Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Radical Game Critique Isn't

That fucking lone orc guarding that fucking chest in that fucking ten foot room.

Ever since I first started playing I knew exactly one thing about the much-maligned lone orc in the ten-foot room.

That is: if he's there it's because I put him there.

As I've said before, when it said right in the Dungeon Master's Guide that you could buy adventures or make up your own, it never occurred to me why anyone anywhere ever would buy one. I'm pretty much in the same boat still. Even the best modules in the world get rewritten snout-to-tail as soon as I get them.


When I first started reading RPG blogs and forums, I was struck by two things:

1. God DAMN these people are mad about games

2. God DAMN these people have bought a lot of game crap

It was a constant stream of B1 this and X1 that and WG4 Ripped My Flesh and 3.5 Makes Your Pee Green and 4E Makes You Turn Into A Beeswax Toucher and I just thought Who has time to read all these things? For me the hobby was about: You grab a game off the shelf, you rewrite half the rules (they were written by distant corporate overlords and so suck) and then you start making stuff up.

The level of investment people had in these rudimentary accessories baffled me--and baffled me even more when I got my hands on them--This is Caves of Chaos? A bunch of dudes in corridors? White Plume Mountain has a flying canoe? It was like visiting The Big City your friends have been talking about all your life and finding three matchbox cars and a cardboard box with windows draw on it.

And the weirdest thing was: the more pointed, aggressive and would-be-radical the Internet dork's critique of D&D and its supposed impact on society was, the more accessories they'd paid for. Ron Edwards' critique of D&D as a cargo cult is clearly informed by having swallowed year after year of TSR product and there are angry 4vengers with pixel icons on Something Awful who could drown you in their Old School game collection.

And their message was: These modules taught us! And they taught us wrong!!!!!

This isn't actually a real article. Thank god.

And I just thought: what rich kid buys modules? You draw a maze and put cute stuff in it, you make up some voices and attach people to them--how hard is that? I know 5 year olds who can do that. They were critiquing a consumption-based culture they'd created and I'd never seen or cared about--and that none of the people I played with saw or cared about, like basing their ideas about the game off the quality of a buttskin dicebag they'd bought. Sure there was some inane Vietnam vet behind the register at the game store--but he's as ignorable as the pamphlet-sized pap he was selling. And conventions? Come on. You buy your dice and run--that DIY is the soul of the game.

The fact is, the modern wannabe progressive critique is a middlebrow apologia for having bought the thing in the first place.

It is an uncritical adoption of certain tropes of criticism as penitence for having uncritically adopted the previous tropes offered by the game product.

It is exchanging one failure of skepticism for another.

It happens like this:

You're on the Forge or Story-Games where there's supposed to be a hip and radical dedication to independent game making and publishing,

...or you're on RPGnet where there's supposed to be a hip and radical dedication to remaking games as a safe space for marginalized people,

...or you're on Something Awful where there's supposed to be a hip and radical dedication to joking everything terrible about modern culture to death...

...and you're hanging out and looking for something to talk about with hundreds of internet strangers. So what do you have in common? Well, not much--you live thousands of miles from each other--but there's probably some game product you've all read. So you start talking about it.

And then you remember why you're here--you can't just say you like Shadowrun or even "Meh, Shadowrun, too much like real life"--you are supposed to make a show of being hip and radical (or as much as you can sitting alone at your computer in your nerdforum). So you embed all your ideas about the world into a critique of Shadowrun. Or a Shadowrun module. Or the Shadowrun module after that.

Of course what this critique obscures is: you once thought you needed to buy a lot of Shadowrun modules. I mean, if there's some consumer out there whose mind has been damaged by too much near-future fantasy technoir it's the kind of consumer so used to buying RPG crap they think it's the reason for everything they've ever seen happen at an RPG table.

The radical Hot Take is the tax you pay for having bought and read and maybe even used the module in the first place--a tax which hides an important fact: the more radical thing to have done would be to do the thing every RPG has urged you to do since the mimeographed OD&D first appeared and write your own adventure. Most of these critiques read like screeds on the evils of nightlife by people in AA.

The postcolonial critique of Caves of Chaos is less radical than just not using Caves of Chaos in the first place 'cause its kinda fucking basic.

