Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Lovecraft, Nerds And The Uses of Ick

You might not like Lovecraft, but chances are you like something Lovecraftian--like this or this. So, one more time, let's talk about Lovecraft....

Imagine someone loved, someone you know the story of: your brother, your dog, your lover, your parent, Prince, Lemmy, yourself--someone with a definite content you can imagine, with unique details that apply only to them.

Then imagine you discover their story has ended. They're done, as are their works. Something was continuous and unique and now it isn't anymore.

That's fear of death. That fear is not Lovecraftian. The weak, worried man and his bleak work were afraid of many things, not death so much.

In his most classic works, the ones that make him important to later writers, artists, filmmakers and game designers, death is rarely the point. Death is one of many by-products (insanity, disturbing hybridization, obsessive Cassandrian documentation) of a more terrible revelation. Half the time the monsters are barely active, much less murderous. The horror is simply that there was contact.

Alien is a lot like At The Mountains of Madness (and Prometheus is even more like it, as many folks have noticed) except when it's being a thriller--Jones! Here kitty kitty--that is, when it's afraid of death.

The old gothic horror's set dressing is death: skulls, skeletons, vampires--and the gothic has love in it, so that you care about the victim when death happens. Lovecraft was another thing: characters you didn't come to care much about discontinuing--or living right past the moment they might've died and instead, at the real climax, being made witness to a horror. And what was the horror of, if not of death?

It was a horror of a pullulating, spawning, unknowable, inevitable and important otherness--that thing Werner Herzog was talking about when he went into the jungle and described as "…this overwhelming misery and overwhelming fornication...overwhelming growth and overwhelming lack of order." That is: life.


He faced death with courage. Struck by a cancer of the intestine which had spread throughout his body, he is taken to Jane Brown Memorial Hospital on the 10 March 1937. He will behave as an exemplary patient, polite, affable, of a stoicism and courtesy which will impress his nurses, despite very great physical suffering (happily attenuated by morphine).

That's from Michel Houellebecq's H.P. Lovecraft - Against the World, Against Life, which argues, well, that HP Lovecraft was against the world and against life. Ok, so he wasn't scared of dying, was he so weird as to be scared of living? Absolutely, totally and--in a letter written a few days before his improbable marriage--articulately:

And as for Puritan inhibitions-I admire them more every day. They are attempts to make of life a work of art - to fashion a pattern of beauty in the hog-wallow that is animal existence - and they spring out of that divine hatred for life which marks the deepest and most sensitive soul...An intellectual Puritan is a fool - almost as much of a fool is an anti-Puritan - but a Puritan in the conduct of life is the only kind of man one may honestly respect. I have no respect or reverence whatever for any person who does not live abstemiously and purely.

Lovecraft was so grossed out by sex, commerce and casual social ties that he left them entirely out of his fiction. As for race:

 The organic things inhabiting that awful cesspool could not by any stretch of the imagination be call'd human. They were monstrous and nebulous adumbrations of the pithecanthropoid and amoebal; vaguely moulded from some stinking viscous slime of the earth's corruption, and slithering and oozing in and on the filthy streets or in and out of windows and doorways in a fashion suggestive of nothing but infesting worms or deep-sea unnamabilities. They — or the degenerate gelatinous fermentation of which they were composed — seem'd to ooze, seep and trickle thro' the gaping cracks in the horrible houses ... and I thought of some avenue of Cyclopean and unwholesome vats, crammed to the vomiting point with gangrenous vileness, and about to burst and inundate the world in one leprous cataclysm of semi-fluid rottenness. From that nightmare of perverse infection I could not carry away the memory of any living face. The individually grotesque was lost in the collectively devastating; which left on the eye only the broad, phantasmal lineaments of the morbid soul of disintegration and decay ... a yellow leering mask with sour, sticky, acid ichors oozing at eyes, ears, nose, and mouth, and abnormally bubbling from monstrous and unbelievable sores at every point …

There are two remarkable things here: first--it's vintage Lovecraft. Second, it's not from The Horror at Red Hook, it's from HP's letter to a pal describing my grandfather's neighborhood in NYC. 

Lovecraft's specific brand of racism arose from disgust, the disgust from ignorance, the ignorance from another and larger fear: fear of unmediated intercourse with other people. That is: life.

Lovecraft is what happens when we take a familiar figure--the shy, nervous, fragile, conflict-averse, fastidious, introverted bookworm who is hopeless with money and whose main social outlet is nerd conventions--and put him in an era, class, family and professional situation where avoiding The Other is the path of least resistance. This is a man who never learned anything in a bar or a short-order kitchen or on a ballfield; he learned from parents and books and nothing he learned there taught him about these “italico-semitico-mongoloids” he lived among.

In these conditions his fear of life--which we can just go ahead and call his nerdiness--could only encourage his racism. I just want to be alone in bed with my books. And he is kind of a perfect test-case because he wasn't otherwise generally an asshole: people who he did mix with reported a courteous, kind, generous man, eager to reach out through amateur press associations (the pre-internet) to help fellow aesthetes through the terror and darkness that is this mortal coil and its ungentlemanly expectations.

He looked on New Yorkers with repulsion but he looked on New York with awe:

I fell into a swoon of aesthetic exaltation in admiring this view – the evening scenery with the innumerable lights of the skyscrapers, the mirrored reflections and the lights of the boats bobbing on the water, at the extreme left the sparkling statue of Liberty, and on the right the scintillating arch of the Brooklyn bridge. It’s something even more powerful than the dreams of the legend of the Ancient world – a constellation of infernal majesty – a poem in the fire of Babylon! (…) All of this happens under the strange lights, the strange sounds of the port, where the traffic of the whole world is concentrated. Foghorns, ships’ bells, in the distance the squeals of winches… visions of the distant shores of India, where birds with brilliant plumage are set singing by the incense of strange pagodas surrounded by gardens, where camel-handlers in their colourful robes barter in front of the sandalwood taverns with deep-voiced sailors whose eyes reflect all the mystery of the sea. 

...and, though not experience-curious, he was book-curious. He knew at least that the amoebas and pithecanthropoids that occupied its streets came from faraway places and these places had cultures--and it might be to this vision of the city and this knowledge that we owe an insight that makes his stories more than the sum of his terrified parts. The honest, perceptive, innovative artist in Lovecraft is decisively getting the upper hand over the arrogant racist whenever the stories remind us that the incomprehensible and inimical aliens are not just bigger, but older, wiser and immensely more sophisticated and significant than those they disturb.

This reveals a strange paradox of the imperial racist--the works of these foreigners are magnificent, their physical presence is loathsome. In Lovecraft, the "primitiveness" and "degeneracy" only come when the xenomorphs mix with-, or are worshipped by-, the humans--again, it is contact that is bad.

The racist made these stories horror stories, but the artist made them about gods. And if there are any gods, we should all be afraid of them. This is a fear that can be about many other things, it has legs.

Lovecraftian horror--the genre--is easy to copy: books, neuraesthenia, tentacles, all that. But if the ideas were all there were to it, we could just read Burroughs instead. Lovecraftian horror--the emotion--is rarer: disgust and awe in the face of the alien. 

