Monday, December 3, 2018

Roleplaying Games As Degenerate Art

It's Happening Again

It appears 36 copies of Elizabeth Chaipraditkul's RPG module She Bleeds (about menstruation and blood magic, for Lamentations of the Flame Princess) were destroyed at a warehouse because someone along the chain decided, unread, that the books were  "disgusting" or "gross".

This is just the latest in a series of incidents where someone in the game industry was offended by a game's content and decided to do something destructive and moral-panicky instead of just opening a dialogue with the creator--just in recent memory it's happened to Blood in the Chocolate, Kingdom Death, Invisible Sun, and Vampire 5e.

Despite constant platitudes about diversity and inclusion, the usual suspects in indie and mainstream RPGs haven't made a peep in protest of a game designer having her work destroyed unsold by people who haven't even read it--not a word from RPGnet, Something Awful, or the Concerned Game Designer Parents on twitter.*

This is because admitting that there's nothing much to fear from RPG books, or even admitting that a woman of color made a book for LotFP, or even admitting that "difficult content" is sometimes made by women, made by people of color, or indeed ever made for a good reason--would require walking back their own rhetoric so far it would be embarrassing, and involve them in conversations that they don't want to have. This post is about why that is and how that happened. 

This is going to be difficult. To write and probably read. Enjoy.

A History of Reactions

“The historical slogan “degenerate art” should still offer occasion to reflect on the freedom of art at present and on the extent to which art, particularly contemporary art, can be considered a cultural asset, a critical authority, or even a provocative alternative proposal to the existing world.” 
-Prof. Dr. Olaf Peters, Institut für Kunstgeschichte und Archäologien Europas, Martin-Luther Universität Halle-Wittenberg

Whether they want to or not, the popular arts—tv and movies and assembly-line novels and radio songs and comics and games—fit into art history like everything else. It’s not so much that Look Who's Talking Too and The Hot Chick couldn’t have existed before Stanislavski, or that Madoka Magica only makes sense if it happened after Hokusai and Yoshitoshi, and Warhammer 40k needs to come after 1984 and HG Wells’ Little Wars (though all those things are probably true)—it’s that the creators and audiences that surround the one kind of thing also surround the other. We all experience and enjoy "low" and "high" art.

And--on the creator side--even if we respect the division between low and high as genuine, they are responses to the same history by people who all had to live through it. Though the 20th century’s Francis Bacon made paintings that belong as much to “high” culture as the essays of the 17th century Francis Bacon do, the painter himself had a lot more in common with Kevin Bacon. He may have been a genius, but he still had to deal with chicken nuggets and fax machines.

The point is: even without making an “Are RPGs art?” argument, art history isn’t just something that RPGs can draw on to make illustrations look classy or text sound authentic, art history is something all RPGs belong to. Like everything else in a museum, on TV, or on Instagram, they represent people trying to figure out what to do instead of tend sheep and look at grass. This is culture, so the reaction to games is embedded in the history of reactions to culture.

"Mr. Chairman, the suppression of the people of a society begins in my mind with the censorship of the written or spoken word. It was so in Nazi Germany."

-John Denver,  testifying before the United States Senate's Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee during the Hearings on Explicit Lyrics, September 19, 1985

The term “Degenerate Art” was popularized by Adolf Hitler. He was—like many dictators—a failed artist, rejected from the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna twice. Like all racists, he had a lot of ideas about culture, very much including painting, and what I’d like to stress here is the centrality of them to his larger project. History is usually so busy reminding us of the basic incomprehensibility of the consequences of Hitlers obsessions—the millions dead on battlefields and camps—that the basic incomprehensibility of the obsessions themselves is a distant second. The question “Why Jews?” pales next to the question “Why any of this?”.

Yet it did at start in Hitler’s head, with his outrage at the world outside of it: which in his case was Germany under the Weimar Republic. What was that like? Well the economy was going to shit, it was true (they’d just lost a war), but they had jazz, cabaret, Josephine Baker, Bauhaus furniture, experimental music, and girls who wore short skirts and smoked. Hitler was not into it.

A WWI veteran, he bought into an existing theory of his nation’s defeat, popular in conservative circles: the German army had been “stabbed in the back” by its own people. It’s important to emphasize this was not so much a theory that specific and named German Jews or Marxists or labor unions had committed central acts of sabotage in the war, but that these Jews, Marxists, labor unions and other parts of the civilian population had the wrong attitude: defeatist, unpatriotic, selfish, decadent. The dazzling creative, intellectual and sexual ferment of the postwar Weimar Republic just looked to Hitler and his friends like traitors at play. From his earliest days as a rabble-rouser, Hitler railed against all of it. Jazz was “race music”, the new sexual openness was a “sewer”, and the new art was “degenerate”.