Perhaps this is the reason for the vociferousness of the accusations laid at the door of RPG products and RPG norms--the people making them are gnawingly aware that the only reason they even have enough familiarity with these norms to make those critiques is their own embrace of them and total failure to innovate or think for themselves.

The Drama Club dedication to picking apart each new piece of nerd media, from Batgirl to Orphan Black, as soon as it hits the ground belies an even greater truth: you'd have to worry a lot less about these things and the supposed messages they send if you weren't so intent on watching them all right away.

The Angry Consumerist Critic is not a radical and the only behavior they're critiquing is that of their own former self. And rather than this having taught them to think for themselves, it has cause them to exchange one bill of goods for another.

Independent thought is so not part of their daily lives, that they actually think games for adults should reflect their values. As if adults should be unskeptical enough that they're learning values from a game.
I grew up with a blanket punk rock/marxist critique: all mainstream media is sick shit trying to sell you something, handle it with kid gloves if at all. It's all racist and sexist and classist--it's made by moneypeople to make more money. The obsession with divvying every game and TV show into ones Doing It Right and Doing It Wrong has a fundamental philosophical flaw: that the milk from the corporate nipple is ever "right". Nothing Disney does with its princesses or Marvel does with its Thors is going to show up without blood on its hands.

When I critiqued mainstream modules on this blog, the attitude was always:

1. Find out if there are dysfunctional or weird parts of this that aren't part and parcel of what you'd expect from any suck-by-committee corporate design process.
2. There might might be some genuine human gold under the weight of that totally presumed and pointless low-hanging fruit. Occasionally there is.

Indie stuff is worth your scrutiny inasmuch it claims to represent an actual human or group thereof chasing something other than the most money possible. That's a situation where you might expect to see someone Doing It Right. No matter how much your favorite mainstream superhero comic is doing right, the entire background of its production is fundamentally wrong.

If you bought a product by a company that doesn't even care enough about you to put the name of the monster on the map in the place where the monster lives, being shocked that you found a bit of unexamined paleothought in it is like being shocked your McNugget wasn't free-range. Demanding the majors think better is a noble goal, but claiming to have just now discovered the lazy thinking in them shows that you were expecting otherwise.  And expecting otherwise means you are and have always been exactly that most-gullible-kind-of-person who lets that message slip into their unconscious.

It's like a war reporter who lands in Afghanistan and goes "Holy fuck, one of those guys has a gun!". Critique yourself first.

And now, a word from our sponsor:


Anonymous said...

I think of modules as training wheels for new DMs or filler one-offs. The idea of an Adventure Path is baffling to me.

Nicholas Ahlhelm said...

I never quite understood the need for adventure modules and rarely bought them even for games I was devoted to when I was young. Storytelling was always about my own narratives manipulated by my players. I just thought it lazy to use pregenerated content.

jvines said...

Growing up in Alabama
the only dm in my little "wammer" group was me
binge drinking
all our pot smelled like shrimp or Raid
I used modules a lot
It went off the rails a lot though
Goodnight Everyone

jvines said...

Growing up in Alabama
the only dm in my little "wammer" group was me
binge drinking
all our pot smelled like shrimp or Raid
I used modules a lot
It went off the rails a lot though
Goodnight Everyone

kenco said...

That's the freshest thing I've read about rpgs for long time. It reminds me how easy it is to be hypnotised by the absence of countervailing voices in a closed community. I've never thought much of published rpg products, and never bought. But I had forgotten why. Thank you.

Stygianheart said...

I have never up until recently ever run an adventure/campaign that was not of my own creation.

My friends and I had discussed the Rise of the Runelords adventure path for Pathfinder and decided to give it a go.
I have never been so utterly lost as I was trying to run an adventure written by somebody else. After a handful of sessions my enjoyment of the game was running on fumes, my players noticed too.
I took stock of the situation, had a break from it, looked at the campaign book again and have proceeded to tear out it's guts and rebuild it using only choice pieces and rebuild it.
Since then it feels more like one of my own creations and my players have been having a great time.

Stygianheart said...

urgh... I wrote like a monkey banging it's fists on a keyboard.
Sorry about the horrible grammar in that comment, I'm exhausted right now.

Timothy S. Brannan said...

I don't care. I like modules.
I have written enough stuff over the last 30 years, personally and professionally, for games that using someone else's toys for a while is my reward, my break.

