Saturday, November 17, 2018

This Week in RPG Dumpster Fires

Over the past week, we’ve seen a few big controversies evolve in the tabletop RPG space. The newest Vampire 5th edition sourcebooks reframed real-world events as vampire plots instead of human atrocities, James Raggi of Lamentations of the Flame Princess fame kind of professed his love of misogynist affirming Jordan Peterson, and Venger Satanis tried desperately to be relevant once again by making light of the realities that trans people have to deal with on a day to day basis.

There is one thing that unifies all these things in my mind, beyond them all broadly being in the tabletop RPG sphere. There are people adjacent to these games that I wish would say more about these situations.

Before I get too deep into this, I want to own up, once again, to my own shortcomings. I’ve seen racism, religious intolerance, and sexism at tables before, and not said anything. I feel like I’ve gotten better at calling these things out and fostering a safe environment in recent years, but I’m not innocent of thinking “that’s bad, but it would be easier and more comfortable to ignore it and hope it goes away.”

OSR

I’ve never called myself anything other than “OSR adjacent.” I appreciate some older game design and aesthetics, but I also like shiny new toys too much to do anything more than dabble in “old school.” Even my most preferred “old school” game, Dungeon Crawl Classics, is not universally regarded as “old school” by many that self-identify with the OSR title. That said, I’ve seen enough of the OSR that I have opinions, which may be way off base or wrong, but that are hard to shake.

There is a lot of creativity in the OSR, but I think two of the biggest issues that surround the community are as follows:

  • Unbridled creativity means you can’t ever question what someone else has said—free speech above all!
  • I don’t feel this way, maybe my friends don’t feel this way, but someone in my circles is adjacent to someone that feels this way, and I don’t want to make waves
I think that sometimes the fear in the OSR is that “I like exactly how my circle of contacts works, and if I do one thing differently, it may change, and I don’t want change.” Those “bad actors” can just keep popping up on the periphery, and we’ll just hope they don’t get any MORE traction than they have.

If the OSR is really a group of people that like the way certain games are played, and aren’t just long term fans that don’t want to move on to new game styles, it’s going to be important to elaborate what you like, cut out people that have odious opinions, and attract new people to the style of gaming that you love, even if they weren’t there “back in the day.”

Doing the Right Thing

I would also like to give massive credit to Stewart Robertson, creator of the most ubiquitous OSR logo out there for this statement:

https://robertsongames.com/osr-logo-moral-rights-and-hate-speech/

I really appreciate what he has said and done in this situation.

Vampire

Not to focus too much on just the OSR, let’s look at Vampire. Vampire had some big warning signs going into the publication of 5th edition. By no means do I believe that everyone associated with the game was equally responsible for questionable content. There was, however, questionable content. For every person that wanted the game to explore mature themes, there was someone that wanted the game to be “mature” because it was “being naughty,” and that meant doing over the top, sensational things.

Before publication, Vampire did two things—they issue a half-hearted apology about potential alt-right content, and at the last minute, they hired Jacqueline Bryk to write a section on safety in the game.

Before I go any further, I know I may have some people take umbrage at my comment that the initial apology about the playtest materials was half-hearted. I say this because it was very much “hey, we hate Nazis as much as the next person,” but not much in the way of a plan for avoiding potential pitfalls in the future.

Still, these actions helped sooth a lot of frazzled nerves. I know a lot of gamers that love the new edition. The FLGS owner almost had me sold on picking up a copy. The book itself didn’t seem quite as controversial as some of the playtest material had seemed. But I still felt a little hesitant.

And then we started seeing how the first round of sourcebooks were going. Hate crimes in Chechnya were portrayed as kind of a smokescreen for vampire atrocities, and people that commit suicide were portrayed as being weak. It was the kind of “edgy and relevant above all” content that people were a little concerned about in the core book.

Paradox Entertainment, the current owners of White Wolf, laid out a rather extensive plan for how they would react to the content that made it into the books. White Wolf was being restructured, and the actual World of Darkness line was going to be managed by RPG third party publishers. It was a more extensive, action-plan reinforced apology.

That said, a lot of big name, big audience RPG folks jumped on the Vampire bandwagon as soon as the core book didn’t seem to be the alt-right mess the playtest materials intimated. While I’ve seen a lot of people that would be the target audience for Vampire decry the situation, I haven’t seen a lot of the high-profile people that jumped on the bandwagon say much about it.

