toy away" whiner I've met ALSO has some argument which (though it may be a lie) I must take in good faith about why the new thing (absent its newness) is bad.

I am addressing these arguments.

Jeff Heikkinen said...

Fair enough. I would only add that *sometimes* pointing out that the argument is clearly a post hoc rationalization for the emotional reaction is a legit move in that game. I agree that this shouldn't be the first resort and that the initial assumption should be that the surface argument is being made in good faith.

Zak Sabbath said...

Even if the person you are talking to is arguing from emotion and using the argument as a post-hoc rationalization--somewhere else in the world there's someone who isn't and who actually believes that thing.

So you assume good faith and address the argument. It's worth dealing with even if the interlocutor who represents it isn't.

SavageCheerleader said...

That was comedy gold. You played the long game to get in a jab at Fred Hicks; well done young man.

SavageCheerleader said...

Same. Was totally expecting that wild gem.

SavageCheerleader said...

But no one really cares and language is fluid. Common vernacular outweighs etymology. Saying the word bad is oppressive or ill advised for usage, as I assume you mean since you got up with the sjw tag, is trite in this day and age.

Zak Sabbath said...

Chill. Not important.

faoladh said...

I've read and played DragonRaid (and I am far from being any sort of Christian). I recall that the author, in his design notes, was not opposed to D&D (in fact liked it quite a lot), but did want to create a similar game that wouldn't trigger the touchy parents of his Sunday School students, and making it have Bible Learning elements seemed to be a good way to do that. I think that it's more Left-Handed Scissors, but I'm sure that someone else could make a case for whatever. For what it's worth, I didn't have a whole lot of fun, mainly due to the requirement to use Bible verses to cast spells… er, ask for LightRaider miracles.

faoladh said...

Though, on the other hand, I can see that some people make the argument that the game does make the world a worse place by supporting the false idea that other games are anti-Christian, so there's that, too.

Zak Sabbath said...

Sure either way I can see it.

It's more about clarifying kinds of argument than trying to complain about DragonRaid.

It seems like you understood what I was trying to say

Jameela said...

Fuck, this felt really good to read. Detailed typology of Ways To Mess Up really clunked something into place in my brain. Quick, someone make an infographic with lots of fonts!

Unknown said...

"In case you had any doubt, Dave Sim's comics had
loooooong text pieces in the end telling you in the
first person that he's sexist."

I would argue that 185/6 was actually more in the middle of a 300 issue mini series. Three HUNDRED ISSUE MINI SERIES! The essays that preceded this were the foundation of Artists Rights & Self Publishing which created the Comic Age we are currently enjoying. The essays near the end are very "Religious" [Capital R] in nature, in my opinion.

The "Dave Sim is a Sexist" and the subsequent drama is less a cautionary tale around artistic douchery and more about dismissing an artist contributions completely because they express unpopular opinions, a major theme of the 20th century--see Pound, See Fela Kuti, See Picasso, etc...

More to the point, your example is spot on with the Cerebus Syndrome--already a class of Bad in which something initially intended to be "comic" gradually becomes more and more serious until it is completely unmoored, absurd, and incomprehensible. This happens with most RPG jokes...

Zak Sabbath said...

Your comment doesn't really make sense.

The first 2 paragraphs are unrelated to anything I said, the 3rd paragraph seems to argue that one thing people say when they mean "bad" isn't a "cautionary tale" when I made no such claim.

And whether a person "dismisses" cerebus because people use the word bad (or should or should not) is no part of what I wrote.

The 4th paragraph isn't about something people mean when they use the word "Bad" it's an example of the aesthetic of a work changing over time which can lead to it being called bad (because 10) or good or neither..

Unknown said...


I am struggling with how anyone could think Cerebus is longhand for bad in any way shape or form. I am against the inclusion of Cerebus on this list.

Cerebus is great--really great.

You wrote "loooooong text pieces in the end telling you in the first person that he's sexist." to which I tried to respond that these 'long text pieces" were actually in the middle of the series not the end. I think issues 185 & 186 say much more than "I am sexist", but that is not really important. The important thing is that what he writes is not 'shorthand for bad' & two issues does not prove once and for all that Sim is a douche--what he wrote may be sexist, offensive, disagreeable or whatever but I do not think it defines all of his work. What he wrote before issue 185 is definitely not bad. Most of what he wrote after 186 is not bad--Cerebus continued to be strong until the end, Judenhass is amazing, glamourpuss was interesting, etc.

Of course, none of this really addresses what you about, I think that if you are looking for an example of a thing which reveals the author Is a douche you could do a lot better than Dave Sim...

Zak Sabbath said...

"...he wrote may be sexist, offensive, disagreeable or whatever but I do not think it defines all of his work."

I didn't say it "defines all of his work". I said if people say "Cerebus is bad" then the fact that it provides conclusive evidence he is (as you said) sexist is what makes them say that sentence.

What blog entry are you reading?

Anonymous said...

I've got a Christian RPG at home, "The Way". It's European, wasn't part of any satanic panic, but does bring in morality lessons like "why did the party abandon the guy? Is it right or wrong to abandon people? Discuss!" It's super railroady and pretty bad.
It has pretty weird politics also. It seems to want to counter the image of "Jesus as proto-anarchocommunist" which I think is a shame.
I'd say the game is 10, "The Thing You Just Don't Like" for me, more for the railroad than anything else.

To clarify, the book (The Way that is, don't know about Dragon Raid) doesn't have any overt Christian imagery in it, way less than say Narnia. US 80:s Christians would not accept it, it has arcane magic and stuff.
It's more about presenting situations and opening up the floor for discussing what's the right or wrong way to handle such situations. In that it railroads an outcome but then allows you to "talk if that felt right or wrong". It was published for a church and says it was made for religious education.

Oberon the Fool said...

Just checking to make sure I understand a point: I think Bliss Stage is a great game. Am I, therefore, a moron?

Also pretty sure Ron Edwards likes it, too, since I've played it with him. Is he a moron?

Zak Sabbath said...

I have never met or had extensive conversations with either of you so I don't know.

If you turn out to be not a moron and still like it, then I will have to revise my opinion.