Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Goldfish

I said in the comments section to Hills Cantons' interview with Rob Kuntz that I could write three blog posts on what was said there.  In reading it Monday, I conceived of all three in a matter of minutes, just gauging my reaction and considering how I might reply if I had the mic.  This is then the third post, and after this I shall drop the matter.  I am getting a truckload of pageviews for the material, but very little in the way of comments ... which always says I'm doing something right.

I now direct the reader towards that portion of the interview in which 'hot dogs' are discussed.  As ever, I encourage the reader to examine the quote in context and to review Kuntz's purpose for writing it.  I am only going to quote what is relevant to this post:

"As the main courses being served again and again are hot dogs a publisher vested in that route doesn’t want to change the menu that is working for them until it stops working, which directly relates to a-nickel-up-your-ass-at-a-time planned obsolescence. So a really good designer (offering steak, let’s say) is really up against it. Most everyone is used to seeing, smelling and eating hot dogs and thus cannot sense the steak vendor, and even if they did, they can’t “get” what it is they’re offering."

In answering this, I am now going to do something wrong.  I am going to talk about the elephant in the room, the fact that I have never seen "steak" where it comes to any design for D&D, ever.  I have argued from the beginning that D&D, as a game, is broken.  It, and everything that has ever been written for it, is a lumbering hulk of cobbled-together crap that barely hangs together on its shambling, contorted frame.  But this is not generally understood.  This is not generally believed, particularly by the echo chambers of the D&D blog universe, which simply refuses to accept that far more people have quit this game than play it now.  I don't mean twice as many people, I mean at least 20 or 50 times as many people, or more.  They have picked it up, spent money on it, tried it a few times, found it to be absolute crying shit, and have returned to their lives wondering why the fuck anyone would play this game.

And meanwhile the remaining participants slobber over 'classic' materials like old Greyhawk or the Tomb of Horrors, remembering fondly how wonderful these things were, their eyes glassing over with tears of games gone by that will never again be played with that happy fervor of youth.

I mean it.  Consider the best of the best of the best material you have ever seen in all your many years of playing the game, and now reflect upon all the copies of that material that have been thrown away because really, the vast majority considered it totally worthless.  You know, I can go into any used bookstore and find a whole wall of National Geographics; but does anyone, anywhere, offer more than three ratty issues of Dragon Magazine?

Hey, maybe New York City does.  Maybe Chicago is a mecca for such things.  But I live in a city of more than a million people, which boasts at least five hard-core D&D bloggers, and I would bet I couldn't find a Dragon magazine if I tried.  But I'm not going to try, and you know why?  Because the Dragon was SHIT.

Spells I didn't need.  Gods I didn't need.  Monsters that were repeated rehashes of existing monsters.  Two or three adventures which were the same old shit that I wasn't interested in using.  Really, really bad fiction.  One page of 'meh' humour and three pages of really, really crappy graphic fiction.  Articles about trends or reviews which were palpable filler, exactly the sort of thing Kuntz still writes and exactly the sort of thing that has no value to me whatsoever.  I find it remarkable that month after month the Dragon managed to remain the premiere magazine of a hobby I absolutely loved without ever actually giving me any information that was actually useful for me.  But then, I'm having the same reaction to what I see on blogs.

Readers, you can snipe and gnash your teeth and insist upon the genius of the Dragon and any other concocted writings you masturbate yourselves with, but one day it will dawn on you what is actually wrong with D&D, and what will always be wrong with D&D.

It is boring.  It is hideously, awfully, compendiously, hopelessly dull.  As a stand-alone game, it is absolutely crap.  It will never be popular.  It will never be embraced by the masses.  The cluttered mass of rules is far too feckless to ever appeal to people who want success and 'fun' spelled out for them.  That may not be nice to hear.  Truth never is.

There is one thing, and one thing only that makes this game enjoyable for a very, very, VERY small number of people.  That is a DM who can pull all this shit together and create a performance out of it.

Two days ago I said that "We stuck it to the man, and we stuck it so hard that yes, there is only one real manufacturer."  Kuntz would have you believe that this was a clever marketing ploy, that WOTC fills the market with garbage so the great material can never be found.  The truth is, we're both wrong.  I'm wrong, because we never stuck it to anyone.  We merely didn't care enough to put our tiny bit of collective weight behind a manufactured idea, no matter who did the manufacturing.  Kuntz is wrong because in 40 years no one has managed to invent any product associated with this game that could reasonably be called "steak."