Hitler’s attack on entertainments was not an eccentric epiphenomenon of his rise to power, it was not a king’s whim carried out by bemused lieutenants between more important tasks, it was a central feature of the future he promised—a Germany of real German culture as opposed to what he considered Jewish-Marxist values: Darkness, pessimism, neuroticism, abstraction, sexuality, intellectualism, complexity.

Thus began the denunciation of everything from the films of Fritz Lang to the music of Arnold Schoenberg and Louis Armstrong to the paintings of Egon Schiele, and the official adoption of the phrase Entartete Kunst—Degenerate Art.

Hitler didn’t hate modern culture because he saw it as a product of the Jews, he hated the Jews because he saw them as authors of modern culture. He has this in common with every author of moral panic ever after: the world was bad, the art was blamed or the artist was blamed, or there was a see-sawing back and forth between art and artist depending which case was easier to make. This is at the heart of all Degenerate Art theories: accusations that ills of the world can be laid at the feet of whatever art the critic doesn't like, delivered with no proof at all. The ills in question vary with the society doing the theorizing, though violence and women wearing the wrong clothes tend to appear at the top of every list.

Ironically, this idea of avant-garde art as a sign of widespread decadence was invented decades earlier by someone who had no investment in antisemitism or right-wing politics—we know because he was a prominent Jewish socialist named Max Nordau.

The Style

At the end of the nineteenth century, long before the Nazis came to power, Max Nordau--a distinguished community leader and physician--laid out his theory of art and culture in a book called Degeneration. I went into a lot more detail about its contents, effect on the development of contemporary art, and the many, many parallels with modern arguments in RPG land in a long article a few years ago. Although the book will strike any modern reader as completely bananas, it exerted a profound influence on cultural thought thereafter, eventually making its way into the Nazi ideology. Here Nordau proposes a cultural watchdog organization:
"Let the ' Society for Ethical Culture ' undertake to examine into the morality of artistic and literary productions. Its composition would be a guarantee that the examination would not be narrow-minded, not prudish, and not canting. Its members have sufficient culture and taste to distinguish the thoughtlessness of a morally healthy artist from the vile speculation of a scribbling ruffian. When such a society, which would be joined by those men from the people who are the best fitted for this task, should, after serious investigation and in the consciousness of a heavy responsibility, say of a man, 'He is a criminal !' and of a work, 'It is a disgrace to our nation !' work and man would be annihilated. No respectable bookseller would keep the condemned book ; no respectable paper would mention it, or give the author access to its columns ; no respectable family would permit the branded work to be in their house ; and the wholesome dread of this fate would very soon prevent the appearance of such books as Bahr's Gute Schule, and would dishabituate the 'realists' from parading a condemnation based on a crime against morality as a mark of distinction…"
The Nazis took this policy as far as they could: selling or destroying every piece of modern art from the national museums and destroying artists, careers and, sometimes, lives.

Hitler was the first example of a certain kind of coercive cultural fanatic (the paranoid dictator who demands paintings be burned) but Max Nordau was the first example of another, surprisingly common, kind: a more-or-less ordinary would-be progressive, embedded in a liberal society and philanthropically inclined, but with a blind spot the size of a battleship when it came to transgressive art.

While Hitler’s style is echoed by fellow failed-artists-turned-totalitarians like Stalin and Mao, Nordau’s descendants are milder folks, and found further west, including:

-The reformists of the 1920’s who campaigned as hard against pornography as they did against child labor

-Many of the Supreme Court justices who delivered the unanimous decision Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Commission of Ohio that movies weren't art, thereby ushering in the era of Hollywood self-censorship under the sexist, homophobic, and extremely squeamish Hays Code.

-Estes Kefauver—the trust-busting Democratic congressman who crusaded against organized crime, drug companies and, for some reason, pin-up girls, including Bettie Page

-Fredric Wertham—the low-income-nonprofit-clinic-running, data-about-comics-causing-crime-falsifying psychiatrist that Kefauver invited to testify in front of his juvenile delinquency subcommittee, responsible for the institution of the Comics Code Authority 

-Tipper Gore—wife of environmentalist and former vice-president Al Gore, advocate for the homeless, and advocate against Prince, Black Sabbath, Madonna, Judas Priest, AC/DC and everyone else in the ‘80s who recorded anything worth listening to.

Anyone wondering what this would-be-progressive style of moral panic looks like can watch Gore and fellow album-labeling advocates confront Ice T and Dead Kennedys lead singer Jello Biafra on Oprah back in 1990...

Jello Biafra: I accuse you of trying to destroy my career and ruin my right to make a living. (audience cheers)

Tipper Gore: No...

