Games Blog

Reviews, thoughts and options from the word of paper-and-pencil roleplaying games.

D&D5 and Internet Outrage

So the first release of Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition has caused an internet shitstorm. And this time it has absolutely nothing to do with any content of the actual game, but the names of two of the list of people credited as consultants. People are talking of boycotting the game, or making donations to an appropriate charity instead of buying D&D products.

Admittedly those two names have a reputation as rather abrasive characters who do not suffer fools gladly, and referring to opponents as “Psuedoactivist Swine” is not the best way to make friends and influence people. But nothing excuses smears and blatant lies such as wholly false claims of racism and homophobia. The whole thing seems to be driven by long-running personal feuds and opposing cliques, some of which goes back to the elitism coming out of The Forge a decade ago.

I’m reminded of the “Satanic Panic” back in the 1980s, when a bunch of fundamentalists declared than D&D was a gateway to devil worship and a significant cause of teenage suicide. These small-minded and censorious authoritarians managed to do a great deal of harm to the RPG hobby, for example getting the game banned in schools. They succeeded in this because D&D was little known and little understood, and too few people outside the RPG hobby understood how much their claims were paranoid nonsense.

A decade later they tried the same thing against the far more mainstream Harry Potter fandom, and they just got steamrollered. Enough of a critical mass of people had read the actual books, so that nobody outside the fundamentalist bubble could take the devil-worship arguments seriously.

The same has happened with the so-called “Outrage brigade”. When they went after relatively little-known small-press writers people who ought to have known better bought their lies and smears. Once they went after the biggest game in the RPG hobby it was the equivalent of the moral minority versus Harry Potter. They were revealed as a small clique, deserving irrelevance beyond their little echo chambers.

It does need to be said that there has been some thoroughly toxic behaviour on both sides, bad things said in anger that keep on fuelling the fires. School playgound level name-calling and “Die in a fire” ad-hominems are never acceptable behaviour regardless of the provocation. As my mother always said “Two wrongs don’t make a right”. Some people really need to grow up and let go of old grudges.

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Fred Clark on The Satanic Panic

Great post by Fred Clark on the 1980s fundamentalist moral panic about D&D and Satanism. It all reads like ancient history now, like something out of the Salem witch trials.

Newitz’s account details one tangential battle of the Satanic Panic that arose in the 1980s — a moral panic that resulted in students being expelled from schools, young people being bullied by their peers or institutionalized by their parents, and dozens of innocent people spending years in prison for crimes that never even occurred.

The astonishing thing, as Newitz says, is that today, a few decades later, “D&D-influenced stories” are a noncontroversial part of mainstream American pop culture. That’s not what anyone would have predicted back during the Reagan years, when Satanic baby-killer politics first arose, bringing with it a whole host of demonizing delusions — a diabolical conspiracy of black-robed ritual abusers, fears of backward-masking messages in rock music, the presumption of a suicide epidemic among RPG enthusiasts. If you remember the 1980s, it’s jarring to step back today and realize how much of that has simply faded away and lost its power. The same folks who were able to bully D&D to the sidelines in the 1980s found themselves steamrolled when they later tried the same tactics against Harry Potter and his fans.

But, as Fred Clark explains, Dungeons and Dragons really was a threat to the world-view of a certain kind of authoritarian fundamentalism. It wasn’t the magic, or the monsters, or the made-up pantheons of gods.

It was the alignment system.

As I’ve explained before, D&D’s alignments have two axes forming a three-by-three matrix of ethical stances. One axis is Good vs. Evil, the other is Law vs. Chaos, more or less as defined by Michael Moorcock in his Eternal Champion saga. Law is all about following the rules and obeying authority, and it’s easy to see why some fundamentalists might have a problem with making that independent of Good and Evil. Despite it actually being true, as evidenced by every totalitarian regime in history.

But, as Fred Clark correctly points out, denying the existence of Lawful Evil or Chaotic Good isn’t actually very good theology.

It says something about the sorry state of biblical understanding among biblical “inerrantists” that we were left to learn this from Gary Gygax rather than from Galatians, Isaiah, Amos or the Gospels. But once we learned it — once we came to see the possibility of it — then the whole ideology we’d been taught came into question.

But when the fundamentalist faith is as fragile as a soap-bubble, just about anything can not only be seen as a threat, but can actually be a threat.

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Dark Dungeons!

Yes, they really are making a live-action film version of that infamous 1980s Jack Chick tract warning of that dangers of Dungeons and Dragons.

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Songo Mnara as an RPG setting?

ku-xlargeA lost city reveals the grandeur of medieval African civilization, and provides a bit of food for thought for anyone creating a psuedo-medieval RPG setting

Some of the world’s greatest cities during the Middle Ages were on the eastern coast of Africa. Their ornate stone domes and soaring walls, made with ocean corals and painted a brilliant white, were wonders to the traders that visited them from Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. They were the superpowers of the Swahili Coast, and they’ve long been misunderstood by archaeologists. It’s only recently that researchers outside Africa are beginning to appreciate their importance.

