Friday, January 12, 2018

Carl Solomon and Me

"Our only respite [from the RPG community] is a self-awareness about our behaviour, our games, our efforts at legitimacy, our belief in a less toxic future and the real experience we have had playing among groups of highly intelligent, decent, remarkable people, having been customarily obtuse about closing our doors against the odious hordes."

I wrote this two days ago as part of an address I was writing against the state of play in RPGs — and rather than revisit my criticisms, I'd rather invest in the positivism that I indulged at the end.

This investigation into advice and community belief has been disheartening.  There are many things, I find, about which I have been happily ignorant; I could have gone my whole life without learning about stat arrays, for example, which I only learned about, gawd, Wednesday.  I can still feel the bile in my throat.

When I look at it all, I wonder how the original message got this distorted; and I stagger at the effort needed to get the game "back on track" — if indeed that is even possible, given the ongoing, "official" propaganda dispensed about role-playing, backstories, balance and deliberate cheating.  I'm already drifting into an age when saying that I play "Dungeons & Dragons" is an inaccuracy.  Whatever I am playing, writing about or designing, it certainly isn't D&D™.

And that is a pity, since it means I can't go to the local games shop and sit down to play a game, even if I want to.  I wouldn't enjoy the "game" being played.  It means that if I stumble across a fellow at the coffee shop who also plays, we can't have a conversation.  It isn't just that we disagree on relative points of play or method ... we're divided by the lack of a common language, where my game uses a set of descriptions and definitions from a once-upon period, while the fellow is garbling on about stat arrays, session zeros, backstories and an "adventurers league," all of which are common terms that did not exist when I began writing this blog, just nine years ago.  Nine years from now, who knows what shit the company is going to dump on the player, in an effort to retain the relevance of the company.

So yes, my game is about my table; and in a wider sense, the small number of readers I can maintain, here and on the wiki, where new players to the game are polluted with arguments against combat, against random chance, against risk and against even the concept of a homebrewed world.  The noobs are driven into the pens of "the new kind of game," where the die roll of the kid in Florida this Wednesday night is the same pre-planned die roll of the kid in Manchester, the kid in Kuala Lumpur, the kid in Vancouver and the kid in Johannesburg, on the same night or at least the same week ... all of which are similarly modified and fudged by DMs operating with the same permissive cheat-codified playbook.


It's hard not to be negative.  It's hard to rise above that reality, to pretend this isn't how the community is being driven, by ignorance, by a lack of proper guidance, by hard information, by pervasively purple splat books and by a waxing desperation for some kind of clarity.  We can only sell the idea of a session zero because communication between DMs and players is atrociously bad; both sides will grasp with despair at anything that might promise a better connection between presenter and responder.  The pervasive acceptance of fudging and DM manipulation can only happen because we must do something in a game that has utterly failed the participants, forcing them to express their dissatisfaction, their feeling of being used, and the DM's concommitant feeling of inadequacy in making the player happy, somehow, even if it means gross cheating is the only option.

How else can we explain such an utter split from ethical behavior, or the cognitive dissonance in players being grateful when they are told, "Instead of rolling dice to determine your character, it will be so much better if you choose from a list of numbers that have been carefully balanced" so that no one is offended?  How else can we explain not only the acceptance of a predetermined success and fail adventure, but the SAME success-and-fail adventure being flogged at every game store, among every would-be player, everywhere?  The participants are lost, flailing around, quite obviously wanting to game, to the point where they are willing to swallow any idea that will help maintain some sort of reasonable expectation of play.

Because the home game has been a failure.  We've failed.  We weren't able to teach the next generation how to DM, as I learned how to DM from the DMs who came before me.  We weren't able to teach players how to play, being that we ourselves stumbled around so blindly, so vaguely, cramming together splatbooks from multiple game editions, stealing from hither and yon and finding ourselves lacking the time and the energy to make it work, make it come together, make the players come back to play again — rather, they quit and went back to the ordinary life of all the rest who never played, where they could wistfully hear the name of the game pronounced and say, "Oh, yeah, that.  I played that when I was in college."

We who can DM, who can play, who respect the rules, who respect the code of human ethics that says do not lie, do not cheat, do not fuck with your players ... we are just forbidden isles in an empty sea, untouched by and not touching the continental chaos that reigns.  We can feel good about ourselves; we can be appreciated by our players.  We can influence, perhaps, a dozen others who will try to run the game as we ran it, if they are not turned from that path by the siren song of easy modules and easy solutions to difficult players who can't deal with their character's death and must be cheated of a bad experience that might correct their entitlement.  We're nothing in this chaos.  We're in Rockland.