Lovecraftian disgust and awe can be evoked in relation to things that don't appear anywhere in Lovecraftian fiction--for example, in Alien it's about the processes of human reproduction.

The awe is the reputable part, we understand awe, if not the objects of awe. So let's look at the disgust:

Mandy instantly dislikes anyone wearing a one-sleeved dress and I am suspicious of those who, for any reason, wear Crocs. Very many people, far past any genuine concern for physical safety, are scared to go into a porn theatre--or to certain bars.

These are minor examples of Lovecraftian disgust.

While Lovecraft was afraid of life and intercourse with people unlike himself, Lovecraftian disgust more generally--the kind the stories expand on and incarnate--is aesthetic, taste-based: an aesthetic fear so severe that it overrides the curiosity or sense of fairness that would discover whether that fear was justified.

It is kind of the opposite of Stendahl syndrome.

Lovecraftian disgust is not disgust at clear signifiers that death is near--wounds and wolf tracks--that would be rational. Lovecraftian disgust is never rational, it is emotional and emotions are evolution's first-drafts of thoughts, made for when there's no time for evaluation, or no imperative demanding one.

Lovecraftian disgust is visceral, the kind that goes ick. The feeling of having a gun to your head isn't ick. Ick is a fear of life--someone else's icky life. Fear of mollusks, for instance--which are totally harmless--is Lovecraftian.

Once I met an art student who was making a really ugly painting of bearded men at prayer and doing it on purpose. I asked why and she said they were Muslim fundamentalists and she (she was of Middle Eastern descent) wanted to make Muslim fundamentalists look ugly and ridiculous and gross, and make people associate the image of fundamentalists with grossness. This was an attempt to recruit Lovecraftian disgust as a propaganda tool.

Likewise Trump complaining about how John Kasich eats is an attempt to recruit Lovecraftian disgust to political ends. But then so is the way we retweet how hideous Trump's toupee and terrible pigleather face are. 

In Taxi Driver, DeNiro's disgust is supremely Lovecraftian:

Whatever it is, you should clean up this city here, because this city here is like an open sewer you know. It's full of filth and scum. And sometimes I can hardly take it. Whatever-whoever becomes the President should just really clean it up. You know what I mean? Sometimes I go out and I smell it, I get headaches it's so bad, you know...They just never go away you know...It's like...I think that the President should just clean up this whole mess here. You should just flush it right down the fuckin' toilet. is Rorschach's disgust in Watchmen (created by avowed Lovecraft disciple Alan Moore)--in both cases the filth is clearly literal grime and a metaphor for every other sin in the city.

The dirt in a city, the tan, the toupee, eating, praying, the simple ugliness of people we think are ugly: all signs of life, not death. And icky.

Silence of the Lambs is a fascinating case: Hannibal Lecter is pure gothic--cold, crisp, polite, intelligent, quiet, patient, efficient, articulate, inevitable, living in a stone room, arguably charming. Like Dracula, he is asexual but apparently capable of a weird kind of romantic or at least personalized affection toward our hero and he is as bald as a skull. And he is seen killing, repeatedly, because people are in his way.

Buffalo Bill--whom he never shares a shot with--is sloppy, shifty, loud (always listening to music--and pop music, not dead people music like Lecter likes), awkward, breeds moths, has a dog and long hair and moans about fucking. Bill is all about life and therefore Bill is icky. He is a whole subculture of one down in his lived-in basement. (A trans friend who loves this film said she feared transitioning for years because she was afraid of being like Buffalo Bill.) And we never see him kill anyone--and even Lecter points out that for Bill, the murder is incidental--it's simply a result of Bill's total indifference to the lives of others while carrying out his own imperatives.

Lecter is bone, Bill is flesh.

As even the dullest bulbs notice, DIY D&D and OSR gaming in general emphasize the horror end of D&D--a lot more than TSR ever did. Part of it is the high mortality rate of the low-level game: If you're playing zero-to-hero D&D, then you'll lose a lot of zeroes and when this happens the only consistent aesthetic this really fits is either Dungeonmirth/Python style life-is-cheap black humor or survival horror. Horror is totally metal and horror is grimdark and those things, done well (ie like Warhammer used to do it) are both good.

LotFP: Weird Fantasy and other DIY D&Ders have often foregrounded horror--and occasionally even went ahead and claimed horror is helpful and good for you and worth pondering.

A formidable example comes from the poet Patricia Lockwood contemplating a Donald Trump rally, which I recommend you read but which I'll excerpt a bit of here to keep life linear:

It’s us, was the undercurrent. It’s just us in here. A handshake moved through the air as the speech walloped on, and then something more than a handshake. The more he spoke, the more Trump sounded like a rich man at dinner with a young woman whose passport is her face and her freshness, explaining to her the terms of the arrangement: that he would wear her on his arm, turning her toward the lights, that she would defer to him in public, that he would give her just enough of what he has to sustain her. I wrote in my notebook, “Trump is offering to be our sugar daddy? He wants to make America his trophy wife?” What he was really promising was freedom to move in the world the way he does, under his protection, according to his laws. Nobody owns me, he keeps telling us, not the lobbyists, not the Republican high-ups, not the Washington insiders. I’m not in anybody’s pocket; hop in mine. His wives, you might have noticed, grow lovelier and lovelier. It is a practiced seduction; it has worked before. We ignore it at our peril.

An example of the dangers of avoiding horror is offered by the RPG community itself:
From Something Awful's RPG forum--where people go to reaffirm each others' Lovecraftian disgust about women not playing the same edition of D&D they do.
There's a decent chunk of people who think Lovecraftiana and other disturbing horror themes in games are badwrongfun--and in fact that all not-power-fantasy themes are badwrongfun--and they all have something in common: they definitely do not want to talk to gamers who disagree with them. They're cool with attacking them, smearing them, and even reading their books to make fun of them, but they view the idea of engaging them as a contaminating anathema. A good chunk of them would be suspicious of this essay simply because it contains someone talking about Lovecraft (who is icky).

Again: an aesthetic fear so severe that it overrides the curiosity or sense of fairness that would discover whether that fear was justified.

This person who attacked Scrap Princess for inventing a biohorror stinger monster said "I lack both the capacity and the will to understand anyone who would accept that in their game".

The person on RPGnet who attacked Shanna Germain and a part of the game Numenera she wrote said "When I read the Numenera page in question, I thought/felt 'Whoever wrote this is probably evil”--and many game designers and moderators piled on.

Fred Hicks--the game publisher who attacked Kingdom Death--refused to talk to the women who defended it or the creator of the game explicitly on grounds of his (Fred's) fragile mental health.

The designer who claimed sexy zombies appear in games because people are secret necrophiliacs explicitly refuses to talk to, say, women who cosplay as sexy zombies, refuses to talk to anyone who disagrees with them, like Fred, on grounds of fragile mental health and deletes them when they talk.

These acts of Lovecraftian disgust are the result of years spent in sheltered internet pockets being told there are no personal or professional consequences to dehumanizing someone just because they like something you think is icky--and nothing good can come of talking to someone less than human.