The people who put it to the man, the people who really fucked over TSR, and the WOTC, and destroyed their dreams of empire, are the people who QUIT playing the game.  These are the people who never found a DM who could put all this shit together and make it good.  Their number of friends in their high school didn't happen to include such a person.  The fellow they met in university who could do it also turned out to be a major asshole.  The chances just never lined up in their favor.  And while some of them might wonder how it might have been if they didn't grow up in Shithole, Kansas, with the books their grandmother in New Jersey sent because she'd heard it was popular among young people, the majority will never think about the game again.  Their response will be, "Oh, that ... fuck, do people still play that?" with the clear, lacking in tears memory of a very stupid, crappy afternoon when four of them tried to figure out how the fuck the game was played.

I am sorry to put it so bluntly.  If you take the DM out of the equation, all the rest of it has no value at all.  Sadly, however, for DMs who haven't figured out yet how to do it themselves, all this crap for sale will continue to serve as a crutch; and for a lot of would-be designers, who haven't yet figured out that they are reinventing the wheel again, and again, and again ... and omg again ... it will forever seem that their decision to use this art image for the cover of their really profound Dungeon Imaginarium proves finally that they are the bestest designer EVER!

It all reminds me of the goldfish, roaming around its bowl, with its 3-second memory span:

"Hey, there's a castle here ...
oh look, a castle! ...
wow, I didn't know there was a castle here ...
oops, someone put in a castle ...
Hey, there's a castle here ..."

Ad nauseum.


ckutalik said...

Not even a cheap grade steak? Round? Skirt?

You are right to point out that millions of people have tried this game and never played again. Given the estimates ranging from 1-10 million having played in the 1980s, I would definitely think it is way more.

But do you really think they stopped playing because the quality of the published products of the game were sub-par? I'm not convinced that was even a primary stopping point for those who left--which I was myself for two and a half decades.

I think it's a more complicated phenomena. Exactly what I cop I haven't grasped yet (and perhaps this can be spun back into the quality issue obliquely) The game's pop cultural faddism? The maturing of interests of the boom generation?

And yes, the Dragon was in the main a POS for most of its life. I look at many of those nostalgia-misted issues and wince myself.

Alexis said...


I think it is easy to cast around looking for other explanations. When you compare RPG published products against other RPG published products, some do come out favorably. But when you compare RPG published products with the material published for other hobbies, it is OMG sad, sad, sad. Can you imagine model train enthusiasts getting excited about the kind of monthly publications the RPG community puts out? At least there the magazines are glossy and beautiful to look at, with a very strong do-it-yourself bent.

And what do we have? Well, the Raggi orgasm has been going on a year now.

ckutalik said...

But when you compare RPG published products with the material published for other hobbies, it is OMG sad, sad, sad. Can you imagine model train enthusiasts getting excited about the kind of monthly publications the RPG community puts out? At least there the magazines are glossy and beautiful to look at, with a very strong do-it-yourself bent.

Good point. The RPG doesn't stack up well to that hobby, or for that matter the high-end of its parent, mini-wargaming, either. The glossy, decently-researched historical supplements for GW's Warhammer Ancient Battles or Fields of Glory whip just about anything I have seen the RPG industry produce.

I have no idea on the actual numbers, but I get the impression though that both hobbies have fewer participants than they did 30 years ago. Something for a less-distracted mind than my own to puzzle out.

I guess the real question though is if we have never had the steak what does RPG "steak" look like?

Kenwolf said...

i agree with a lot of what you said, but one thing that you can't really say is that most of the people left the hobby because of quality. you have to figure in real life and that sometimes people just out grow their hobby.

also people have different views on what is good quality and what is not. it is all subjective to the individual. what you might think is utter shit another person might think is really good.

i don't really understand the big fascination of the retro clones, when i play D&D i want to play with my house rules. not someone else house rules.

Zzarchov said...

While you won't publish this you might read it.

There is no "steak" of RPG's because you are drawing an artificial line around RPG's because you personally like them.

RPG's are the hot dog of gaming and video games are the steak. That is what happened to your RPG market and the numbers support it. I like RPG's as well as the next guy but do you see any RPG's with a HUNDRED MILLION dollar budget? That's a private sector budget granted with the reasonable expectation it will earn a nice return on investment.

Just my 2c from working in the video game industry, hope I could teach you something and if not that's cool too.

Alexis said...

Oh, I'll publish it, despite the faceslapping. I'll publish it because I accept your premise.

Now let's get off the fucking pot and build an RPG with a hundred million dollar budget. Seems an obvious solution. Get a decent computer application built, make it interactive rather than presentation in scope, and we're halfway there.

But wait! First we will have to deal with the hundreds of online bloggers who will immediately start to cry: "Waaa! Waaa! That sounds like work! Waaa! That sounds hard! We want to have fun!"