I’m with you in Rockland
     where you scream in a straightjacket that you’re losing the game of the actual pingpong of the abyss
I’m with you in Rockland
     where you bang on the catatonic piano the soul is innocent and immortal it should never die ungodly in an armed madhouse
I’m with you in Rockland
     where fifty more shocks will never return your soul to its body again from its pilgrimage to a cross in the void
I’m with you in Rockland
     where you accuse your doctors of insanity and plot the Hebrew socialist revolution against the fascist national Golgotha
From Howl, by Allen Ginsberg

Each time, it seems, that I rise up to write another post about D&D, I feel the weight of living in an insane asylum, where players drag themselves through a static dramatic play, speaking the lines they are told to speak and responding to the chorus in the way they are told to respond, orchestrated not by a single DM, but by a faceless, emotionless machine that doesn't care, so long as there's money.  And this is the game.  This is what's right.  This is what's praised.  This is what we are told to play.

Where I struggle not to rant.  Where I struggle to deconstruct patiently, and not to scream remorselessly at the void.  Where I struggle not to let my despair get the better of me.  Where I pretend I am making a difference and all is not chaos and piss.  Where I lie to myself instead of saying, I should not have fallen in love with this game, this game with knives in it, that staggers to the dais to die in its hubris.

I am all right.  I'll keep writing.  But I am mad, starving, hysterical and naked.  I am dragging myself through the negro streets at dawn looking for a fix.  I am caught in publishing obscene odes from the windows of my skull, broken, crying, trembling in a white gymnasium before the machinery of other skeletons.

I want to save this game that I love, more than success or sanity.  But it is already gone.


  1. Sure glad you decided to invest in indulgent positivism.
    ; )

    The main “failure” of the home game is/was the controlling company’s ability to monetize it. But I think that thought deserves its own long-winded discussion, separate from the angst you’re expressing.

    I feel you, man. Really I do.

  2. Well, I could have been MORE positive, but I'd have had to start lying.

    You could have just said, you're with me in Rockland.

    Thank you JB.

  3. Got poetic there near the end, uh?

    You carry about yourself the weight of someone who has stared into the Youabyss for too long. It is beginning to stare back and it's understandably dragging down your scene.

  4. Drain,

    Not my work though. Last night's post on Wowotu is evidence of a terrific breakthrough in worldbuilding, setting development and macro-RPG design. Rest assured, my perspective on the game is fine; I'm not questioning my message, only the veracity of my message reaching a wide readership.

    A very supportive friend and contributor to the blog told me this morning that he was lucky to find me. "Lucky." Of course he meant it as a compliment, but I look at that and think, "Wow, I'm so obscure and difficult to find that the only chance of anyone actually reading my stuff is if they get "lucky." That doesn't make me very lucky, does it?

  5. Have you heard of the concept of raising the sanity waterline? It's not quite directly applicable, but it was formed in response to a similar set of emotional responses, I think.

    (Also, What do you have to say about people like this guy: He approaches RPG's in a completely different way than you do; Using many, and relying on them being good for a specific job or type of story and game-play. I think it might be a good launching point for games which do things which are not the OD&D thing)

  6. I just had to google stat arrays... huh, that's quite the thing... It seems to me to be a prop for bad DM's - I see new games being planned, and these pre-rolled options being given and DM's asking "Are any of these a trap", as if to say, if a player chooses one of these options, am I so inept at my job that I cannot let them have any fun.

    Perhaps what's needed instead of stat arrays and all the rest of the junk is to include with every roleplaying game, auto DM rules and a $100 tax on the DM's guide, so that no-one can be a DM without significant investment and can always be measured against an algorithm, which while it will never be better than a _good_ DM, will knock the pants of a DM who can't cope because he can't control how strong or intelligent his players characters are.

  7. There's a certain precedent for some of these things; pre-generated rolls were/are? used in tournament games, and to a large extent the old GP=XP rule encouraged trickery over direct combat.

    But I have to agree - I was much happier before I Googled "stat arrays", and it does sound like the same game in the same world instead of letting a million flowers grow. Twenty years ago I bought into Third Edition because I was so excited about a fresh new D&D - now I think I'll stick with OSR products such as Searchers Of The Unknown and let the insanity play out. I'm being a Bad Supporter Of The Game, I know - but I agree, there's not much of a Game to be supporting anymore.

  8. Thanks Ole. Haven't thought of this post in a very long time. Pleased to see it still reads well.

    I'm well past that transition period. Changes in my game, in my approach to distributing game material, the wiki, the menu, the present book, have all restored my faith to levels that have not existed since the 1980s. I feel today that I'm doing the best work I've very done with D&D.

    I guess the white-suited folk have let me out of Rockland.


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