These sheltered, life-phobic souls: shy, nervous, fragile, conflict-averse, fastidious, introverted bookworms, whose main social outlet is nerd conventions, with their small circle of gentle hobbyist correspondents are, ironically, imitating Lovecraft because they haven't read Lovecraft, or haven't learned anything from reading him. They aren't recognizing the disgust they're feeling for what it is despite having its consequences cleanly personified in the historical record.

When there is ick, there is fear, where there's fear there is ignorance, where there's ignorance there's disgust, and where there's disgust, prejudice.

Not everyone needs to face every horror---but if you never learn from horrors, you become one.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Casablanca Orphan

Here is an entry for the Thought Eater DIY RPG Essay Tournament.

If you're new to the contest, it's like this: this essay is not by me--it's by an anonymous DIY RPG writer who was assigned to write something interesting and original about hoary old RPG topics.

Anybody reading is eligible to vote for which one you like best and voting will be cut off once all the votes for all the second round Thought Eater essays are up...

The rules for the second round are here.

The difficulty is I have an odd number of entries, meaning this one's orphaned. This is how it'll work--if you like it,  send an email with the Subject "TNA" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it. If you don't, do nothing. At the end I'll look to see if it has more votes than the average entry. If so: it goes to the next round.

Everybody games at Rick’s
Casablanca is better at D&D than The Lord of The Rings.

For the purposes of this piece, I’ll specify that the 1942 Hal Wallis production has more to offer an aspiring Dungeon Master than the entire Multi-Media entity that is The Lord of The Rings. There’s a lot of discussion about the influence that Tolkien may or may not have had on Dungeons & Dragons. I’m not going to rehash any of it. It’s online. Go google it—it’s fascinating to me and I think considering the obvious connections, it’s worth your time to investigate.

But now, I’m going to tell you that Casablanca is a better use of your time, if you’re mining something for ideas or just looking for inspiration. If you haven’t seen it, you should go fix that. Casablanca is one of those things that lives up to its hype—it is a satisfying use of your time, and I recommend it to everyone. There’s something in it for you. Tolkien and Tolkien derived works though… Your mileage is going to vary.

For starters, it’s more efficient. I’m always looking for ways to save time—to waste as little of my life as possible. Casablanca clocks in at a lean 102 minutes.  Any version of The Lord of The Rings is going to take up way more of your time and head space. Even Ralph Bakshi’s animated film is another half hour on top of that, and it doesn’t even finish the damn story.

More than that, it offers dungeons dark and dangerous, more so than The Mines of Moria. Enemy occupation, underground resistance, rampant and organized crime, desperate people, exotic locations, villains, heroes, ancient streets, harsh wilderness, love, memorable characters, are all features of the city of Casablanca.  And the way to around or through any of them isn’t as clear as the, “Go East”, path to Mordor.

The stakes are the same. You’re playing for the fate of the world. In The Lord of The Rings, Frodo destroys the ring or the world falls to evil and the free peoples of Earth either perish in flame or are crushed under the heel of a seemingly omnipotent dark lord. In Casablanca, it’s the same thing—though, “The Ring”, in Casablanca can be Letters of Transit or Victor Laszlo, or Rick’s heart, depending on your interpretation.  Whichever your McGuffin of choice, it needs to get where it needs to go or Nazis conquer the world. It’s time to save the world.

But The Lord of The Rings is Epic High Fantasy that doesn’t ask any questions as to how. The way to the end is never in any kind of doubt. Strider will re-forge Narsil into Anduril and lead The Men of The West against The Dark Lord. Frodo must go to Mordor.  We must fight to the end or all is lost. As an adventure, or a narrative, it’s rail-roady. Of course we go to Mordor.  The only road is through the long dark of Moria. If we don’t, we all perish in flames or we bag out on this whole role-playing game thing and do something else. It is the on or off switch of adventure. You accept the call, and send your hero on their little journey or you don’t.

Casablanca, like any given night of a role-playing game with your friends, defies any one genre. It’s a war-time romantic barbarian musical comedy propaganda action spy flick with some shout-outs to film noir. (Note: This is exactly what happens in a good game of D&D) And the way to the end isn’t clear at all. The path to victory is any way you want to go, and the small choices your player characters make, change the conditions of victory as you make them. Do you help Victor Laszlo escape and ensure this NPC of great power and influence can live and continue to fight The Nazis? Or do you sneak into Rick’s after hours and steal the letters of transit to ensure your own escape? Do you help two old lovers reunite and shepherd them to safety? Do you stay in Casablanca and help refugees to escape? Do you turn rebel and kill the Nazi commanders visiting Casablanca before heading into the desert to the Free French in Brazzaville?

Or maybe you turn pick-pocket, and join Ferrari’s organization. Your next job is to find a way to persuade Sam, a bard of some renown, to leave Rick’s behind, and come work for you at The Blue Parrot. And that becomes the adventure, because any of your choices is going to shift the narrative and change the course of the game and the story. In Rings, Evil does shit. Then Good has a meeting, recites some poetry, forms a fellowship, and does what it’s supposed to do.

If you reskin Casablanca with fantastic monsters and characters, change the nouns and give everyone swords and magic, you have whole campaigns worth of adventures, ones where you set your own limits and decide your own fate. Your choices, being small and varied with no immediately obvious consequences to the metaplot, are more meaningful because they shape the game and the game world. There is more to explore, and you’re not just moving from one encounter to the next.

 While wading through orc hordes in Moria to get to The Balrog at the end of the bridge and face him in battle to escape to the surface might be a few really cool fights and an okay evening. And there’s nothing wrong with it. But for my time and money, give me more. More choices, more gray, more intrigue. More everything! Don’t force me to accept this one chance to save the free peoples of Middle Earth. Let me go forth and find another way.

This sounds like I’m baggins on ToIkien (see what I did there?), but I’m not.  I am forever grateful to Mister J.R.R. for his work.  For Halflings, rangers, wraiths, orcs, giant spiders, wizards, et cetera. I read my Illustrated Middle Earth Encyclopedia for fun, damn it! It’s all awesome! But I never understood why anyone would want to play a Middle Earth RPG-- MERPS or The One Ring or anything like them. I just find them limiting in a way that something like Casablanca isn’t, and I’m against limits in my adventure gaming. There is more to offer players and dungeon masters when you don’t limit your game to epic high fantasy.

The ability to shift, change, and build on the imagination of the players is the strength of D&D. It is not a novel, nor is it epic. It’s better.-

Thursday, April 14, 2016

I Want Them To See The Wolverine Coming

Ok, so.

The specific example Robin Laws uses here is really really really really not helpful because it brings in a bunch of side issues.

So don't read this article and respond to the specifics of the example Laws uses.