Jello Biafra: And... and for being... operating as a front for people like Jesse Helms, Phyllis Schlafly in order to drive the arch-conservative wedge into the mainstream. Rabbi Cooper, if you think Public Enemy's got problems against Jews, wait till you meet the organizations endorsed in Tipper Gore's book, like the "Back In Control" center. (audience applause) The "Back In Control" center is a group of cops from, I believe, Orange County, who send manuals to police departments and to parents claiming that, among other things, the Jewish Star is a symbol for satan, that high-top tennis shoes and black clothing could be a sign that your child might be turning to heavy metal and should therefore be deprogrammed--if a kid shoplifts or becomes involved in a gang, then, well, it must be the music's fault.

Tipper Gore: It is.

Jello Biafra: To me, practicing fraud like that to the point where doctors who used your video in a Milwaukee hospital told a kid who was treated... came in to be treated for clinical depression that his Iron Maiden T-shirt was the problem, that, to me is the real child abuse. 
(audience applauds)
Oprah Winfrey (over applause): Tipper, Tipper, let's just...

Tipper Gore: Thank you. First of all, that's a very bizarre rendition of what my group is about. We are not right-wing fundamentalists. I happen to be a liberal democrat. We have two...

Jello Biafra: Then why do you speak at Phyllis Schlafly functions?

Tipper Gore: Excuse me, I--I--....

Oprah Winfrey: Okay, one at a time.

Gamers will note the absence of Pat Pulling (founder of BADD, Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons) and Jack Chick—key figures in gaming’s first controversy, the “Satanic Panic"--from the list above. This is because Pulling and Chick were cut from a different-, and much older-, mold: they were traditional cultural conservatives, not theorists of degenerate art.

The Theory

There is a responsible, non-fanatical, growing concern over pornography that can't be pinned on outdated images of prudish misfits attempting to Lysol the world. 
-Tipper Gore, Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society

While traditional cultural conservatives lean on received ideologies, usually religious (like: "D&D has magic, magic is the occult, the occult isn’t Christian, so D&D is bad." Or: "D&D has boobs, children aren’t supposed to know about boobs, D&D is bad") degenerate art theorists rely on science—or rather, scientism: the vocabulary of science, with none of the tests, research, or intellectual coherence that would imply. This gives degenerate art theories an appeal to postcollege parents that mere Sunday School pearl-clutching doesn’t have. The traditional conservative caters to the parent’s instinctive fear of putting boobs near children by claiming god hates boobs, the degenerate art theorist caters to the same fear by claiming putting children near boobs will result in whatever new societal terror such parents fear most.

A signal difference is the attitude toward the transgressive art of the past. The traditional conservative might be as mad about Michaelangelo’s David’s junk hanging out as they are about Grand Theft Auto, the degenerate art theorist prefers their targets feel as new and modern as their methods.

Degenerate art theories posit not that the offending work is part of a larger and age-old struggle of moral vs amoral culture, but rather that a new and modern understanding demands a new form of art be treated as unusually dangerous. Hitler only attacked art made in his century.

There are two reasons for this:

-The degenerate art theorist is at pains to present themselves as cultured, and aware there is a proper role for (horror, realism, sexuality, grotesquerie, violence or whatever else they’re complaining about) in art, especially art old enough to be canonized. Hitler was a painter, Stalin and Mao were poets, Frederic Wertham’s wife was a sculptor, Tipper Gore was in a band in the ‘60s and Max Nordau explained repeatedly that sex and violence were fine when Shakespeare did them. People like that can’t very well go full megachurch and stagger around railing against worldly entertainment in general. They are making an appeal across the political spectrum—including to mommies and daddies who may have been in a museum on vacation once—about a specific ill.

-Such a cultured person would logically have to be aware that every single moral panic of the past has turned out to be bullshit and so wants to present themselves as warning the world about something it hasn’t seen before. Just as this applies to the method—using allegedly new ideological analysis or new social science as an alibi—it applies to the target: yes music is always about sex but this Darling Nikki actually has the word “masturbating” in it, yes Texas Chainsaw Massacre was back in 1974 but in video games you play the role of the killer. The target of moral panic has to be described as an escalation or else the question of why no previous degenerate art has resulted in widescale societal chaos arises.

tl;dr The idea is to use incoherent and emotional arguments to separate your moral panic from other peoples' moral panic. Great example of an RPG creator doing that here.

The reason degenerate art panics can cyclically repeat with every new form of media and the pattern’s never noticed is that their architects disown their forebears: modern moral panic theorists are entirely certain their unsupported faith in the corrupting power of pictures of boobs and guns is different from the unsupported faith in the corrupting power of pictures of boobs and guns that puritans of the past had--though they can’t begin to say why. When an RPGnetter claims a product made or championed by a woman is bad for women, they’re glossing over the fact that everyone in the degenerate lineage has made the same claim, Tipper Gore called the people defending Madonna and Cyndi Lauper sexist and Max Nordau complained the protofeminism of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House:

Hence it should be the true duty of rational wives to declare Ibsen infamous, and to revolt against Ibsenism, which criminally threatens them and their rights. Only through error can women of spirit and indisputable morality join the ranks of Ibsen’s followers. It is necessary to enlighten them concerning the range of his doctrines, and in particular concerning their effect on the position of woman, so that they may abandon a company which can never be their own.