It’s easy to overlook the fact that in medieval times northern Europe was a backwater, and the real civilisations of the world were going on elsewhere. So any would-be game designer creating yet another Generic Fantasy setting based solely on medieval Europe is missing out.

The whole thing is worth reading, especially the way Songo Mnara had been wrongly assumed to have been a Arab outpost rather than an indiginous African civilisation. It’s true that it was Islamic, but it practiced an African version of Islam with far greater equality between the sexes.

At a time when game designers are being encouraged to be more inclusive, we should remember that medieval Africa wasn’t all primitive tribes, but contained sophisticated civilisations equal to those of Europe.

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ConTessa this coming weekend.

ConTessaA brief signal boost for ConTessa, an online gaming convention taking place this coming weekend, from the 7th to the 9th of February.

As it states on the ConTessa website:

ConTessa is an annual 3-day online gaming convention showcasing the many women who play, create, and love tabletop games.

ConTessa is contests, demos, panels and most of all games.

ConTessa is an apolitical space where everyone is invited to share in positive gaming experiences. Run by women – fun for everybody.

Sadly I can’t participate due to long-standing prior commitments, but the whole thing is a strongly positive idea that deserves support.

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RIP Nicki Jett

It was very sad news to learn today that a long-standing and much loved member of the Dreamlyrics online roleplaying community, Tim Flynn, known to the community by the forum identity Nicki Jett, has passed away after a lengthy illness.

Online identities can be complex things, and it’s not for me to say whether the Nicki Jett persona was Tim Flynn’s greatest roleplaying achievement or whether she was something a bit more than that. But I’m going to use the name Nicki and female pronouns for the rest of this piece, because that was the person I knew.

I’ve known Nicki online since the days of the RPGAMES forum on CompuServe in the mid 1990s. She was a tremendous writer who always inspired and brought the best out of the others in every game she played. She was always very pro-active as a player. That could occasionally throw a spanner in the works when she dragged the story in a way the rest of the group didn’t really want it to go, but most of the time grabbing the game by the scruff of the neck and making things happen was just what was needed. And she certainly made things happen in-game.

Her characters were always larger-than-life, strongly self-confident but never over-sexualised women, the sort of characters you really didn’t want to mess with. I remember her character in a near-future cyberpunk game who took on a tank in single combat, and subsequently slaughtered an entire troop of Israeli commandos who were supposed to have been our allies. It was things like that which earned her the occasional nickname of “collateral damage woman”. She could occasionally be a bit of a munchkin; who remembers original GURPS 3rd edition Psionics rules? Nicky could be a challenge to GM sometimes, but her contributions to the site always made it worthwhile.

Certainly her psychokinetic revolutionary Hollis was one of the central characters of my own long-running game KLR, and it’s not really a coincidence that the game finally folded when her ill-health made her unable to post.

Whether you were known as Nicky or as Tim, Rest in Peace.

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Iridium Tractor

Is this an early incarnation of the Agricultural Thresh Metal of Iridium Tractor, as seen in the game of Umläut: The Game of Metal at this year’s Summer Stabcon. But where is Flossy the sheep?

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Umläut: The Game of Metal

One of the most entertaining games I’ve played recently has to be Umläut: The Game of Metal, the collaborative storytelling game of competing metal bands. We played this game at Stabcon in Stockport this year, with four players, the ideal number according to the rules.

You start by making up a band, giving them a name, sub-genre, membership and setlist, then distributing seven points between the three performance traits of Technique, Stagecraft and Power.

Over the course of the game these figures can go up and down, as the band also accumulates scores in Cash, Fanbase, Ego and Hope. Ego is the double-edged score; there are circumstances in which a high ego can benefit the band, but let it get too high and you risk the band splitting.

On the grounds that the your band didn’t have to be any sub-genre of metal, and the first time I played the game at last year’s Stabcon Phil Masters ended up winning the game with an avant-garde French pop band, I came up with the band “Clown Car”, whose genre wasn’t metal at all, but “Neo-Prog My Arse”.

They started out with the following membership

Sharon, prog diva
Nigel, poet and audience frightener
Kevin, keytar player with cape
Vlad, bass player, with too many strings
Bob, guitarist, with too many necks
Brian, drummer, who’s also in 17 other bands

I could use the usual disclaimer stating that any resemblance to any members of real bands is pure coincidence, but somehow I don’t think you’d believe me.

Their songs just happened to contain a lot of software testing in-jokes, with songs like “Blue Screen of Death”, “Object Reference Not Set To An Instance Of This Object”, “Clown Car Abandoned In A Field” and “It Works On My Machine”.

I distributed the starting Performance Traits in the ratio 3/3/1, which seemed about right for a somewhat theatrical prog band, good technique and stagecraft, but a bit lacking in oomph.

Their rivals included the “Agricultural Thresh Metal” of Iridium Tractor, with their mascot Flossy the sheep, and The Risen, a band of zombies of famous dead people.