I’m not passing judgment. I’ve failed in the past to do the right thing. I hope I don’t in the future, but it is an easy thing to do. Sometimes it’s just more comfortable to say nothing and wait for everything to blow by. I’m just saying that I hope that someday, when controversies like this hit the gaming community, we’re not as slow to call out bad actors, or show our support for people pointing out uncomfortable truths.

“What about . . . ?”

Yes, there are other parts of the hobby that have been offensive, exclusive, or problematic. Please don’t take my commentary on the last week of RPG history as all-inclusive of the sins of the industry. There are elitist and exclusionary people adjacent to, and even driving, all kinds of movements in the RPG industry.

I don’t want you to enjoy your hobby any less. I want you to be able to share your hobby with more people that don’t feel safe sitting at a game table right now.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

What Do I Know About Halloween?

Let me preface this by saying I am 100% certain others have noticed far more in the horror genre and had much more important and cogent things to say about it. I just felt like stretching my brain a bit after spending the Halloween season watching horror movies I had never seen before. Looking out across all of the movies I watched for the first time, I think I’m settling in on some thoughts on the “punish the sinner” trope and the “final girl” aspects of the genre, especially as framed by my first time ever viewing of the original Halloween, by John Carpenter and Debra Hill.

Avoiding the Ubiquitous

For the longest time, I had never seen Halloween, where a lot of 80s+ horror seemed to have borrowed their tropes. Having finally watched it, I am kind of curious about the degree to which the “transgressing teens” was intended as a broader theme. I fully realize that creators often don’t realize the themes they infuse into their work, but it also seems that a lot of later movies, like the Friday the 13th series, mimicked the elements of Halloween without brining in all of the context, and it kind of mutated the trope of transgressing teens into what it is today.

I say this because Laurie, in Halloween, smokes pot and actually wants to have sex--she isn’t really being held up as a moral example. Carpenter has said that the reason Laurie survived isn’t because of virtue, but because she wasn’t busy doing other things when she got attacked, which is more circumstance than moral lesson. All of that having been said, since we spend more time with Laurie than with the other characters, she feels more like a “real” character, and the other teenagers are reduced to being defined by their actions in their brief appearances, which makes it easy to see why copying over the circumstances of the movie creates the trope that it does.

Death of the Author, and, er, the Director?

Carpenter’s point seemed to be that teenagers be teenagers, but given that Michael Meyers is targeting teenagers because his sister ditched him to be a teenager, it almost feels like there is a moral judgement involved. In context, however, Halloween continually makes the point that Michael is just  . . . evil. He’s not a virtuous force that is punishing others. He doesn’t talk or give his point of view. He committed a murder as a child, then continues to murder people that fit that template when he is an adult. Michael’s reasoning isn’t even sympathetic. Yes, his sister ditched him to spend time with her boyfriend, but we never get any indication that Michael is harmed because of her inattention. He’s just mad because she didn’t take him trick or treating.

It may also be worth noting that while a lot of critics of the day made a point to seize on the theme of “the movie is a commentary on the decadence of modern teens,” Michael’s sister was killed in 1963. Sure, the movie could be making a commentary about the state of teen morality in the modern era, starting in the 60s--but given that the bulk of the movie is over a decade removed from the original scene, and the theme of decadent teens is never actually mentioned in the movie, it feels more likely that Carpenter and Debra Hill really were just writing from the perspective of “teens be teens.” 

Teen Themes

To some extent, there is almost more of a commentary on the position that teenagers occupy in society. Parents in the original Halloween show up as bookends to the horrors that are happening in the movie. Rather than provide a framework for a moral path, you could view the original Halloween as making a statement that teens are in a place in life where they want to stand on their own, but are still tremendously vulnerable without adult interaction.

Laurie manages to acquit herself very well against Michael Myers all things considered, but it is the intervention of Loomis that finally confirms Laurie’s safety at the end of the film. In some sense, this can be reduced to the standard “damsel in distress” narrative, but Laurie at this point has survived multiple assaults from an increasingly inhuman seeming Meyers. It feels as is the film has really said “nobody could have done better than Laurie without help,” not that Laurie really needed to be saved because anything was lacking in her character.