This is the key to degenerate art theory’s continuing recurrence: historical amnesia and an attempt to position their outrage as an instrument of a brave new tomorrow, rather than as a tool for the restoration of a gilded past.

Traditional conservativism has a natural antibody: traditional liberalism—never thin on the ground in creative environments (witness, for example, the repeated utter failure of conservatives like RPGpundit to get anything substantive done, ever). Though less common than a traditional conservative critique of transgressive are (which will be preached forever from pulpits of all denominations) degenerate art theory has been far more effective because its the killer coming from inside the house. Degenerate art theory can win a majority by welding would-be liberal parents concerned with a terrifying future to right-leaning voices in the pews, who realize that no matter the origin of their new allies’ beliefs, the practical result will feed their own nostalgia for the harmless culture of an unprovocative past.

Pat Pulling and Tipper Gore may not agree on why Judas Priest shouldn’t be in Wal Mart, but the important thing is: Judas Priest isn’t in Wal Mart.

A Quiz

You might agree that moral panics are ignorant and silly while not being entirely sure they apply in the sphere of recent attacks on games. Well: what arguments have the RPG Drama Club presented that past crusaders against sex, violence and bad language haven't? 

Here's a series of quotes from Tipper Gore and fellow 1980s culture-war parents, politicians, professors and activists on talk shows, during senate hearings, and in books and papers they've written complaining about hip hop, sex, metal, and Dungeons & Dragons mixed in with quotes from the contemporary tabletop RPG Drama Club complaining about contemporary RPGs. See if you can tell which statement was made by which group without googling. Names of products have been excised to avoid giving away the answers by marking time.:

1) “We have a right to freedom of speech in this country and you have a right to _____ that abuse women and that use racism but we have a right to speak out against them" 

2) “The burden is actually on many groups. Individuals must realize their own prejudices and their norms and attempt to develop their own individual skills and knowledge (that’s Level 1 on the Sexual Violence Spectrum), but the community (Level 2) as well as media (Level 5) also have a role to play in. As I said earlier in a quote from the Institute of Medicine “It is unreasonable to expect that people will change their behavior easily when so many forces in the social, cultural, and physical environment conspire against such change.”

3) "Why do you think people should never raise questions about the potential effect of an artwork unless they have solid proof? "

4) “There is a new element of vulgarity and violence toward women that is unprecedented.“

5) "I fear perpetuating gross parallels to real-world problems without the awareness I think those things require. If my ____ do include things that echo real-world things like the killing of innocents, genocide, torture, racism, sexism, or rape, I want to do so with a certain awareness that it isn't just imaginary. That we're choosing what to imagine and glorify...It's the glorification of these acts that bothers me. They're not good acts.”

6) “The violence demonstrates power. Its message is: Who can get away with doing what to whom. And this is a powerful, insidious message to learn. The violence teaches that the powerless people are easy to intimidate….”

7) “American men have a one in one hundred chance of being murdered at some time in their lives. The risk is twice that for non-whites. Shouldn’t those figures make us think twice about glorifying murder and mayhem?”

8) "______ himself, on the other hand, is much easier to condemn, because his choice to aim his artwork at an audience composed largely of young males whose lust for compromised female bodies is not anchored by a strong foundation of respect for women’s meta-level wishes implies that he doesn’t see a need for context in the first place. What should be done about it seems to follow naturally from the idea of context—kick it out of the mainstream, where it’s likely to be misinterpreted…"

9) (on pin-up girls) “And while you argue that the women do not have any responsibility beyond themselves to make this, I still counter-argue that they have the responsibility to consider how what they make will be perceived by others not in their community. "

10) "The message is that violence is normal and ok, that hostile sexual relations between men and women are common and acceptable, that heroes actively engage in torture and murders of others for fun"

11) “Only by rejecting the status quo will we create a market for more positive themes. It’s a big job, but we can do it.”

12) "“…porn actresses who are still 'in the business' are pretty much required to 100% talk positive about the companies, the shoots, the porn itself, the actors, the directors, etc. There have been dozens of actresses who were big in 'promoting people to watch porn, and that being in porn is cool and fun' who, after getting out, were like 'Yeah if I didn't do that I either didn't get shoots, or I got assigned to the abusive ones where they hurt girls'."

13) "…the whole thing just seems to be a childish exercise in cramming as many instances of 'fuck' into the ___ as possible."

