Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Evolution and Engagement

Yarivandel wrote an excellent comment on this post, with regards to the poor display of 'roleplaying' I had posted (the video can be seen by following the link). I'm going to cut Yarivandel's comment, just to get to the meat of it. Please go see the full comment, posted today, on the other post:

"... this video should never see the light of day. If I was to point out every single thing that is wrong with it I would probably write a novel. But they surely managed to achieve one thing, show rpg with no role playing whatsoever. Just one long coarse joke ... It's as honest and natural as an official expression of personal thanks on a corporate meeting."

It's a good excuse to talk about the influence of corporatism, and the pattern that has gripped the role-playing world since D&D broke out of its underground prison around 1980.

Some would disagree, but I feel that break-out did not begin in a good way. The first media content I can recall, the first mention of D&D that did not begin with the small, word-of-mouth group I knew, would be the news stories that started poking up here and there about teenagers killing themselves because their characters died. There was a fellow in Ontario that was supposed to have done it, and I think another in California. There have been such stories intermittently throughout the years.

Too, there was a story going around that three fellows stole a lion from the Boston Zoo and released it in the catacombs under Boston University. Gawd only knows if there are such catacombs, or if it happened in Boston, or even at all, but the story was told. Supposedly, they let the lion go, then girded themselves with swords and make-shift armor with the intent on killing the thing. Who knows, it might have inspired LARPing. The story also said that two were injured seriously, that one was killed, and that the lion was ultimately fine and returned to the zoo. If memory serves me, the first time I heard that story, it was told to the class by my Grade 12 Social Studies teacher.

By the time that horrorshow Mazes and Monsters came out, the stories about people going crazy and kids whacking off each other and themselves were thick and detailed, MUCH more so in 1982 than they are now. It may be hard to believe, but the world actually WAS more ignorant and sympathetic to media stupidity than it is now. Today, it's the media that's ignorant; back then, impossible as it may seem, it was the audience. The internet has made an impact.

This has been a long trip around the barn, but my point is that the 'message' about the game was screwed blue and tattooed right from the beginning. That's what happens when the people who actually know anything (and I have argued against ANYONE in 1980 actually knowing anything) are short any sort of budget for promotion, or blessed with any charisma or talent with regards to PR. People tell me Gygax had charisma. Here's a small bit of Gygax displaying the elocution and energetic skills role-playing could rely upon at its outset:

That is, perhaps, unfair. We were all SO impressed by his showing on 60 Minutes, weren't we?

'Corporate' D&D is the only sort of voice the game has ever had. The Media Corporation first, that sought to burn the game to the ground in favor of getting ratings from soccer moms and bacon-bringing Dads who were confused that their 17-year-old children wanted to use the kitchen on Friday nights for rolling dice, rather than scrounging the outside world for booze and drugs, like NORMAL children - and then the Gaming Corporation, that had to spend the first five years of its public relations convincing the world that RPG's are NOT about worshipping Satan, they're NOT dangerous, and that they're absolutely safe for children. These days, I wonder if anyone remembers that there used to be a significant effort to prove that roleplaying was not a dangerous teenager-fueled death-seeking activity.

The fall-out from that effort has been, of course, that RPGs have definitely become games for children. Large, flatulent, hygiene-deficient children who nevertheless occasionally have some talent doing something for a living that can be done in filthy clothes while smarmily bitching loudly on the internet about how hard it is for them to have any fun.

I rush to shout, however, that this child-adult group is a very TINY proportion of the RPG-gaming community. Which, however, doesn't keep this fetish-driven minority from pouring money into the coffers of WOTC, then using their habit to demonstrate that they are infinitely more serious about the game than you ever can be.

To get all this crap, that they can collect in plastic wrappers and office crates in massive, meaningless piles, this same minority flocks to the conventions where the crap is available. This process proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the success of any company comes from selling as many 32-page mash ups of previously created materials that can possibly be manufactured by a small, dedicated number of vaguely informed corporate employees. Since the uniqueness of the content can be dismissed, what is important is that each fetish item look as kewl and magical as can be rendered with all the resources of modern publishing.