Experience tells me that blog readers really like to get into the weeds about examples so I'll repeat that:

Don't read this article and respond to the specifics of the example he uses.
Sie nicht diesen Artikel lesen, und er verwendet, um die Besonderheiten des Beispiels reagieren.
Je, si kusoma makala hii na kujibu specifics ya mfano anatumia.
이 기사를 읽고 그가 사용하는 예의 특성에 응답하지 마십시오.
No lea este artículo y responder a las características específicas del ejemplo que utiliza.
Maa ko ka yi article ati ki o dahun si awọn pato ti awọn apẹẹrẹ ti o nlo.
Ne pas lire cet article et répondre aux spécificités de l'exemple qu'il utilise.
Ne olvassa ezt a cikket, és válaszoljon a sajátosságait a példa is használja.
Nie czytaj tego artykułu odpowiedzi do specyfiki przykładzie on używa.

As usual, if you do this in the comments anyway you will be mocked mercilessly.

Got that? Instead let's look at the nut of the issue, which, shorn of the specifics, is a problem any GM might face...

The question is this: What do you do if one PC is about to take an action which will radically change the direction of the game for everyone to one you know for a fact the other players don't want to do?

Laws recommends breaking the fourth wall, which I might also do.

But, speaking through that wall, I wouldn't say what Laws says. Instead I'd say this "You gonna let them do that?".

If Nightcrawler wants to play heroes rescuing kittens from trees instead of outlaw mutants on the run, they need to roll initiative to keep Wolverine from stabbing that crooked cop. Just like in a real X-Men comic.


-the action is taking place where no other PC is around to stop Wolverine from stabbing the cop (and the other players are NOT OK with that)


-Nightcrawler trying to stop Wolverine from stabbing a cop isn't the kind of pvp action the players signed up for

...then the GM has to accept responsibility that they fucked up. They designed (or purchased and robotically carried out) a scenario where Trish's Wolverine act--instead of propelling the game--got in the way of what Lisa and Freckles and Jo-Jo wanted to do. The GM should do better next time.

Trish is at your table to be Trish. You, as a GM, need to know Trish and to create scenarios which utilize Trish's impulses (and Lisa's and Freckles' and Jo-Jo's) to propel it, not make Trish feel "dysfunctional" for doing a thing which creates exactly what so many Indie designers try to get dice to do: make drama.

If you like Trish as a human, you will be able to get Trish into the game, regardless of playstyle. The only reason to boot someone is if they, as a person, suck--and wanting to kill a cop or a bishop or a gnome king does not a sucky person make--even if that isn't something that is going to make the game better that day.


Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Frightful and The Trailer

Look a trailer:

Ok, now to some FASERIP:

Veterans of the Stadt's General Enforcement Squadron Anti-Malefactor Technical Key Unit: Nonlicensed Superhuman Terrorist Watch Elite Reich Kommandos (GESA-MTKU:NSTWERK), The Frightful first came to public prominence after confronting a group of mutant animals and metahuman terrorists attempting to escape from a hostage situation created during a screening of Successfully Annihilating Private Ryan.

Thought the Frightful were routed by the combined efforts of Dr Velocity, Hannah Von Berlin and The Shocker, they escaped in their black and yellow drag racer and totally plan to be a pain in the ass again later.
Pierrot Lunaire 

F Am (50)
A In (40)
S Gd (10)
E Ex (20)
R Ex (20)
I Ex (20)
P Gd (10)

Health 120
Karma 50

Moon bombs: These are annoying white apples that explode in a burst of talc and dust, causing a RM-strength stun result in the form of a blinding coughing fit

Leadership, Martial Arts A-E, Tumbling, Acrobatics, Thrown Weapons
Kleine Nachtmusik

F Pr (4)
A Gd (10)
S Pr (4)
E Ex (20)
R Gd (10)
I Gd (10)
P Ty (6)

Health 38
Karma 26

Darkforce generation: AM--can spread darkness in a 500 ft radius for d4 rounds once per day or around a small target (usually one person's head) for 10 rounds

Sonic attack: Atonal terror-musik fills the air causing a Stun check to everyone in hearing range or, each time she is hurt an In (40) strength sonic attack explodes in the attacker's head


F In (40)
A Rm (30)
S Rm (30)
E In (40)
R Pr (4)
I Gd (10)
P Ty (6)

Health 140
Karma 20

Body Armor: Ex vs physical attacks, Gd vs energy
Slimy skin: Trails a lubricating goo wherever he goes, with In level slipperiness

Wrestling, Hunting, Survival

F Gd (10)
A Ex (20)
S Gd (10)
E In (40)
R In (40)
I Ex (20)
P Ty (6)

Health 80
Karma 66

Indeterminacy--At will, Schrodinger can have a 50% chance of not existing. Practically speaking this means half of all attacks on him randomly have no effect.

Schrodinger's Box--A small single-use Kirbytech indeterminacy bomb the size of a softball, causes everything within 500' to wink in and out of existence randomly when activated for d4 rounds.

Electronics, Engineering, Physics, Repair/Tinker

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Jeff Grubb's Genius Subplot Rule

Your keynote speaker

Ok, one thing that gets discussed in most superhero game books but is chronically hard to actually wedge into a game is subplots.

Modules generally have villains and scenarios laid out, but the part of the comic where not only does the Flash have to stop the Meteor Men from eating Atlantis but has to rent a tuxedo for his cousin Alf's wedding is not usually written into the game and it's hard to design since--unlike a villain--it has to be individualized to the character and it isn't necessarily easy to play it out since the player doesn't have a clear goal--which can leave the other players going "Ok, how long are you pretending to talk to your landlord before we can go back to the game?"

On the other hand, without these, you lose a dimension of the game--even in a tactical sense. The Kingpin's awesome plan in Born Again wouldn't work if Daredevil didn't have a connection to Karen, Foggy, Ben, et al.

Jeff Grubb solved this problem. Here's how:
That thing in the red box belongs in the Museum of Genius Simple Mechanics right next to Call of Cthulhu's rules for acting insane ("Here are some names of insanities--now act insane until the duration ends").

Making a commitment gets you karma--which is a spendable experience point thing you can use to beat people up or not die or whatever. If you fail your commitment you lose it.

That's it. That's the whole mechanic and it works like a charm. Players invent subplots for themselves and interact with unsuper NPCs all the time.

The genius of it is: it's the only Karma award a player can just get without doing anything hard. So the player is not only incentivized to build out his/her PC's private world, it's the only thing on the table they can be sure they'll be rewarded for--no risk, no waiting for villains to attack, etc. the PC doesn't even have to leave the house to make a commitment.

Example--the players are hunting for Nazi science jerk Arnim Zola:
"Ok I'm a chemist would I know Arnim Zola?"
"Funny you should mention that he spoke at your school a few months ago."
"Can I talk to whoever coordinates the visiting lectures?"
"Sure it's a fellow student" (idk, that's how it worked in art school)
"Ok, I'll call them"
"'Hello, Gwen Stacy speaking?'"
"'Uh...hi Gwen'"
"'Oh it's you--omg, giggle...'"
"Oh god I don't want to go out with her I know she's gonna die"
"There's karma in it..."
"Fuck, ok..."

And then Sleepless the paranoid numbercrunching social leper goes on a date with Gwen Stacy while everyone else is watching the Vault for boats full of supersedatives and I get to attack the movie theater with Ani-Men. And then Sleepless has to pretend to spill popcorn on Gwen so that he can get away to the lobby and fight them. Classic.