14) "It's also naive to suggest that because something has women involved in it, even only women, that that means it can't be sexist. There's nothing hilarious in pointing out that only women worked on something. Certain groups of women, particularly those who have gained power either through performing traditional gender roles (housewives) or have acted in the opposite of them (such as say porn stars), have a lot to lose if sexism is eased or erased in our society. They often become among the greatest perpetrators of the status quo because if society changed, they would lose their power"

15) “If so much of our fiction tells one narrative, it is not the fault of the individuals in the culture for not seeing past that narrative"

16) "The women have no responsibility to represent who they are not. However, they do have a responsibility to themselves to consider how society at large will interpret how they present themselves, because they will, and do, as well as for the population they are choosing to represent."

17) "In fact, we are talking about products primarily written for children, marketed to children, and sold to children."

18) “We know the positive impact that _____ can have you can’t turn around and therefore say we shouldn’t have any responsibility for the negative messages, some of them very serious with stereotyping and racism and say hey that doesn’t mean anything it’s just ____”

19) "…D&D (and anything close to it) is quite a morally bankrupt game. It's about characters who deliberately choose to go into violent conflicts because of greed; it's about performing violence and trickery….being a participatory medium, it's actually much more serious business than allowing children to, say, watch violent movies..."

20)  “…D&D is probably a less ideal system framework for giving opportunities for good parenting. There's just so much in the system that encourages negative things - like the way you are rewarded precisely and only for how many things you kill and/or how much stuff you take..."

21) “Wheres the line between validating and exposing? I think the problem here is you have a lot of _____ that are validating racism, validating celebrating violence”

22) "What happens however today is that people tend to not want to say they say hey well listen if I come out of my bag and say 'Hey I don’t like this then I’m gonna get labelled as a censor and like a conservative, and a crazy person' and they don’t say anything and ____ keep on making their money spreading their evil intent”

23) “…the generation that grew up on heavy metal and fantasy cheesecake pinups airbrushed onto vans is being expected to grow up. They don't like it, and they need someone to blame.

24) "Finally, whether you want to think it or not, the truth is porn IS coloring people's perceptions of sex and love. That one is pretty well established. You don't hear about it because we have this current trend of people abdicating their responsibility to society, generally in pursuit of the all-mighty dollar.

25) “But the sort of people who profit from aggressively marketing _____ have the morals of the marketplace, and the marketplace is the place to get their attention.”

26) "Tipper Gore wasn't seeking to censor music, but just to establish a ratings system for parents to use. Nor did she even lead that movement, she was just a supporter. Now, granted, that did have the secondary effect that it shrunk the market for some music, but also may have increased the sales of artists that got to be sensationalized with a warning label. In any case, just like the issue with _____, Gore was never actually involved with promoting censorship, but regulation. "

27) "There is a difference between wanting to restrain and control and wanting to suppress and censor…they simply protest the forced diet of sexual excess”"

28) "They made me sick to my stomach. Porn's cheap and abundant enough at this point that I don't think we need to keep shoving it into every uncomfortable nook and cranny…Can't see that? I'm sorry. Try harder. Start with your eyes. And pretend you're trying to engage your (real or not) young daughter...”

29) "What children see on the screen is violence as an almost casual commonplace of daily living...Children learn to take pride in force and to feel ashamed of ordinary sympathy. They are encouraged to forget that people have feelings."

Score yourself by highlighting this block of text...

1) 80s: Tipper Gore attacking to Ice T on Oprah

2) RPG Drama Club dude talking to a pin up girl on Google +

3) RPG Drama Club dude on Reddit

4) 80s: Tipper Gore on metal and hip hop

5) RPG Drama Club dude on Keep on the Borderlands

6) 80s: Dr George Gerbner railing agains the A Team, quoted by Tipper Gore in her book Raising PG Kids in an X Rated Society

7) 80s: Tipper Gore in her book

8) RPG Drama Club dude on Hyun Tae Kim, artist on an Exalted cover

9) RPG Drama Club dude talking to a pin up girl on Google +

10) 80s: Dr Thomas Radecki railing against ‘80s music videos, quoted by Tipper Gore

11) 80s: Tipper Gore in her book

12) RPG Drama Club member on Something Awful /tg, complaining about the women on this blog

13) RPG Drama Club member on Reddit, talking about the writing in Veins of the Earth

14) RPG Drama Club member on Google + discussing an RPG thing made entirely by (fellow) women