If the transition of teens to adulthood really is taken as a theme in the movie, it’s also worth noting that Laurie is vulnerable because the parents of the various children aren’t available for help, and the adult that provides aid is an unrelated adult. This is literally the transition that most young people have to make as they enter adulthood and have to forge bonds with more adults that are not part of their family or community.

 The Care and Feeding of Tropes

None of this is to say that the “bad teens being punished” theme can’t be extrapolated from Halloween, just that it appears more prominent with a shallow read of the movie’s events than from viewing elements in context.

Additionally, I think you can make a case that this trope developed in a partially unintentional manner. While there are definitely films to use the “punish the sinner” narrative literally, in many cases it’s actually a non-diegetic theme of the movies. Neither Freddy nor Jason will literally spare someone that hasn’t transgressed the sacred slasher commandments of “thou shalt not get high” or “thou shalt not hook up.” The audience may pick up on the fact that the teens that go off in the woods to spend some quality time together are going to die first, but most slasher villains are no more likely to kill them expressly because they are having sex or doing drugs than they are expressing killing off people of color expressly for being people of color.

Side Note: If you can make the case that the “punishing bad teens” theme developed from a tone deaf emulation of Halloween, it may be worth noting that the trope of people of color dying in horror movies seems to have sprung from Hollywood’s inability to consistently see people of color as viable protagonists. This is also an unfortunate non-diegetic less on that gets passed on that. Growing up in the 80s, I actually heard people defend the morality play aspects of killing off the sexually active teens as a positive way of promoting right behavior, but if that aspect of the story, which often isn’t expressly stated in the movie, was okay to teach, what does that say about using slasher movies to teach moral lessons when it comes to empowering people of color in society?

Later movies, like the Scream franchise and the Cabin in the Woods know exactly what tropes are at play and what they are subverting, but it’s way beyond me to do a deep dive into at what point and in what films the copied elements were copied without conscious thought about overall theme, and at what point the genre tropes were embraced and intentionally played up. It’s obvious from some of the reviews of Halloween that critical analysis of that film included an explicit reading of the movie as a morality play about teenage behavior, so almost immediately someone aware of film criticism would have had access to that commentary. That said, it feels, at least to me, that filmmakers in decades past seemed more likely to disclaim any modern, proximate influence on their films.

Context

After all of this, watching the original Halloween gave me a lot to think about, and I can see the clear influences it had on 80s horror movies (in fact, if you take elements of Halloween and elements of Phantasm, you have a lot of the recurring building blocks of 80s horror movies in those two movies alone). I respect what the film did. I can also see what Halloween did that later movies did not do.

While we often see the “Final Girl” receive a lot of air time, it’s also after the strife in the film has begun. In Laurie’s case, we have tension, as Michael is stalker her and her group of friends, but the killings don’t start up until later in the film, after we’ve seen Laurie’s typical day.

Once the killing starts, it’s the major focus of the film, but because we don’t have a constant stream of killings and bodies, even when characters panic or potentially make bad decisions, it feels more natural, because they haven’t been in an escalating crisis for half the movie, yet still making the same mistakes after hours of strife. Once the characters find out there is a murderer on the loose, it’s new to them, and not a normal thing, and each person reverts back to making an understandable closed set of decisions based on an immediate fight or flight response. Laurie, being the person that survives an initial encounter, begins to make plans and decisions that fit the narrative of what has occurred previously in the movie.

That said, after everything I saw, and everything I can respect in the original Halloween, I have to admit that looking at John Carpenter and horror, The Thing is definitely more my speed. But I’m going to wait to dissect that particular movie for another day.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

What Do I Know About Comeptitive D&D


Encounter Roleplay is starting a D&D Sports league where various teams of characters will be facing off, deathmatch style, to see who wins a bout. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, and I will be interested to see a match or two to see how it is presented, but I can’t help but think about other ways that I think D&D can be made into a competition without utilizing a direct deathmatch style.

Illusions of Balance

It’s not that it doesn’t make sense on some level--gladiatorial fights aren’t alien to the genre by any means. It’s just that, on a regular, long term basis, I think there are elements of D&D that don’t get highlighted as well in a deathmatch style presentation.