Incidentally, this belies the old saw that a game is 'about' what most of its rules are about--this 8-word rule creates immensely complicated situations.

I feel like other games could use a mechanic like this--not every genre, but any one where you want a semi-static social constellation (as opposed to exploration or fast-pitched thriller pacing) to be a part of the game. Like RIFTS+ this mechanic basically gives you Apoc World on the cheap.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Why There's No Tabletop RPG Theory

Video games get Bartle Types, we get this guy.

Theory Is Inevitable

Video games make a lot of money, and now even boardgames do. Money means colleges create majors in the thing that makes that money. Those majors require teachers who can explain not just the narrow technical skills underlying specific iterations of the thing, but the principles that broadly apply to any form of the thing. These principles will be written down. So: Theories of games are inevitable.

Tabletop RPGs like D&D don't make a lot of money but they are as essential a part of any theory or practice that covers video games and boardgames as theatre is to the much more lucrative world of film. Film theory ends up saying a lot about performance and thus theatre, likewise, a theory which can't explain tabletop RPGs is not a theory of games.

The theories that will develop to explain games will be used on tabletop games, whether you want them to be or not.

Which is good for theory, because tabletop RPGs punch a hole in the side of any attempt to keep any general idea about games clean and symmetrical. Tabletop RPGs are an important outlier: "In games, you have limited choices--oh wait no you don't", "The rules of the game can't change in the middle--oh wait yes they can". Tabletop RPGs keep theorists of play honest--if your theory can describe what they do, they can describe a lot of what games in general do.

You aren't obligated to care about theory, but...

What does it look like when a field is described by a theory it doesn't care about?

I'm a painter for a living and have been for a long time. I feel fairly confident saying my field is full of artists making art that is then described and evaluated by theories none of these artists care about. And to be honest, it's kinnnnd of a shitshow.

The artists aren't stupid, but what they have to say is largely ignored by decisionmaking moneypeople in favor of gatekeepers who are, if not versed in theory, at least versed in the buzzwords and intellectual niches that theory creates. You essentially cannot productively discuss contemporary art in any public way because nobody even agrees on the terms of the conversation. The public is so shut out of that conversation that a person will stand right in front of a painting and say "I don't know very much about art so I don't know if it's good or not" in a way they never would with a movie or a song. The conversation is, in short, not serving anyone. 

So maybe you don't care about theories of games--but if you play, theories of games care about you. And you might live long enough that this fucks your shit up.
So, here is the question:

Where would tabletop RPG theory come from?

1. Academia

True story:

I've met a bunch of people who teach RPGs at major universities, but this one was different because I did not meet this one (who I'll call The Academic) because they liked my RPG stuff or wanted me to talk to their students.

At some point somewhere I was talking to a clique of Indie gamers--mostly diaspora from the Forge scene (the early capital-I Indie RPG site which would lead to stuff like Fate, Burning Wheel, Apocalypse World, Story, etc)--that the Academic was closely associated with, The Academic asked me to private-message them so we could have a conversation about games in private.

This conversation was over 30,000 words long and at least half were The Academic's--for comparison that's about the length of a 150-page novel. It lasted months.

Then we met up in real life, talked more, had coffee and pizza, then the Academic hugged me and said they loved me. Like platonically, but the actual word "love" was used.

Some bullet points from this conversation:

  • The Academic is upset at how many people in the Indie tabletop RPG scene pretend to be theorists and to have scientific authority while not using any of the genuine tools of social science or being up on any of the theories of games that've actually been tested.
  • The Academic has played with a lot of the Indie gamers and decided they were "terrible players" and decided they didn't seem to actually play games enough or pay attention when they were playing and they acted like they could talk their way into being better designers or players.
  • The Academic had "very strong negative feelings about the Forge and (some of) its offshoots, particularly Story-Games. "
  • When I pointed out specific shitty things that specific major Indie scenesters The Academic was associated with had said, The Academic agreed they were shitty and said, of one of them, "I see ___destroy a lot of potentially interesting conversations with people I'd like to talk to because of how [s/he] communicates" and that they were "not someone I'd invite into any conversation I wanted to stay nuanced or productive."
  • The Academic admitted that they were trying to politely groom said conversation-annihilating scenester into being more useful and added that The Academic's motives for doing this were: "completely self-serving." 
  • The Academic admitted they did not voice these concerns to anyone in the Indie scene because the Academic was considering writing, academically, about the Indie scene and didn't want to burn bridges.
  • "You have no idea what a relief it is to say these things to someone."
The next time I saw The Academic doing anything online, they were back to palling around with-, and helping-, the same Indie gamers they'd complained to me about, endorsing the most bigoted parts of the Indie RPG drama club and saying, in public, the complete opposite of what The Academic had said in private.

The moral of this story? Well there's a lot of them, but one is that every "academic" in tabletop RPG theory is down in the same internet trenches with everyone else--mainly because without the RPG internet there's no connection between academia and the designers or games. If the RPG academics have theories genuinely separate from what you hear on the web, they're refusing to share them and so they don't matter because no designer will ever make anything based on them and no players will take them into account.

2. From Full Time RPG Designers Writing About Theory which I mean Robin Laws.

Most full-time designers are always busy designing and hustling--except Robin Laws, who has time to write theory. Monte Cook, Mike Mearls, Mark Rein-Hagen--they're mostly like Fuck that. Like sometimes Kenneth Hite will talk about a theoretical thing for like 3 minutes on the podcast he has with Laws before getting back to researching the role of the Hohenzolleren family in the manufacture of Bavarian duck-hunting rifles but that's about it. His heart lieth not there.

Laws is an ok start, he accurately identifies the variety of motives for play, but he weirdly believes all tabletop RPG play is escapist and his designs kind of bear out an obsession with the idea that the point of tabletop is copying previously existing story media (GUMSHOE being an obvious example: the game's designed to "make players feel powerful" and is pretty clearly designed around making railroading and "path" adventures easier). Gotham will not last with Robin alone.

So into this mainstream professional theory vacuum have hurled the random internet rubes--that is non- and part-time designers, and oh, how we have hurled.

2. Snark

This review of Superman Vs Batman is great. It's not helpful, useful, or arguably even particularly insightful--it's just well-written. It is written in a delirious ecstasy of hate--and that's what makes it so fun.

"Batman has a motivation and – contrary to what you may have read – it’s a perfectly valid one. He hated Man of Steel. He’s watched it fourteen times and he’s just had enough of it. He’s the only person involved in the whole project, on screen and off, who actually wants to rip the power cord out of the whole franchise."

As a genre, the Ecstatic Hatewatch is not accurate or fair (Batman has not, for example, seen Man of Steel, this sentence, for example: "It’s awful but so is everything" cannot be true). The Ecstatic Hatewatch tries to get by on pure literary talent and the fact that the object of criticism is so vile that a real-world response based on loathing-borne distortion and a real-world response based on even the most nuanced take possible would have no practical difference. i.e. Whether you're reading Nixon's public record or reading Hunter S Thompson's Hatereads of Nixon, the answer is impeach the guy--thus justifying the liberties with reality the Hateread takes.