But hey, heck, I'd be happy to sell my book at these conventions too, wouldn't I? An asshole's money will support my lifestyle as well as anyone else's. Thankfully, for both me and WOTC, assholes ALWAYS have money. That is mostly because they are either taking it from someone else, or not spending it on the sort of thing everyone else does, like friends for instance.

Chris Perkins is, therefore, merely servicing WOTC's porn audience, the same sort of fuckwits that will fill your table if you're stupid enough to go down to a convention with the expectation of running something. Unless, of course, you're reading this and you ARE one of the fuckwits. Then you think everything I've written to this point is grossly unfair and unreasonable. You're not an asshole. You just want to have fun, that's all. What's wrong with having fun?

Well, as I've written before, 'fun' is a child's concern. Fun parks are built for children. Whining about not having fun is a child's complaint. One thing we can pretty much be certain of when speaking to people we don't know, is that the talking head in the room that uses the word 'fun' to describe what they want to do next weekend is probably the guy who still gets blasted Saturday Night, spills their drink all over a girl in an effort to produce an excuse that will let him drag her to his apartment and half-rape her, only to drop her in a cab, go to bed and wake up the next morning without any memory of it. In the REAL world, the world where filthy clothes are viewed with considerable distaste, the word 'fun' is only used by office managers who are clearly bent on making you work some shit charity detail this weekend instead of being free to rebuild your kitchen cabinets.

There is something evil and sick and endlessly perverse in this overweening infantilistic squalling about fun - that I think we can safely rest at the corporate doorstep. I believe that one of the things we must do, if we are EVER going to free ourselves and develop the game, is admit that we'd rather be engaged than amused, and do so without feeling shame. It is, after all, children who don't 'get it' ... just as my daughter did not understand at the age of four why I had to go to work every day. At four, she called it 'stupid.' Well of course. She was goddamned FOUR.

When someone refers to your serious, meaningful, difficult, hard-driving game as 'stupid,' just look at them and think, "Four."

It will help enormously.


Ozzie Pippenger said...

I don't agree that wanting fun out of a game is wrong. It is, more often that not, the primary thing everyone is there for and the best way to judge how well a game is going. Now before an angry mob comes and kills me for saying that, let me explain what I mean.

I don't think wanting fun is wrong, but I don't think it's what these idiots actually want. To be more specific, the main thing they want out of a game is for it to be easy. Both easy for the DM to plan, and easy for the players to get through without any real thought. That's why people reject reasonable ideas that would improve the game: it makes it slightly harder for them to play in some way, even if it is by far worth it.

Everyone who is honest wants to have fun in the game. The difference is that some people are willing to work for it and some people aren't. Most of the work on this blog and elsewhere that is the hardest exists for the purpose of making the game more fun. It seems to me that this attitude towards the game will inevitably lead to people having more fun, not less.

There are people who want to have fun, and will do the work it takes to get it, and there are people who won't do the work, and don't end up actually having fun.

I realize that "fun" has connotations of lighthearted, meaningless, amusing distraction. But words shift meaning all the time. Where I live at least, people will describe volunteer work as fun, or their job, or traveling. Words like deep, meaningful, and engaging would describe the experiences better, but fun has become a very general word that means much more than its older definitions.

I really think any kind of crusade against certain usage of a word based on outdated definitions is doomed. Words change constantly. The word "peruse" originally meant to read carefully, but now means to skim. This second definition is rapidly becoming more popular, and in a generation might become the primary one. The word "sinister" originally meant left handed, because in primitive medieval superstition left handed people were thought to be evil. It's a ridiculous word if you think about it, but that doesn't mean we can't use it today. The meaning has changed.