  • Classes really aren’t balanced the way people think they are balanced--a balanced class is one that contributes to adventuring as much as another class, not one that can take the same target down to 0 hit points in the same amount of time
  • Many classes have abilities that are best showcased over a wide range of challenges--worrying about environmental hazards and traps is greatly lessened when characters run at one another in an arena 
Now, having not yet seen the show, I suspect Encounter Roleplay is going to do some interesting things with the matches. Probably some risk versus reward elements as players decide if they want to unlock a chest to get a magic item or just dive into the fight, or having some random environmental factor that everyone in the arena has to deal with.

Kind of like an unironic version of the One Shot Network’s super entertaining Dungeon Dome show, which casts teams of D&D characters as tag teams in a cross between gladiatorial fights and professional wrestling.

Ghosts of Competitive D&D Past

I know there has been a long running tradition of tournament modules, adventures that a party will complete in an allotted time, with scores associated with performing certain tasks--for example, if they retrieve treasure from a specific room or solve a specific puzzle. I can understand why this approach isn’t going to be used, because even watching the most entertaining group play through four hours of an adventure, and then watching another group do the same thing, and then watching it get scored, may not make the for the best broad appeal.

Given that fights in 5th edition D&D can be resolved much more quickly than, for example, 3.5 or 4th edition D&D combat, it’s entirely possible that you can keep the show’s run time down to a reasonable run time and fit multiple combats into that time.

How Would I Do It?

All of that said, you know what I’d like to see in a competitive D&D show?

Something like American Ninja Warrior or Ultimate Beastmaster. Instead of playing through a whole scenario, frame the situation as two adventuring parties in a relatively linear gauntlet that requires multiple skill sets.

“This week, our two groups of adventurers will face the Guild Master's Gauntlet, an infamous series of traps and murder rooms set up by the Guildmaster of Thieves to test all of his prospective employees!”

“This week, our adventuring parties will be traveling through the Ephemeral Passageway, the extradimensional space created by a mad wizard to see who is worthy to inherit their abandoned tower!”

Quick framing device, then a very focused, say, five room dungeon. Not much story, mainly thematic description that flows from the initial sparse setup.

You could have traps, environmental hazards, and monsters in those five rooms, and part of the challenge would be deciding if you want to use your spellslots or consumable items to get past the obstacles, or if you should lean on skills and save your resources--and at the end, have a suitably nasty boss fight with something that has legendary actions and lair actions.

Not a full tournament adventure, but still something that would allow for scoring. Not something that has zero story elements, but something that has most of them front loaded.

Now, this set up only plays to two of the three pillars of D&D. Even in this truncated example, how could we get that last pillar in play? What if we have a timed (maybe three minutes or so) segment at the beginning where the party face negotiations with the gatekeeper of the gauntlet to get more stuff. If possible, set up audience participation with a vote to see if they make a check at advantage or disadvantage, and if they make the check, and by how much, the team gets extra consumables from a set list.

To mechanize any puzzle rooms you might have, you could provide a clue to the puzzle, provide an extra clue for a successful check and and an additional clue for each 5 above, and if they don’t solve the puzzle in an allotted amount of time, they just don’t get the points for the puzzle room and they move on.

Personal Preferences

I will admit, I’m someone that approaches D&D from the standpoint of story first. If there isn’t a story beat in a dungeon room, I don’t want to deal with that room as some kind of time sink or red herring. One of the things that started to cause some burnout for me with 3.5 D&D was that players that were tactically savvy could fight way above their weight-class, EL wise, unless the DM was similarly tactically inclined, and I felt that all of that started to shift the game into “story mode” and “tactical mode,” and it felt less like an integrated whole to me.

I don’t know how entertaining this endeavor will be, but I have definitely enjoyed shows on the Encounter Roleplay network in the past. I know the appeal of Dungeon Dome, for me, was that the players were coming up with over the top, entertaining personalities, so it was much less about the competition, and more about seeing the fantasy trope/professional wrestling trope fusions unfolding.

All of that having been said, I now have a firm image of variously brightly clad people employed by the creator of a challenging gauntlet of obstacles, standing on platforms ready to shove PCs off onto the ground, or shooting at them from behind clearly marked targets, and I have successfully merged two stables of my youth in my own imagination.

By no means am I saying my way of how I would do it would be better than anything that came before. This was just a bit of a thought exercise to see how I would do it. I’m looking forward to seeing how this unfolds, with lots of curiosity.