At the end you do wonder, though: I know why Thompson had to watch Nixon--why did this guy have to watch this movie? And all the other superhero movies and shows he apparently watched and hated?

The answer is so he can write this piece of extended genius snark about it. Topical snark, too--people, ironically, read that review for the same reason people went to see the movie: people already decided Superman and Batman are interesting as subjects so they went and saw Superman vs Batman and they read that piece of writing because it's about that movie everyone's talking about.

And why write it? So people will read it, and pay attention to you and then you can trade that attention for one of the many rewards, tangible and intangible, that you can trade attention for--like money.

While not all Ecstatic Hatereads are this good--it will not have escaped your attention that the RPG internet has this dynamic in motherfucking spades. For example: 7th Sea designer John Wick's recent Ecstatic Hateread of Tomb of Horrors was widely circulated and widely discussed and widely regarded (rightly or wrongly doesn't really matter) as a way to grab attention before his recent Kickstarter, and at least one participant in Something Awful's trolly RPG group has explicitly considered monetizing their Ecstatic Hateread thread, FATAL and Friends:

The snarky Hateread is thus published not to find anything out but for its own sake. Like all snark, it's not useful because its accountability is--when push comes to shove and facts get checked--to its own entertainment value rather than to the truth.

3. The Stuff That Calls Itself Theory...

Translation: "Coherent"="Good Hippie Indie Game"
"IGT"="Game By Satanic Devil Minion Others"

If you google "rpg theory" Indie RPG scenester stuff comes up--the Forge and its predecessors and spawn sprawl across the threshold of any idea of "RPG theory" like plague corpses across a doorway.

The meeting grounds for dissaffected soon-to-be Indie theorists were a product of the early internet--fans of things getting connected to other fans of things, realizing they have experiences in common, sharing for the first time, finding goals, collaborating for the first time.

A lot of the earliest web discussion about games was like the web discussion about everything else: snark--i.e. psychotics using anonymity to shit on people for liking Picard more than Kirk or Kirk more than Picard. Sites like The Forge and rec. art.whatever that came up with the Threefold Model were Circles of Seriousness partially (and only partially successfully) designed to wall off their discussions from the snark brigade.

The actual theories devised in these places aren't that important today (though the games are and whatever else you don't like about them you can say: they seem to like them), but the way these social conglomerates dealt with the theories very much is.

Ron Edwards' popular GNS theory is an object lesson, there's a lot to say about what's wrong with the GNS but let's stick with the biggest bullet wounds:
  • Vincent Baker--the most successful postForge designer--has disavowed it.  He's said it was valuable for helping to develop the idea of Narrativism as a goal some players had (the idea that some people's main goal was to have a satisfyingly 3-part-dramalike in-game story emerge from the game--an idea that had eluded the authors of the earlier Threefold Model) but that's all.
  • So has (lowkey) pretty much everyone else. Although people still use the lingo, every single other proponent of it (besides Ron Edwards, the guy who invented it) I've seen talk about GNS in the last decade goes "Well ok, it was wrong but it helped me personally" or just starts trolling whoever brought it up (ie: Snark).  If there's anyone who still believes it besides Ron Edwards and can answer questions about it I have never seen them anywhere on the internet (feel free to speak up in the comments if you know something I don't).
  • It has no objective diagnostics or repeatibility. The theory describes 3 kinds of Creative Agendas in games-- "Gamist" "Narrativist" and "Simulationist" and Edwards claims a game could only pursue one Agenda during any given instance of play. Edwards can't describe any diagnostic that another human who wasn't Ron could use to tell which of the three Agendas play was moving toward, or how to measure if it was "only" pursuing that one agenda or whether different people were having different kinds of fun reinforced simultaneously in contravention of the theory.
  • It fails the basic requirements of a scientific theory. A scientific theory should be able to describe an experiment which could disprove it--Edwards can't do that.
The failure of the tabletop RPG theory that was nearly synonymous with tabletop RPG theory to make sense, much less be a theory, is kind of a drag but in itself it's no worse than the drawbacks of Laws' ideas. The real problem is the culture that it implied and engendered, because it affects how everyone in tabletop RPGs views the word "theory".

While Laws is a professional mixing mostly with professionals--in private, at conventions, etc, staying out of the internet foam and fracas that is going to produce the generation of game designers that will eventually replace him--the Indie theorists were- and are- deep in it, and this was-, and still is-, disastrous. 

People have dumb ideas on the internet all the time. The specific and exceptional (exceptional, i.e.--not shared by any other clique of RPG designers and fans anywhere ever) problem with this dumb idea is a result of four specific characteristics of the theory:
  • A) It pretends to be science.
  • B) It isn't.
  • C) It was popular with a relatively close-knit clique of people.
  • D) These people with whom the theory is popular went on to design and critique games and become influential members of the Indie RPG scene.
There is no other idea about RPGs that shares all of these characteristics simultaneously. The ideas held by the D&D 3.5-obsessives at The Gaming Den, for instance, have maybe A and B and arguably C going for them but no hint of D. C is pretty rare in itself--the level of tight-knitness the postForge displays is pretty much unheard-of outside people all working at the same company. 

(Incidentally: the postForge Indies constantly deny being a clique or having a common culture despite the fact that a quick look at the roster for like the Metatopia con or who is Patreoning who confirms that none of the major scene designers or talkers are more than a single degree of Bacon away from any of the others and looking at the credits for their games shows most of them work together all the time. Vincent Baker--as in so many things--is an exception  to this general state of denial. He's like Yeah we know and influence each other and are conflict-averse hippies.)

It's important to note that--especially now--not all or even most of the talk of the postForge was about the theory and many people probably never believed it.  The vital part is: the quality of the discussion in the clique was so bad that for over a decade nobody in that clique ever pointed out that the theory made no sense and there's no accountability for being completely wrong. 

To do game theory, you have to do science, and to do science, when someone goes "So what's the evidence?" you can't go: "Sorry, kids came home! Nice talking to you!" "Clearly there are a lot of opinions here! Let's sink this thread for now!" "This isn't a courtroom, I don't need evidence!" "Hey I like your books, man, relax!" "Listen I like D&D, I'm not attacking D&D." or any of the other inane deflections you get every time you ask most of the major Indie theorists about the real-world basis of any of their ideas.

(When I said this culture has been disastrous I mean it--theory aside, folks from this scene have fallen for every hoax that trolling and paranoia could cook up. Mail I got from A Very Very Major Game Designer after the post 5th edition D&D harassment campaign that raged through the Indie scene: 

Basically, I keep getting 'Zak hates gays and women' and when I ask for proof, people suddenly shut the fuck up...I've had people cite the blog post you linked to, and when I pressed them to actually read it they were like, "Oh, well, I was told he said something nasty, maybe not." It's been eye opening for a few people.

...but--even more tellingly--the ones who don't fall for these hoaxes and don't buy these conspiracy theories don't call for any accountability on the part of the ones who do--and keep Patreoning and Kickstarting them.)