Zak Sabbath said...

whether people play with modules or not isn't really the point of the piece

Unknown said...

It seems like people are more concerned with the game, then with actually PLAYING it. A real shame, that.

Timothy S. Brannan said...

Well that 's what I get for just skimming between coffee...ok re-read time.

Unknown said...

A point of order: when you critique the Drama Club for behaving in the way they do, are you committing some variation of the typical RPG forum-goer excitedly critiquing a game module? They're acting in accordance with their horrible little nature. Shame on us for sparing them any of our attention and pretending we expected to find anything else.

Zak Sabbath said...

Of course I am not.

The Drama Club is not here by invitation--they are here because they chose to make their attacks available (for free) to a public that determines whether small indie RPG writers fly or fall.

Shanna Germain's has not had her reputation shit on and had bizarre accusations made about her because Shanna _chose_ to invite Drama Club members into her life.

She did the minimum she'd have to do to pursue her job: put out an RPG. They then attacked and attempted to fuck with her.

The purchase of a module is optional, releasing a game you're trying to sell is not. Googling a game you want to buy and running into innaccurate facts is not.

Anonymous said...

I never really worried much about this kind of thing. Some people like modules, some don't. Other factors count too -- like how much time you have, for example. Modules are also useful in that they are NOT your creation -- and show you how other people think about the fundamentals of adventure creation; which in turn, tends to increase your own creativity. I'm not egotistical enough to think that I can think of everything, and seeing how other folks approach the same problem often gives me new ideas or approaches different both from my own original thoughts, and those of the module author. In short, there are advantages and disadvantages to using modules. Sitting around and critiquing them based on some sort of pseudo-Gygaxian internal logic IS rather pointless; almost as pointless as critiquing the critics.... ;-)

The bottom line? The play is the thing, regardless of where your inspiration comes from.

Zak Sabbath said...

You are incorrect.
Critiquing the critics is important if there are people who make any part of their living writing game stuff. Which there are.
If a critic says something that isn't true and then it sticks (like it did with Geoffrey McKinney) that affect your real life.

Doomsdave said...

This is one of the single best blog entries in the OSR sphere. Ever. Thank you.

Anodos said...

This clarified some stuff that happened during an argument with my girlfriend tonight. I feel foolish now, but at least I have a better idea about what happened. She hinted at it, but this really helped. Solid post.

Pridday said...

I only bought a couple of the older D&D modules but I think one reason a lot of them sucked for normal gaming is that they were written for convention tournament play. That type of "adventure" is way different than something for your regular weeknight gaming.

Zak Sabbath said...

That isn't really true, even as challenges most of them still suck. Look at my series on Ghost TOwer of Inverness for an example.
Tournaments are cool and great and not an excuse to be uncreative--quite the opposite.

Zak Sabbath said...

You're banned from this blog MArty because last time you commented you got questions about your argument that you didn't answer or address.
If you would like to be part of the discussion here, you have to be able to hold your own.

Zak Sabbath said...

Incorrect: Everyone must always answer questions, including me. that's the rule. Once you break it, you're a chewtoy.

You evaded questions about your argument, I did not.


Zak Sabbath said...

Your comment shave been erased because you;re not allowed to lie or be abusive int he comments.

Here are the issues you did not address in the old thread:

GOOD! You finally demonstrated you could read.
Let's take the next step:

1. About letting new artists go crazy with the IP and showing those end results to studio. It's still not a good idea.

Now Say Why Not. You haven't done that.

2. "Why would Hasbro let them go all experimental again when that destroyed the prior company?"

First: TSR never went experimental in this way (i.e. gambling on quality)

Second: Here's why: because TSR had to make money to survive. WOTC, being part of HASBRO, only has to do what feeds the larger organism, as I explain in my earlier paragraph. Many conglomerates accept that small parts of them are not immediately profitable (or ever profitable). Hell: WOTC could profit off Magic and just break even onD&D and still be useful so long as Hasbro thought the IP would _one day_ be useful.

Music companies do it all the time: they have huge hitmakers and then use the profit to fund Classical divisions which often operate at a loss for decades, but they keep it up because having the contracts has longer-term benefits.

So your points were totally refuted.

You need to address those things now or admit you were wrong.

So, for the 5th time, address those things. Or you will not be allowed to comment.

Half-assed arguments aren't allowed here.