Dumbass fuckers.

Anonymous said...

Alexei, you ignore (no, you seem to ignore) that 100M$ budget videogames are played once, maybe twice, three times if the content is big. Outliers are PCG games like roguelikes, Diablo, Civilizations and other 4X games, which are replayed a few times by most people and then discarded except by a few hardcore enthusiasts exactly like we do with D&D. D&D and the other PCG, like chess and go, are for nerds that appreciate their depth: the game can't fully be grasped in one afternoon (and the fact that we are still writing the game instead of simply writing about it is a testament to that). Normal people play them a bit and get scared and confused.

Heroquest, on the other hand, is accessible, lotsa components, flashy, massmarket as it gets. But nobody that owns a copy plays it nowadays because, frankly, it's conceptually a really small game.

There is a long tail in usage and it seems to me that, the more budget, the bigger it gets upfront but the smaller it gets in the long run. Of course execution matters, but i don't think that budgeting is a critical factor here: it just scales the whole curve upwards.

And I like sausages. A lot. I prefer it to steak. And to be honest I might have bad taste but i liked reading The Dragon: a big part of it was useless junk but that didn't stop me from enjoying the rest. The fact that you (and other people) didn't find the stuff useful is because, pardon the tautology, you couldn't find any use for it. I could.

That probably means we played very different games.

And the faceslapping comment seems a bit hypocrite to be honest. Your bite on my ass still burns a bit. You spend entire blogposts slapping people that annoy you.
If I were you I'd ignore them and wouldn't approve comments instead of wasting bile and time: the internet is home of the trolls, and you don't need to justify your work to anybody.

Carl said...

For those of you advocating that it wasn't a lack of quality material, but instead a change of tastes/maturity/life/whatever, I call bullshit. There are plenty of examples around of people continuing to pursue hobbies that they picked up in Jr High/High School.

Example 1: Sports. My town has tons of amateur league sports for adults because it's fun and it continues to be fun and it's personally rewarding for people as they get older. There are adult dodgeball leagues in my town. Disc Golf leagues. Ultimate Frisbee leagues. These are not traditional "adult" games, and yet there are literally hundreds of people playing them in my modestly-sized city of just under 200,000. There may be 100 people who play RPGs in my town. I wouldn't know, because every time I try to connect with other gamers, there aren't any.

Example 2: Video Games. I'm 41. I have been a rabid fan of computer games since I first saw Space Invaders at the age of 8 (which coincidentally was about the same time I was introdcued to D&D). I spend probably $30 per month, on average, on video games. Video games were crude, poorly rendered and there were many, many bad ones back then. If games had stayed at the same quality level they were at in 1978, do you think anyone would be playing them now? It's highly doubtful. I see a strong corrallary here with D&D. The game has not become better. It's the same game with the same flaws, and the changes that have been made to it are the equivalent of painting the cabinet of a stand-up game with a fancier picture.

If you think about it for a minute, I'm pretty sure you can come up with more examples of things that people started doing as kids for fun and continue to do as adults for fun. This is because they are actually fun. D&D, in the harshest light of evaluation is only fun if the DM knows what he or she is doing and can, as Alexis said, make it a performance.

This is key weakness of D&D: without a good DM you have a pile of shit. Guess what a computer RPG provides? A fucking great DM. It presents colorful pictures and interactive combat and compelling plot points and on and on and on. And more than anything else, a computer game is not biased. It always plays by the same rules. They do not change as you play. The rules are extremely rigid. There are definate success and failure conditions. You can win and be declared the winner, which is an absolutely key component to any game and one that is distinctly lacking from D&D.

This is also the key advantage that wargames have over RPGs. They have rules and you can win, and it doesn't rely on one person in the group having a talent for entertaining other people to make it fun. If you have that person, it can make it more fun, but that's true of anything.

I know what RPG steak would look like. It would be a book and computer-based training module on how to be a good DM. Want to grow the hobby? Focus on the person who is key to the games, and teach people how to do it.

You're right, Alexis. I should start blogging again.

Alexis said...


I direct all suggestions on how to change my character or my manner of blogging to this post.

It is only hypocritical if I tell Zzarchov not to do it. Which I did not do. I merely acknowledged his method and added that it did not stop me from publishing him.

You may know it or not, tjocanth, but many people spend entire blogposts slapping me. I don't go there and tell them how to blog. Please refrain from doing as much to me.

My name is Alexis, by the way.

I kicked your hobby, and I kicked it hard. We must cut down the previous years' crop before we can grow another one.