A good theory does not have to answer every person that challenges it (like: if someone is an MRA, nothing compels you to talk to them), but it does have to answer every question that challenges it (theory can articulate what its assumptions are), detached from the asker. Indie theory is peddled by people who use their right to not do the first thing to avoid their responsibility to do the second thing. Except Vincent Baker--but unless he's in a really good mood, he doesn't actually point out to his friends(/customers) that he actually totally disagrees with them--and to some degree he's monetized even hearing what his game ideas are, via Patreon, and will explicitly say talking theory is a form of advertisement for his stuff--so not much real public discussion can come out of it.

Also, if you don't know tabletop RPGs--isn't it weird how easy it is to point out specific names? The scene is that small.

In the end, the postForge's life as a theory factory was the victim of its own desire to produce self-supported Indie-darling designers and its success doing so. In a scene whose talkative core is 2-3000 people, the demands of selling shit are incompatible with the demands of calling people on their shit, and decent theory requires that second thing.

In other words, the postForge has all the usual problems of Commodified Dissent, especially...

4. Smarm 

But RPGs are always small--why was the Forge/post-Forge/Story Games/ Indie/Theoryhead scene particularly bad? As The Academic said "...somehow the Forge particularly bugs me because they are simultaneously disgustingly insular/ignorant and want to be treated as important and meaningful by others."

The Indies did not master anything to do with games. What they did master was a language of seriousness.

Once a language of seriousness was established to talk about bad theories of games and sometimes good ideas for actually making and distributing games, that same language spread all over the online RPG scene and was used for discussions aspiring to all kinds of seriousness:
  • Activist. We're gonna set goals having to do with making games and changing the game community and we're gonna achieve them!
  • Financial. We're gonna give you the straight dope on how to get your games out there!
  • Creative. We're gonna take games seriously as art and push the boundaries of what the form can do!
  • Intellectual. Every observation about games, no matter how unconsciously taste-based or ass-pulled is couched as if it were part of a vast project of Expanding The Design Vocabulary!
  • Moral. The fact that everyone reading you agrees with your white middle-class moderate-left political preferences in every way should not stop you from reminding them what they are every day! And announcing that your super-conservative game design promotes them!
  • Interpersonal. "Well I just think it's interesting that while some of us are attempting to communicate legitimate criticism, some of us are…" (passive aggression passive aggression passive aggression)
This language was about using platitudes to claim moral high ground--and it worked. Boring other gamers kept them away from anything called Theory for years--as well as all their other high-minded discussions. They just said "Well I ain't worried about theory an' issues of expression an' representatin' I'm worried about killin' orcs waaaa hoooo!" and crawled off across the low ground to have their low fun.
Here's some theory about game-mastering from Burning Wheel designer Luke Crane:
All of the games talk about fun and fairness, enjoyment and entertainment, but then they break that cycle by granting one member of the group power over all of the other members of the group. It's classic power dynamics. Once you have roles of power and powerless, even the most reasonable and compassionate people slide into abuse. [source]
So: All game-mastering by definition always leads to abuse. An adult with a job said that.

Now--and this is in no way a joke, I mean this--the only appropriate response to this is that everyone who reads it tries to get in touch with Luke Crane's friends and they very gently ask Luke if he's feeling okay and if he might want to seek out professional help.

In case you think Luke's grown out of this, here's a more recent one:

I see this behavior of women being stripped of their ability to make decisions in every single D&D game I play. I can point to examples in five different groups all playing the same edition of the same module over a span of roughly four years. That's roughly 33 players, of different ages and backgrounds. [source]

According to this paragon of Indie-RPG design fame every single time he sits down to play D&D he watches women being abused and he's done nothing about it for years. And this is from a dude who plays D&D all the fucking time. Often followed by positively gleeful actual-play reports.

Why doesn't anyone in Luke's game group do anything about this? Haven't they heard of feminism? And why in god's name do they keep playing? If the women in our group were treated like that they'd be slitting throats.

Again: the only appropriate response to that is Luke (and possibly his whole group) go to therapy. There is no other.

But, of course, this is not the response of serious folk reading Luke. Why isn't anyone losing their shit about this urgent weird abuse situation? Because nobody takes it seriously--despite constantly performing the offices of seriousness.

Luke is showing how seriously he takes the responsibilities of DMing and everyone else is Listening To Him Share His Perspective. There is tremendous reverence for the fact that a member of the clique is speaking, but none for the content of the message. 

And the Theory here is left to be extracted from...
  • Luke says the very role of game master in D&D causes abuse
  • Luke says abuse is bad
  • Luke says he sees women abused every time he plays D&D
  • Luke says he likes D&D and its a good game and well-designed
Any attempts at clarification from Luke fail--because he and his ilk aren't really trafficking in seriousness, they're trafficking in smarm.

Thanks, Guy Trying To Explain Why His Marvel Game That Was Out When The Avengers Was The Most Popular Movie In History Completely Failed

This article by Tom Scocca on smarm is really good. It's so good, in fact, and so relevant to what has replaced genuine discussion of ideas in RPGs that I am gonna put lots of quotes from it in italics for y'all.

First of all, what's smarm?

Over time, it has become clear that anti-negativity is a worldview of its own, a particular mode of thinking and argument, no matter how evasively or vapidly it chooses to express itself. For a guiding principle of 21st century literary criticism, BuzzFeed's Fitzgerald turned to the moral and intellectual teachings of Walt Disney, in the movie Bambi: "If you can't say something nice, don't say nothing at all."
The line is uttered by Thumper, Bambi's young bunny companion, but its attribution is more complicated than that—Thumper's mother is making him recite a rule handed down by his father, by way of admonishing her son for unkindness. It is scolding, couched as an appeal to goodness, in the name of an absent authority.

Smarm's like and unlike snark.

Snark is, roughly, flinging a jokey insult instead of a full-blown and rational critique. (Here's me being snarky.)

Smarm is, roughly, couching your side of the argument as non-argument.

Although Scocca's article contrasts the two, it goes without saying, neither snark nor smarm are rational critique. They're rhetorical techniques. Snark is both marketing and entertainment. Smarm is just marketing.

What is smarm, exactly? Smarm is a kind of performance—an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance. Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and with tone. Smarm disapproves.

A person who snarks (about an important thing, not a bard--fuck bards) and then refuses to answer questions which would turn that snark into rational argument is just being a jerk. You might say the same of the smarmer but the smarmer has a more difficult dilemma: their original smarmy position is a refutation of the whole idea of argument.

The evasion of disputes is a defining tactic of smarm...Debate begins where the important parts of the debate have ended.
You can ask me to go from the snarky "Bards suck" to "Ok why?" and I don't have to give anything up to then answer your question.

It's harder to go from the smarmy "I am unwilling to have a fight with someone who isn't in my weight class" to "Ok, prove the contention you just made that you're smarter than whoever you're talking to and then go back to the discussion we were just having about the claim you made" because answering either would drag the answerer down into having a conversation. Since the douche had just recruited some phantom authority (some magical IQ test in the sky, one presumes, that somehow would rate him higher than me) as being opposed to it, even having a conversation would be admitting they were just now wrong.