Having created your bands, gameplay is divided into scenes, going round the table with each player choosing a type of scene for their band. You can have work scenes, describing an episode in the character’s day job, rehearsal scenes in which the band improve their performance stats, publicity stunts in which the band try to drum up support, and so on. In most scenes there’s some kind of conflict, which is resolved by drawing cards; the player with the most black cards “wins” the scene, but the player with the highest value card gets to narrate the scene.

In this game we had things like the great brussels sprout avalanche of Sainsbury’s (a work scene). We also had a situation with members of two different bands having day jobs at the same software house, and a project going pear-shaped saw a conflict scene in the shape of a very fraught team meeting, followed by a split scene as Clown Car’s lead singer emigrated to Hawaii as part of the fallout. That’s what happens if you let Ego get too high.

The key moments are the Gig Scenes, where a pair of bands play co-headline gigs and try to blow each other off stage by accumulating the most Glory over the course of the three rounds of the gig, using the same card-based mechanism, and what strikes me is just how well the rules mirror reality. For example:

At first sight, many people assume that the best way to play is simply to load all your performance traits into Technique, and play Ballads at every opportunity. The theory is that since you’re always drawing loads of cards during the attention check, you ought to pretty much shut your opponent out. Even if you don’t manage to get any Glory (because your power is low and you only get one Shred from the Ballad), you’ll eventually get lucky and score one or two and your opponent has no chance to score anything.

In practice, not only is this very boring, but it doesn’t actually work. Even if you draw more cards during the Attention Check you can’t guarantee your opponent getting a lucky draw and beating you. They get one good Attention Check and they’re usually going to get a whole lot of Glory because you didn’t really put anything into Stagecraft.

I’ve been to gigs where that is precisely what happened.

The game ends after a set time (we set this as three hours after the start, since the game was in a four-hour convention slot), after which we trigger the endgame, which take the form of a final round of gigs scenes involving all the bands. Clown Car, with their new lead singer Tracy blew Iridium Tractor off stage, but even that wasn’t quite enough to win the game for them.

But saying that, the game isn’t really about winning or losing, but telling an entertaining story. At the end of the game the band with the highest score in Fanbase is the most successful (Did you end up touring stadiums? Did you let it go too far? Or did you never really get beyond the toilet circuit), and the band with the lowest Ego relative to their Hope is the happiest, even if they never did make it big.

As a game and a rock fan, Umläut: The Game of Metal is one of those games that demands to be played as soon as you read the rules, and makes for both a highly entertaining game and a suprisingly accurate view into the world of rock’n'roll.

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The Doom That Came To The Doom That Came To Atlantic City

So the Kickstarter for The Doom That Came To Atlantic City has gone pear-shaped amidst accusations that Forking Path had used most of the kickstarter funds to fund the founder’s living expenses rather than on the development of the game.

It’s a reminder that backing any crowdfunded project is a risk which funders need to assess based on how nuch they trust the people behind the project to deliver. Sadly it’s also likely to be used by people with vested interests in the old-fashioned big-publisher driven model to discredit the whole concept of crowdfunding.

I’ve backed a lot of Crowdfunded music projects over the past few years, including Marillion who pioneered the whole concept a decade ago yet seldom seem to get the credit for it. I’m happy to pay £25-£30 months in advance for the deluxe edition of an album from the likes of Marillion, Mostly Autumn or Fish because I trust those artists to deliver. It’s the same with games; I trusted the Evil Hat crew to deliver on FATE Core, and they did.

Traditional publishing (or record companies) are not going away. But neither is crowdfunding, especially for things that have a lot of fan support but seem too risky to appeal to the bean-counters.

Arguments rage over whether Kickstarter is a pre-order mechanism or more like an investment in a startup. Certainly the bands I’ve mentioned above have all sold their projects as pre-orders. But, as the failure of TDTCTAC shows, there are elements of risk and trust involved. Back enough projects and you risk getting burned occasionally. But provided enough of them do deliver, I think it’s a risk worth taking.

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Why The Harassment Discussion is Toxic?

If you’ve ready any of the recent discussions on Google+, forums and elsewhere regarding harrassment at conventions, you will notice things have turned very toxic. It’a a bit like those discussion on the ethics of filesharing, in which positions have become so entrenced that nobody is interested in dialogue leading to mutual enlightenment, but in shouting down anyone that disagrees with them. You only have to look at the hostile reactions to this blog by Sarah Pinborough to see how things have spiralled.

Here’s my take on why the debate about harassment policies at gaming conventions has turned so toxic.

(1) Having a policy covering things like stalking and groping is a good thing provided it’s not too clumsily or vaguely-worded or gives a false impression that such harassment is more widespread than it is.

(2) Censorship of the actual content of games sold, displayed or played at the convention under the guise of a harassment policy is not a good thing.

(3) A lot of sensible and reasonable people are supporting John Scalzi’s initiative to make having a policy regarding (1) the expected standard for anyone running a convention.

(4) There is a small but very loud minority advocating (2), and they’re using misrepresentations, lies, ad-hominems and conclusions drawn more from dogma than evidence to justify this.

(5) The behaviour of (4) has created a backlash again harassment policies of any kind.

(6) In any internet debate it’s always the loudest and shrillest voices that get the most attention.

Does this make sense?

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