It is irrelevant to me what previous attempts to create long-standing games platforms have, or have not, been able to do. A success cannot measure its feasibility by previous failures.

I do hope you feel better. It is good to rail at me now and then. Helps get it out of your system. I sincerely and without malice or sarcasm encourage you to seek common ground with me. I don't offer this to everyone.

Kenwolf said...

@ carl how can it be bull shit to say that a lot of peoples interest has changed over the last 30 years ? i used to love comic books, anime, and video games. i haven't read a comic book in over 15 years, haven't watched anime in well over 10 years and only play video games maybe a few times a year. it isn't the quality that made me stop. i just lost interest in it.

their is one big thing that drives people away from rpg's. it is the fact that every 6-7 years their is a new edition of the game. if your edition of the game isn't supported no more then it makes it hard to keep a group together.

Alexis said...


In general I am not speaking of people who played D&D for any length of time and then moved on to other things. I am speaking of people who tried to play and were unable to. We have all heard it said by strangers, over and over again. "I just don't get that game." There is a long, long history of it being extremely difficult to even explain the game to total noobs. It was much, much worse in the 80s when people were trying to explain it to their parents or grandparents. How much positivity can you hold for the success of a system when it can't be explained easily to other people?

Regarding your point about people being driven away by new editions. I just don't see that. I don't find people throwing up their arms and quitting RPG's altogether just because someone invented a new one. Shit, we'd have all quit thirty years ago. There's a new one being invented every third day ... screw 7 years. Just take a view of the blogs around - one in four are proposing some new game they've just invented.

It is bullshit, Kenwolf, because the argument does not apply to any other hobby except ours. It is an often repeated trope, repeated and repeated, but it's just sour grapes shared around by D&Ders who won't admit that there's something more here than just different strokes for different folks. That is a cheesy, weak, desperate argument. It's just the kind of thing the wolf said about not getting what he wanted: "D&D just isn't for everyone."


Alexis said...

Oh, in case you don't know Kenwolf. Aesop's tale about sour grapes included a wolf. It is just coincidence.

Kenwolf said...

doesn't people not "getting" the game when you explain it to them have more to do with how hard it is for them to understand ? rather then it being bad quality ?

our hobby has a lot of bad things going for it that makes it hard for people to stay into it. or even start to enjoy it in the first place. i wont argue about that at all. but i also don't see a way to make it more user friendly ether. i don't think having a quality product can change that.

Carl said...


Fair enough. Tastes change over time.

However, this does not explain the amazing rate of attrition from RPGing compared to almost any other hobby. In fact, the rate is so amazing that I daresay that pencil-and-paper RPGs are a fad that came and went in the 1980s. When I tell people I'm a Dungeon Master and I run a weekly 4-hour game and have more or less continously for the last 3 years the two most common things people say to me are:

1. I didn't know people still played that.
2. I tried that once way back in junior high, but I just didn't get it and the other kids were kind of mean.

No one ever says that about comics, anime or video games. With those things, there's nothing to 'get' You are introduced and that's it.

You, personally, may no longer read comics or watch anime and have a limited consumption of video games. However, the volume of products that these industries churn out serve as proof that they are and continue to be insanely more popular than RPGs among a wide demographic.

Considering D&D and computer gaming showed up at right about the same time, I'm a bit suprised the pencil-and-paper stuff is still around. I had never really thought about that before now.

Zarcanthropus said...

The fact that it takes a good GM to make it work doesn't make the the game hot dogs, steak or shit. I liken it to a gourmet meal. Difficult to prepare, appreciated by the few and requiring a master chef. The masses don't want entertainment that requires them to do anything, let alone think. That D&D isn't for the masses is a feature, not a bug.

Zzarchov said...


If you accept the premise that a roleplaying game to remain a roleplaying game retain certain key elements (I'll say a game master and players and a tabletop). Then even if you put $100million behind it to make steak..

You will merely have the steak of roleplaying games. But the steak of roleplaying games will always be the hot dog of games. To have a large rush of people who play and love roleplaying games would require that roleplaying games not be compared against games as a whole (which are in turn compared against a large swathe of entertainment options).

Video game studios do competitive analysis not just against other video games but against other options such as television shows. Not matter how awesome of a roleplaying game you make, it is still a roleplaying game. The concept of a roleplaying game falls short of what is considered steak by the public at large.

Now you can go and say "fuck the general public, what do they know", but once you stop using that as a yard stick understand that some people do prefer hot dogs to steak; some people will love the garbage over the better RPG. If not mass appeal, what is your objective measure of good? Remove that objective measure and you get like the art world were some people really believe a sculpture of Jesus from dog shit is "good" because "all art is subjective".