Like every other mode, snark can sometimes be done badly or to bad purposes. 
Smarm, on the other hand, is never a force for good. A civilization that speaks in smarm is a civilization that has lost its ability to talk about purposes at all. It is a civilization that says "Don't Be Evil," rather than making sure it does not do evil.
Or, as we say around here "Don't be a dick"...while pasting over wildly divergent definitions of "dick".

For people reading this (or the ones who talk anyway) it's a reflection of a wider reality: what holds this "community" together is discussing similarities and differences on the internet. However, what holds all of humanity as of 2016 together is: a self-loathing about discussing things on the internet. 

We think of your-, my-, their- argument as a good and noble thing with a pedigree going back to classic civilization and philosophy. We think of an internet argument is some kind of desperate polyp that eats your soul.

The purpose of RPG smarm is usually to evoke the spectre of the second connotation.

Snark wants to be read as worth reading because it's So Fucking Clever and Smarm wants to be read as worth reading because The Stakes Are Impossibly High but in the end, the snarky Hatereader and the smarmy Scoldreader issue from the same process: A thing that would not normally have been consumed was consumed because someone hoped not to enjoy it but to get something out of complaining about it.

The object of the complaint--Warhammer or Exalted or Kingdom Death or first edition D&D or fourth edition D&D or LotFP or any other hated game--often together with the people who made and enjoy it--are Nixon, Trump, Hitler. They don't deserve what humans owe one another: Fact-checking, innocent-until-proven-guilty, research, evidence, paper trails, caveats, caution, care. The target is undeserving because it has been pre-judged by an authority the writer hopes will issue not from anything written in the piece that'd hold up when players are asked or when a blind taste-test is performed or when compared to sales figures or in a courtroom or in a peer-reviewed journal or even from just watching a video of people playing but from the number of plusses or re-shares or Yes. Thisses. it gets.

You can watch snark open smoothly into smarm like a blossoming hateflower as forum moderator Paul Matijevic waxes nostalgic about the douchey misogynistic Something Awful threads he participated in:

Oh thank thee, noble Potatocubed. If what you want is explanations of ideas about how games actually work, the snarky "Chill about elfgames, bro" is exactly the same kind of useless as the smarmy "A lot to think about here but let's agree to disagree, thanks for a great discussion".

4. Anonymous Reviewing Schmucks Doing Thankless Work

I love these people and we all should: they buy a new game or game thing, they sit down in front of it and read it all the way through and try hard to do what the snarky and smarmy don't: provide facts, give evidence, admit when personal bias might be in their way, do the work, tell people, respond to questions, criticize. Then they put it up on the internet, get a few hits, move on to the next one. Almost none of the people who do this well are known as game designers even on the indie level. Their work is googled constantly ("carcosa rpg review")--but their names are known only to the folks on their forums or blogs.

As relatively scrupulous as they are, theory is unlikely to come from them because, for one, many of them just don't temperamentally seem into it, but more seriously because they don't have much data to work with. A reviewer is talking about a book that they might not ever use, or one they've used once, or one they will play with for a few months, love, review well, and then notice a gaping flaw in long after. So even though there are reviewers who say useful, interesting and insightful things, it's in a limited context and isn't really tested or stretched out into theories--at least the way it's usually done.

5. "Let's Read..."s And Old Things

This is a lot like reviewing, but with one difference: the things they're looking at are old. Pull something off the shelf, decide to care, go through it--often more thoroughly and slowly than a reviewer, as there's no commercial urgency. Likewise, due to the lack of commercial urgency, the work can be even more thankless.

The Let's Reader however, does always have some data to work with--even if it isn't as various or clean as what the researcher would want. We don't know anything about how the new horror game we just read interacts with the world, but we know that Vampire: The Masquerade attracted a great many women to the hobby even though it had sexy lady pictures in it, we know a lot of people played it despite rules the designer found regrettable. Likewise, we know RIFTS was wildly popular despite....everything about RIFTS. We know Tb was less popular than Burning Wheel despite being the same in a jillion ways. We know that OD&D was, despite early skepticism, played and used. We know people really like advantage/disadvantage. We know universal tables have fallen from favor. We know DC Adventures--a generic late trad crunch disaster--was much more popular than the nearly identically packaged Marvel Heroic--a generic late Indie/postForge roll-to-see-who-talks disaster. We know Warhammer managed to be successful despite being almost D&D with different art and one cool subsystem in a market choked with things that could be described that way. We know some of the published classes in Dragon made it into the game and some didn't. We can now read these things and their claims and at least start to judge them in terms of whether they did what they set out to do or whether they did a better thing or a worse thing.

Jon Peterson's look at early D&D--Playing At The World--shows how this approach can sometimes sprout into theory. In between tracking down where all the stuff in D&D appeared there, it meanders into why various things in RPG history happened.

Here's Jon summarizing his discovery of the first "edition war":

The difference can be attributed to the opposing philosophies of board wargames and miniature wargames. Miniature wargaming was more artisanal, less prefabricated; more demanding, less commercially viable. To the avid miniature wargamer, board gaming must have appeared crude, aesthetically dull and confining in the rigidity of its rules; to the unrepentant board wargamer, miniature gaming looked expensive, labor-intensive and contentious in its latitude toward system. Not all players want to have to design a game in order to play it, but for creative gamers, miniature wargames inspired new heights of craftsmanship and sophistication. 

It looks like advocates of focus, clarity, reliability and (a resulting) popularizability have been divided from advocates of flexibility, customizability and eccentricity since literally before the hobby started.

He also uncovers some data on the familiar-to-videogame-theorists issue of whether addictivity is good in games:

A second pioneer recognized that Gygax and Arneson had created “a new order of game,” one so addictive that another early commentator fears “it’s worse than heroin.”

What makes these observations of theoretical importance is that we all have the data provided by the intervening years to analyze at least parts of these claims.

Likewise the interview with David Wesely--author of the first Braunsteins way in the prehistory of RPGs--has more real theory in it than all these other Theory From The Closet interviews put together, because we know how this story turned out.

Obviously the Old School blogs do a lot of this because they require, by definition, people reading old stuff, but the culture's skepticism about the whole idea of theory means even when it produces genuinely interesting theory, it often pretends it hasn't. Which is ironic because the mere requirement of talking about games that've been tried out on millions of people rather than eight white beardstaches at a con means the OSR has actually done a fuckton of theory. It's just called "advice" instead.

Ok so the point is

There's no rule that says you have to throw down with your A-game or fuck off but until some people are willing to do that, ideas among moneypeople about what tabletop RPGs do will be slowly colonized by echoes of whatever somebody's saying Skyrim did to their lab monkeys. Plus the usual circular bullshit everyone is used to. The dreaded Online Argument is the level that the theory of games is at and only you can do anything about it.

So you can listen to that for the next 15 years and whatever it does to games, or you can start developing some ways to reward signal and discourage noise. Even when the noise likes the same game you do.

If you don't vote, you can't complain later.


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