These retrospectives are a good opportunity for me to look back. I do mean to write more about chasing the goblins into the forest, but it's the first of the month and I'd like to interrupt that for this.
Four years ago the big post was my review of James Raggi's module Death Frost Doom. My players still speak of it and shudder. I had promised Raggi that if he sent me a copy of the module, I would run my players through it - which I did, at least until my players refused to continue any farther.
A couple of months ago I spied this post that hearkened back to my "fucking up royally" when I ran the module. Apparently, James Young, writer of the post, has no actual idea how a 'review' works. The point of a review isn't to change or alter the material to make it work for you - the point of a review is to give a frank, unbiased reading of the material as it appears, so that others may view the review as a baseline for their own opinions.
Given that my players grew so bored with the module, run as written, that they eventually rose from the table and refused to continue playing, I felt that this was indicative of the quality of the actual material. Regardless of my ability to massage that material to make it 'fit' in my world.
Of course I could have made it work! Of course I could have shaped and shifted the rooms around, getting rid of those that were pointlessly empty, softening the heavy-handed obvious tropes surrounding how 'terrifying' it was supposed to be (my players could not stop rolling their eyes every time I read another of Raggi's descriptions), etcetera. But that wasn't the agreement. The agreement was a review in exchange for free material - the same agreement I've made with many a theatre producer, filmmaker, bookwriter or presenter in days when I once worked as a journalist.
On the weekend, I happened to catch Jon Favreau's film Chef, a film about a chef who gets a very, very bad review and is in turn forced to review the way he is pursuing his own passion. The message is plain - very often a bad review is indicative that something is wrong. At the same time, the error will most likely not be in the creator, but in the thing that is created. If I write a review of Raggi's material, or anyone else's, that describes my players quitting because they're bored out of their minds, in addition to being pissed at the obvious manipulation and cheesy descriptive text, that isn't an attack on Raggi or all that Raggi stands for, that's an attack on one piece of material that Raggi produced. If Raggi wants to look at that review and ignore me - or if other players love the material and ignore me - so be it. I don't expect to change the world with a review. I wish to express what I saw, what I experienced, the reactions I received and so on - so that others who read this blog and know my stand on role-playing can be forewarned.
I was led to believe that Death Frost Doom was special, that it was dark, that it was in some way more exciting than other role-playing modules. On the contrary, I found it was very flat, virtually a one-note symphony, with overwritten description, underwritten content and a tendency towards the mastubatory. The players described the experience of running through it as "the puzzle that enables you to reach the next puzzle," an experience they equated with 1990s video puzzle game culture. I, personally, found it anything but scary. I must believe from the descriptions online of its fright-factor that bloggers are remarkably unimaginative, naive, terribly over-protected mamma's darlings who have never really experienced anything in their personal lives that was, in fact, actually scary. For those of us who are jaded, the room and context descriptions were campy and forced.
The television series that inspired this post from October was much darker. It is one of my favorite posts. I did not include it among the How to Play Essays, as it would have been out of context and probably misunderstood. I highly recommend the series The Nazis and the Final Solution. The youtube link on the site years ago is dead now, but a vigorous search on google videos can turn up copies. The show helps to emphasize the very real truth that terror is not something created from cheesy descriptions of strange walls, pictures, rooms and so on. Terror arises from the mundane, from our lack of control as we see completely ordinary things emerging and swelling until we realize that there's no escape. Present justifications, for example, to once again initiate the same war in the middle east that proved fruitless and destructive for more than a decade, to fight an enemy with a lot of press that is in fact no different from hundreds of other 'terrorist' groups presently controlling parts of Zaire, Liberia, Colombia, Nigeria, the Central African Republic, Somalia, Burma and Indonesia. Those groups, however, do not stand on ground that Halliburton would like to control, so we don't get news stories about them - that is, until they kill 200 children in a school somewhere.
The mundane, the ordinary life of the ordinary American, as the country moves steadily towards a more imperialist foreign policy, exchanging the lives of children for territory to support the avarice of wealthy autocrats. Walls and rooms designed in poor pseudo-Baroque scenes of disgust only serves to distract from those things in this world that well and truly lift us from our beds at night, forcing us to pace in the small hours. "Where is my son? Is he safe? Why hasn't my daughter written? What am I going to do once the company lets me go? Will anyone hire me now that I'm sixty?" And so on.
Freaky paintings only hold a fascination for the wide-eyed innocent.
There were a lot of other things I wrote that October. Reading the texts, I feel I must have felt driven. I wrote some good stuff on alternative magic, here and here; on rolling dice, here and here; and on history, here. I looked long and hard at the Pressure post for the Essays book, finally deciding against it due to its reference to someone else's material.
I also think that, with the review and the other things written that month, I began to cement the perception that I just didn't give a shit about people who did not hold my point of view. That was certainly how it was interpreted. I had been writing this blog a little more than two years and I remember feeling that the message wasn't getting through.
I'll state is clearly now, as I know most of the readers here already know it well. The way that most people play D&D is utter shit. It is dull and repetitive and reflects a shallow easiness in design that fails to meet the standards that I feel the game deserves. I do not care that others find this adequate. I do not. This is why I do not play in worlds run by other people. Those worlds bore me. It would be very hard for me to give support to such worlds or for such play as I've witnessed, because I don't respect it. Were I to use phrases such as, "Everyone should run the world they want to," it would lip service to a philosophy I don't embrace.
I feel no camaraderie with people whose only defense of their world is that it's 'fun.' That sounds empty and dull. It sounds like a world without detail, without ideals, without imagination. It sounds like the same crappy world I've seen hundreds of people run. Given the choice of running in that world or spending the evening doing anything else, I would do anything else. Where that world and I are concerned, I might as well not play D&D at all.
I hope that's clear. If that world were the only sort of world that existed in the game, I wouldn't play! I would go find some other pastime, something deserving of my attention.
Saying that this or that world is "good" isn't enough. I want proof that your world promises a well-spent evening. Looking around the blogosphere, however, I'm not seeing that. I'm seeing dunder-headed repetitions of design features that were advanced in the early 1980s that still fail to address the real issues of role-playing - managing players, enabling agency, establishing tension, world design and social relevance.
I'm looking for an engineering department and all I see are used-car lots.