Every time someone calls someone sinister, you could launch into a rant about how it's untrue and offensive to left handed people. Say a criminal is accused of being sinister, in the modern sense, like a corrupt government official. Are they going to try to defend themselves by proving they can write with their right hand? Obviously not. They're going to get to the actual meat of the accusation and defend themselves.

Fun is a complex word that contains multitudes of meaning. Notice that it isn't literally simultaneous with "amusing". If someone demanded that a DM or blogger "amuse" them, people would give them some funny looks. It sounds self evidently ridiculous. But "fun" doesn't. This is because fun means more than amusing.

When people accuse us of not being fun, and we accept the label, it hurts us more than it helps us. The word "fun", in the context of D&D, is a battlefield. We should fight for it, not surrender. Games can be fun even if they're complicated and difficult. In fact, games can be fun because they're complicated and difficult. And that's what we need to argue.

Otherwise, this post is 100& accurate. I just don't want to surrender the word.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Ozzie, if you would realize for two seconds that you're using the word 'fun' when you mean 'satisfaction,' thus expanding your vocabulary by one word, and recognizing that 'fun' doesn't include the sentiments you're incorporating into your argument, you'd see that we actually agree.

Ozzie Pippenger said...

That's what I'm trying to tell you as well. I'm not the only person to use 'fun' in a broad sense. Satisfaction doesn't completely grasp what it means to me, because it implies only the long term, calm sort of fun. I think that say, a game where the party is chased by orcs through the woods could be very fun, but not completely described by the word 'satisfying', and certainly not the kind of thing the people who like easy games would enjoy. (It would be improved by good movement and sneaking rules, an encumbrance system, a detailed and realistic knowledge of the landscape by players and the DM, an attempt at understanding orc psychology and physiology, and most importantly, a genuine chance of failure if the part makes mistakes.)

I think a part of the game like this would be best described as 'exciting'. It would be satisfying at the end if the players escape, but it's not the entire reason the experience is enjoyable.

A part of a game could also be described as 'interesting', say, if the players are given the chance to learn a detailed history of an area they travel through. Or perhaps 'challenging' or 'mentally stimulating' if they have to manage a domain with realistic farming, politics, expenses, and the like.

All of this is underpinned by satisfaction, depth, and meaning in the long term. Players need to feel like their experiences aren't trivial. But the goal here is still for the actual game to be fun. Whatever is happening, it needs to be in some way enjoyable, even in a sometimes boring or painful way.

There is a huge variety of enjoyable experiences tabletop gaming can provide, and in my opinion, the word 'fun' works the best as an umbrella term that includes all of them. It also includes some things like 'easiness' and 'familiarity' that some people unfortunately over emphasize. But that doesn't make the word useless as an overall metric of a game. It's a word I intend to keep.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Ozzie. I have fun also. But 'fun' has become a word used specifically in the gaming community as a weapon to dismiss ALL deeper forms of gaming. The idiots, as you call them, use that weapon; and right now the idiots are running the show. This is what the post was ACTUALLY about. The idiots are running the show. They are a very small minority, but they're the corporate part of the community and they have all the visibility right now.

The word 'fun' is a weak, childish word for a complicated, difficult game. Whatever its viability, the constant, insistent, stubborn use of the word is part of what makes the world chuckle at this game's reputation. I recognize that you can't see that. It's my responsibility as a writer to help you to see it. No matter how many times I have to write about it.

Ozzie Pippenger said...

I understand you. I just think it's more profitable to fight for the word, to prove that fun doesn't rely entirely on ease and simplicity like some people think it does, to deprive lazy and unintelligent people of the word as a weapon. I think it gives the wrong idea to say that fun isn't a goal, because people associate it with perfectly reasonable, nuanced desires, as well as more ridiculous and childish ones. But it doesn't seem like we'll agree on this any time soon, and it's a fairly minor point overall anyway, compared to the overall viewpoint, which I agree with.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Not to flog a dead horse. Consider a sharp, intellectual activity - to attend opera. I very much enjoy opera. I find it gratifying, uplifting, emotionally challenging; but it's worthless for me to define it in any positive way, since unless I'm speaking to someone else who likes opera, I'm not going to convince. And if I am speaking to another opera-goer, I don't NEED to defend it. We wouldn't waste a word doing so to each other. We like it. What it 'is,' in terms of how it's enjoyment is defined, is a worthless and ridiculous timewasting debate.