15) RPG Drama Club member on Google +

16) RPG Drama Club dude on Google +

17) 80s: Tipper Gore

18) 80s: Rabbi Abraham Cooper on Oprah complaining about music

19) RPG Drama Club member on

20) RPG Drama Club member on

21) 80s: Rabbi Abraham Cooper on Oprah complaining about lyrics

22) 80s: Juan Williams on Oprah complaining about rappers

23) RPG Drama Club member on Something Awful /tg

24) RPG Drama Club member on Google +

25) 80s: George Will

26) RPG Drama Club member on Something Awful /tg

27) 80s: Tipper Gore in her book

28) RPG Drama Club king Fred Hicks complaining about Kingdom Death

29) Trick question: Frederic Wertham, the comic book censoring  fraud, from back in the '50s

Other than a handful of new phrases coming into style--"shocking" is out and "problematic" is in--the main difference between the old attacks and the new ones is the number of actual RPG designers joining in on them. While in the music business even John Denver could be relied on to see the parallel between calls for "tasteful restraint" and Nazi standards, the mild, moderate moms and dads of the RPG industry frequently seem pretty happy to throw their competition to the wolves--nearly every name up there has a game or at least a failed Kickstarter on their resume.

The Stakes

When people run out of steam defending bad faith and half-baked bandwagon criticism they switch to framing the stakes as nonexistent. This displays a deep ignorance of the economics of independently-created game stuff. 

There's no point in making a criticism unless someone believes it and if they believe it that's one less record, book, picture sold--because of something totally made up. The Dead Kennedys fought their obscenity case to a draw, but the fight basically ended the band, the PMRC's record stickers created a dual economy in the record business where unlabelled music reached a much wider audience because even if kids didn't take the stickers seriously, powerful chains like Wal-Mart sure did, which had a huge effect on underground music. 

On the smaller scale the RPG industry operates on, the stakes for creators are much higher: independent creators can easily be burned by a dedicated hard-core of a few hundred harassers motivated by some imaginary grievance, and even properties with corporate backing are the expendable runt of their patrons' litter: when the RPG Drama Club forgot how to use email and started attacking Vampire 5e's creators online in order to get the changes they wanted, the parent company had to weigh the cost of that ongoing harassment vs the value of a game that, even with great sales, would make almost nothing by video game standards. They decided to give up making new RPG product altogether.

The current wave of organized stupidity won't result in ovens or government bans or an RPG Code Authority, but there will be economic damage--that is, damage to creators ability to create freely and have confidence in their creative gambles. More than once, major creators whose names you'd recognize have told me they're afraid to publish ideas because of potential backlash. This means fewer games and less diverse games--and it means that the ones publishers do gamble on will be less adventurous. And unfortunately it'll take more than rolling your eyes to stop that from happening.
*Concerned Game Fans on Something Awful, usually so eager to point out sexism when it isn't directed at LotFP:

And there's even some commentary on the book's content...

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The Red & Pleasant Land TV Series Pitch


Cold open. Candle-lit night in an 18th century bedroom. A man (competent-looking, late 20s, early 30s) and a woman (striking, dark-haired—the same age or younger) in a magnificent canopy bed—the man shirtless and asleep, the woman next to him, awake, propped against the headboard, looking anxious. She reaches over him to an end-table and pours a glass of white wine.
She’s trembling as she brings it to her lips—drops fall on him, he opens his eyes and looks up to see her drinking.
“What’s the matter?” he says.
“I’m scared,” she says, drinking.
“The duel?”
We see he tries hard to connect here: “It will be fine”.

Cut to the morning. Period music plays over a semi-familiar scene of wealthy 18th century people getting dressed, he in one room, she (with servants) in another. Powder, make-up, wigs, layers, corset, petticoat, etc. Her outfit is impossibly beautiful but not quite of the period—a hint of Alexander McQueen or Gaultier in the mesh of the lace, his is crisp but practical with a long coat like a British officer. He takes a fine long weapon like a straight saber (again, slightly off-period) from a wall of swords.

Cut to an exterior shot in the country the two of them in their fine clothes, on a pair of horses, accompanied by a party of servants and family members riding together. The music still playing.
Cut to another similar party, similarly dressed but in a different palette, also lead by a man and a woman coming from the opposite direction.

While the music still plays, the two parties converge on an impressive public building—a great hall of some kind. The two parties occupy opposite sides of the hall. A middle-aged man steps forward, stands on a broad space of empty, polished tile between them and says something we can’t quite hear over the music, gesturing toward both sides. The man from the first scene and his rival walk toward the center of the room with their swords, they bow and then turn and stand back-to-back with the swords held upright.

Then, still facing away, they hold their swords out horizontally toward their respective parties. The striking woman and her opposite number walk forward in their heels and take the offered swords. The men walk away to the margins, the two armed women curtsey, the music stops, and then the women begin the most brutal duel modern camerawork can record.