As for my tone: the point in which you started throwing words in my mouth to third parties (Which I saw by comment 2 of the post you made referencing me incorrectly) that could impact my professional life(thanks google+!) and income, that is the point in which my polite and formal tone ends. That said I do still read your blog and list it in the blogs I suggest others read, because you are a valid authority in the fields you write about.

Carl said...

Clearly it's not for the masses. What I'm unclear on is exactly who it is for. And further, I'm unclear on why a game managed by a large and successful game company would continue to dump money into a product whose market has continually shrunk in the years since its introduction.

The idea that a business would not want to sell its product to as many people as possible is insane. How could that possibly be a feature?

The game has only become more exclusive (and not the good kind) as the years have rolled on. Every time a new edition is published, interest goes up slightly and then falls right back off again, with fewer people in the hobby than before.

The fact that the key factor in someone taking up the game hinges on having a good DM makes me wonder why WotC/Hasbro does not have an army of professional, trained DMs who are their employees running games every weekend in event spaces around the world and charging people for the privilege of playing in them. They should have subscription plans. They should have had them years ago. If they had had a house DM in each of those WotC stores in each of those malls who ran two games a day every day, they might have been able to stay open.

Instead we get increasingly expesive books full of reams of Byzantine rules that do nothing to address the core issue blocking the game's wide adoption: good DMs.

Even the most dedicated artist wants his or her work to SELL. If not, they go sell appliances or find some other 9-5 job so they can eat and maybe afford a significant other or a cat or something.

Blaine H. said...

I think from my opinion is that gamers do come and go... it is how it is in any hobby. Over the last 12 years of being a dedicated GM (maybe get to play twice a year anymore and run every week, several times), I have watched at least 30+ gamers grace my table and campaign setting. I've only had two quit due to hating the game.

Now I have 6 current players... occasionally 7 if someone is in town for the weekend. That puts me at a 1 current to 6 quitters. They quit because life happens, careers take them away, or just can't make the time. It isn't because the material is bad (which it is honestly).

The industry also has a major problem of only needing a dedicated group having only two copies of a specific book (Usually the players guide and maybe some component books that expand on concepts) and the rest of it sitting on the shoulders of GM to buy. That gets pricey quick but thankfully the vast majority of the books are worthless... but the companies keep making the mistake of thinking that every GM is going to buy the shovel fulls of garbage.

But if I am out with a few of my current or former gamers for lunch or to shop, gaming always comes up and we can usually stumble across a former gamer... and the attitude we hear from them isn't the "Oh, that... fuck, do people still play that?" but instead "Really? I can't find the time anymore..." and we have a pleasant exchange of stories for a half hour or more before parting ways.

This may be a small hobby but I think the number of people who leave due to anger from the hobby is less than due to a change in life.

I am sure if we looked model railroading, scale model builders or RC plane builders... much of whom have a history as long or longer than 'gaming', we will find a similarly large number of people who fall into the former members of the hobby than those who are active in it.

But the material beyond any base set of books and tools tends to be garbage... but then again, there are other games out there. I think most gamers who do quit 'D&D' in any of it's incarnations quit because they found better games... they are out there and actually fun and not tend to be the shambling, stitched together zombie beast that is unfortunately the flagship that people associate with RPGs.

Anonymous said...

In order:
1: sorry for misspelling your name again. My name gets mispronounced on a daily basis and after years it's still annoying. so yep i'm really sorry.

2: i didn't give you any advice on behaviour or blogging, it seems to me that you're doing pretty fine on both. I just mentioned that I'd do things differently. I'm tho quite amazed at the amount of energy that you manage to dig out and spend in fighting people that either troll or annoy you.
3: yep you kicked my hobby. My hobby tho does not have feelings. I don't see your approach and other approaches as inherently more or less valuable, they're just different tools in the hands of performers. And I do agree on the GM as a showman metaphor, but i actually think it's more like an MC than a performer: everybody at the table performs, IMHO.
3: previous attempts might not constitute a

It is irrelevant to me what previous attempts to create long-standing games platforms have, or have not, been able to do. A success cannot measure its feasibility by previous failures.

4: I was not railing, but merely made a in retrospect quite useless snide remark about your behaviour.
I don't really mind to be honest. You have your method and in retrospect I feel very patronizing how people tell you "you should do this" because it's obvious that you're a grown person and fully conscious of your actions.

Alexis said...

Don't sweat it. I can take a little bloody nose once in awhile. I don't have to go home and run under my bed. I recognize that it's dangerous out here.

People are going to insult me. It is only that on my blog I expect them to insult me according to the rules.