Yet for some reason, the D&D community has to indulge in this debate endlessly. Why? Are we not convinced? Is it not enough to say we like it? Why does it have to BE anything? Why does what it is matter?

Because a select group of practitioners have decided that it must fit a corporate model. It must retain a specific, universal appeal, to everyone for exactly the same reasons. And those reasons MUST be that no one, absolutely no one, ever feel that they have been personally made either redundant or unwanted. It is a CORPORATE agenda. The most possible customers for the most easily produced most universal product.

And MOST of the visible community has bought into it. The visible community deliberately sets out to attack anyone who doesn't toe the line. And the measuring stick they use is 'FUN' Eff. You. En.

And fuck you if you're not.

ESR said...


Thanks for the very thoughtful post. The subsequent discussion over definitions with Ozzie still weren't a waste to me, as it clarified the point for me.

I think you've written about this before, but so long as D&D (or any RPG) remains a Corporate Thing, there is really no incentive to "get it right". Getting it right would mean that there would only be one set of books you'd ever have to buy, and then Big Corporate would actually have to invent new, different games to make money (*gasp*). Instead, they re-start the process every time, and the idealists might even think they are trying to get it right this time, but inevitably invent more stupid mechanics, which are never fixed, but rather abandoned for "the next version".

I believe that D&D is always going to be complex, and the most avid players and DMs INVENT additional rules to add complexity to any "dumbed down version" of the game. Big Corporate loves this, because it just lets them sell more books again, while claiming that they've once again made the Core Rules simpler and more attractive to new players. But really, they've just re-started the process for anyone who considers the game's complexity to be a virtue...

I'm not sure it's the idiots who are to blame - I think Big Corporate uses these people as an excuse to do what makes the most money.

As much as one can poke holes in any edition of D&D, I like Pathfinder for the reason that Big Corporate DOESN'T own it. It's now open source, and anyone can contribute their fixes. Meaning that MAYBE it's on the right track to getting a system built that might one day be "complete".

ESR said...


My apologies. I have a bad habit of short-forming names, and I had thought that some other commenters used that and there wasn't a problem. I had not gone back and noticed any of your comments to my comments where you had corrected me (my bad). I have no problem calling you Alexis, and will ensure I don't abbreviate/butcher your name in future.

ESR said...

PS - the other issue (not your problem) is that I play in a campaign with a DM named Alex, and I had another friend named Alexis who called himself Alex.

But - no excuse.


Alexis Smolensk said...

Then I'll remove my comment. I've been telling you for about a year, ESR.

Anonymous said...

What I take out of the post is that companies like WOTC try to make their RPG product more fun. By increasing the fun factor of a game, they reduce a level of satisfaction a player would achieve through a richer, more complex engagement.

More specifically that Corporations are selling "safe for children" games, which inevitably alienates serious adult players like the readers of this blog.

It was an interesting read, because I have before had one of my players say to me, when a heated debate came up about player assets in my campaign,: "we are all here to have fun, it is just a game isn't it?" At the time his comment did not sit well with me. Though it is true we are all friends who have come together to play a game. But now I see that his engagement in the game did not match some of the other players. the "we are all here to have fun" line (for my player) was a throw away line. What he really meant was this is requiring too much engagement for me, you all are taking this too seriously. That's what was off putting for me, because I thrive on players taking my game seriously.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I agree, Itwarring ... note how the fellow couched his complaint in something that was intended to make you feel 'guilty,' rather than admit this wasn't the game for him. It is a control tactic. Puts me off too.