The fight is not superheroic or acrobatic—there’s grunting and sweat and blood. Two well-trained people, in heels on marble, trying very earnestly to murder each other. They slide and dodge, massive hairstyles tumble, dresses rip, stiletto heels kick at hamstrings and eventually our striking woman stabs her opponent through the chest.

She backs away and hands the competent-looking man the sword as the opposite party rushes toward-, and lifts-, the dead woman’s body and glares at them.
“Do you think it will hold?” the man says, cleaning the sword.
“No, but she is dead” she replies.
“May I inquire as to the origin of the conflict?”
“No you may not, Atlee. Prepare the horses,” it becomes obvious at this point by her manner that he is her servant.

Cut to an exterior and they are riding back through the countryside with their party, somewhat faster than before. After a few beats, Atlee says quietly “We’re being followed”. The woman tells the party to disperse and they all ride off in different directions. Atlee and the woman ride fast through the forest, noticing shadows on horseback at the edge of their vision.

Eventually they come to the base of a grassy hill with a lone rider silhouetted at the top. The woman aims a crossbow up the hill and shouts “State your business”.

The rider raises his arms, holding something. After a bit he throws it and it begins to roll down the hill. As it nears the bottom we see it’s a leather cylinder a little larger than a Pringles can—the woman, still holding the crossbow, gestures with a nod to Atlee, who dismounts, picks up the case, opens it and then unrolls and examines a piece of parchment.
She glances down at Atlee “A warrant for my arrest?”
Atlee: “An offer of employment.”
The opening credits roll...

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Grow Up

Ok, this started as a jokey post because when I saw people were again complaining that Monte Cook put out a pricey game (200$ or something) I went on twitter, searched the name of the game--"invisible sun"--and tried to figure out who these people were who suddenly care so much, and did that...
...and that was going to be the whole blog post. That's chapter one.


Chapter two is I went back to work and I was listening to an episode of the Wait, What? comics podcast--they were talking about labor rights for comics creators.

There were repeated failed attempts to unionize comics in the '60s, the '70s and the '80s--they all failed for the same reason a lot of fun, creative industries fail to unionize--if you give your boss any shit, there are millions of other people dying to do your job for half the money.

The '90s in comics didn't have a big push to unionize--instead the superstar creators at Marvel (Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, and, yes, the much-maligned Rob Liefeld among others) went and formed their own company.

Monte Cook Games was essentially an Image Comics-style move: Monte had gotten a reputation working in D&D, he'd taken a look at what companies were offering and was like "Nah, screw it, I'll form my own company". This is a fundamentally different track from the one trod by Indie gamers (and indie comics)--he made a name for himself with the majors and built that name up as a source of value before striking off on his own. A world where "Monte Cook" on the cover means as much to nearly as many people as "Shadowrun" is a world where the creator has as much power as the moneymen.

If you've only ever been a comics' fan, you're probably going "Lol Spawn" right now. If you know anything about being a creator, though, you know what Image meant in terms of changing the face of the industry. And that split in consciousness drives a lot of what goes on in games.

You can say what you want about Invisible Sun, but the fact is Monte Cook Games is charging what its charging because it's trying to get himself and his freelancing friends who were sick of the usual immense dick-around in RPGs paid while still putting out a product that does new things for those who get their hands on it. You don't have to see it as heroic, but you do have to give it credit as something that actually worked, in a field where 95% of solutions don't.

Monte solved the problem of giving a handful of creative people a non-nightmarish working situation while (unlike most indies and fellow D&D-grad Robin Laws at Pelgrane) still giving you the consumer a blue-sky game fully-supported in hardcover by graphic design, bits and bobs, and art by someone who doesn't eat paste. If Invisible Sun were the only game MCG made you might have reason to complain--but it isn't, it isn't even their most popular game, so you don't. Three or four Monte Cook games that you can afford sitting on a shelf next to one you can't is a small price to pay for the basically unprecedented situation of RPG freelancers not being treated like cattle that happen to be able to estimate probability curves.


From the point of view of capital vs creator, it's kind of amazing the degree to which the purse-string holders in the industry have succeeded in repeatedly rallying supposedly woke fans into taking their side in every controversy: when the Drama Club aren't complaining to a multimillion-dollar parent company that Mark Rein*Hagen's dynastic vampires are too important to be left in his hands, they're complaining to WOTC that the current edition needs to reflect their taste because the idea of a GM changing rules on their own is too frightening to contemplate, or arguing that the most exploitive wages in the industry are a price they're happy to pay as long as the owners make the right noises, or that the Open Game License was bad because fans being able to make content on top of a lingua franca system means they don't re-invent the system-wheel constantly and thereby drag themselves up by their own bootstraps. There's also the ridiculous refrain, when an uptight reader sees something that bothers their sensibilities "God, just having an editor could have solved this" blandly assuming (as no dissident has ever assumed) that the godlike and objective hand of technocracy would inevitably be on their side.

It's time to take a look at who the Drama Club system--whereby people with no track record of ever making anything including sense decide to have an emotional Take and then every single author in indieland from Dungeon World Guy to Slutshame Girl delivers a Take on that Take while their more anonymous friends snipe at the creators at the center of it--actually serves:

  • It's certainly doesn't serve the targeted creators. Nobody learns much from libel, the Monte Cook people aren't at home nodding sagely at reading "MCG hates poor people" from people who wouldn't dream of engaging them with, like, words in English.
  • It also doesn't serve the creators who gin it up. Evil Hat's predicament proves the age of indie self-promotion via bad faith criticism is over.
  • It doesn't serve the chicken littles who get it started. The whole point of their schtick is they're able to get their Bad Takes repeated because nobody remembered how stupid and wrong their last take was, because nobody remembers who they are. If I told you basically Brie Sheldon and Sean Dunstan started this whole "Invisible Sun prices are bad for people" thing off you'd go...who are Brie Sheldon and Sean Dunstan? These people will never go away because they are too obscure to suffer consequences. But, unaccountably, they still have friends. At least online.
The only people ever served by Drama Club system are companies who do nothing but own the intellectual property--a world where fans view creators as replaceable children who need to be smacked into line in order to deliver the most risk-averse product available is exactly the one they want.

As left as they claim to be, the Drama Club's preferred mode of activism has nothing to say on the subject of creator-rights or fair pay for the people who pump out the stuff they love. Their complaints are far more about their fears and hopes about ways an entertainment ideas they've bought into--be that D&D or Rifts or the concept of roleplaying itself--can be weaponized to influence people to agree or disagree with them.

There's probably a good reason for this disconnect between creators and fan-agitators: They've had completely different experiences in life.

Drama Club fans have had their brains so completely renovated by RPGs that they've decided to spend their entire lives yelling at other people on social media about how they should be.

Creators that have made games that have had anmarked influence beyond their friend group, on the other hand, realize the hard limits on the ability of games to influence people in predictable ways. Even when they're sympathetic to fans' sense of ownership, pretty much no good creator is on the same wavelength as the Drama Club. There's no real communication between these camps--even the most successful storygame creators repeatedly admit they don't really have a back-and-forth with these kinds of activist-fans and just go "Ok, you've been Heard" and pat them on the head.

And there's little reciprocation either--if most dramafans are no more willing to demand their favorite creators be able to work under sane conditions any more than porn fans are willing to swear off using tube sites, why would creators feel like they owe these people jack or shit?


RPG freelancers will probably never unionize, and while solutions like Monte going solo or the profit-split deals LotFP and DIY RPG have made are a workable substitute, they rely on a very tenuous proposition: fans accepting that a creator has value in themselves, and in RPGs they're frankly loathe to do that. Fans write house rules, run games, and know what they think is cool: they think that gets them half of the way to being a game writer and they're not wrong. But until you finish that trip yourself you can't picture how many rations you'll need or how many random encounters there are along the way.

Monte Cook is one version of a sustainable future in a scene with almost none. Until you find another maybe don't be a pissy little twerp about it.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Aimé Césaire--Poet, Statesman, Game Designer

Aimé Fernand David Césaire was a poet and activist, a founder (along with Léopold Sédar Senghor and Léon Damas) of the négritude movement among the pre-war African diaspora, and served as president of Martinique in the 1980s.

In 1960 he published several random encounter tables disguised as poems, translated here by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith:

Patience of Signs (D20)

1 sublime excoriations of a flesh fraternal and whipped to the point of rebellious fires in a thousand villages

2 arenas

3 fire

4 hulls prophetic masts

5 fire

6 breeding ground for moray eels

7 fire riding lights of an island truly in distress

8 fires frantic tracks of haggard herds which in the mud are spelled

9 pieces of raw flesh

10 suspended spittings

11 a sponge dripping sour wine

12 a fiery waltz of lawns strewn with the cornets that fall from the broken surge of great Tabebuias

14 fires shards lost in a desert of fears and cisterns

15 dried up fires never too dry for a worm to beat their tolling its new flesh

16 blue seeds of fire

17 fire of fires

18 witness of eyes which crazed for vengeance exhume themselves and expand

19 pollen pollen

20 and along the sands where the nocturnal berries of sweet manchineels swell rich oranges always accessible to the sincerity of long long thirsts

Beautiful Spurted Blood (D10)

1 trophy head

2 lacerated limbs

3 deadly sting

4 beautiful spurted blood

5 lost warblings

6 ravished shores

7 childhoods childhoods a tale too stirred up

8 dawn on its chain ferocious snapping to be born

9 oh belated assassin

10 the bird with feathers once more beautiful than the past demands an accounting for its scattered plumes