Finding D&D: The A Word

Part 5, final video out of five. Presenting a couple of definitions, asking a few pointed questions, copping to what I think.

Let the rumpus start.

I’ve mentioned it here and there, but will repeat that these are drafts, my first attempt. Some of the mistakes might be fixed easily with re-edit, others less so and maybe need re-shooting. I kind of hate to do the latter, even though it was the original plan, because I think I hit a nice stride using both outlined content and spontaneous phrasing and arguments. I think I’ll make it a later Patreon goal, a big one, like $500, to redo the whole thing with spiffier production, wide-ranging review, and maybe even the odd guest spot.


8 responses to “Finding D&D: The A Word”

  1. Penny Arcade on “What DnD” is

    So this popped up over at Penny Arcade a week ago that I thought was on-topic:
    You don't have to watch any of the videos to understand the content, but I think it's very interesting.
    Given the extent to which Penny Arcade is a massive, sprawling organization in terms of its influence on (and role in constituting) current geek and hobby/gamer culture, Gabe's comments on what DnD is (here we could probably substitute "roleplaying", given that DnD probably IS roleplaying to them) are significant and indicative for the pulse of the greater geek culture's relationship to the RPG genre. 
    That people at this level of influence are saying these kinds of meaningless generalizations (or, more charitably, more or less saying that "RPGs" are not any one set "thing") is as good a sign of the times as any. "No hobbywide standardization of terms or concepts" (let alone some definition about what the activity even is) is a phrase I've used in the past. 
    • “That would be an ecumenical

      "That would be an ecumenical matter," in a nod to the Father Ted episode Tentacles of Doom. But comedy aside, that episode is reasonably coherent in criticizing how orthodoxy handles basic contradictions on the ground. The comments you're referencing seem to me to be precisely what the three bishops are doing re: classifying miracles.

      There is a clear line, or at least I think it's clear, between acknowledging "it's not any one thing" as a door to investigating what the various things are, vs. papering it all over with "since we're so tolerant of that point we can still wear our identity-hats and carry on just as we like."

      One of these days I'm going to get your interest in hobby/geek culture as an embracing box for role-playing in the same room as Santiago's interest in commerce/story infrastructure as a conceptual box for role-playing … and then I'm going to escape from that room while you two figure it all out.

    • It definitely sounds like

      It definitely sounds like Santiago and I would have a good conversation.

      Authenticity is just my normal concern with a lot of things. In our youth, my group found itself disconnected from geek culture's interest in "identity", since we were interested in games for their own sakes' (and as an arena for our interests in competition and creative problem solving within the confines of the game at hand) while we found many others to be interested in the subcultural currency and the things in question as a means to some other end that didn't ultimately have much to do with the games themselves (this applies to non-RPG games a great deal as well, it just came out more strongly in the latter). But I've mentioned this sort of thing before.


    • My question then becomes,

      My question then becomes, where is the authenticity when we talk about D&D?

      I see two kinds that I can respect.

      1. Playing and enjoying, or when not enjoying, finding a way. This is tied very strongly to this 5th video in the series, that doing so has nothing to do with "D&D-ness" and is no different from any other title published by any other entity. Such that the particular title or home-altered version of it you're using is merely another role-playing game among hundreds and possibly thousands by now, and how was it, what did you go, how did it go.
      2. Observing D&D as a religion, which I consider to be a real thing people really do, represented by multiple and sprawling subdivisions in a surprisingly consistent parallel to actual religions, i.e. recognized as such. How such observance relates to play and to publishing-entity varies widely, and each form does have its own particular relation to them. But I maintain, strongly, that in every case, the observance is the priority, with all the fulfillments and tensions that come with it, such that play and purchasing are ways to observe.

      What I'm not going to do any more is to get manipulated in conversations by people jumping back and forth between the two. I can't be troubled to care about the intensity of someone's devotion when we're trying to talk about playing this-or-that game, nor can I hope (or want) to critique or alter play of any sort when its real purpose to the other person is observance.

      Because that's where the authenticity vanishes: when someone says or even sincerely thinks they are doing one of those numbered things when they're really doing the other. The ways are numerous, ranging from the glumly faithful flock following the local pastor, to the fiery defender of old-schoolness attacking a perceived "modernist" enemy while brandishing a manifestly novel text, to ignoring one's very own admirable fun play in the articulate but empty claim to essentialism. These are bullshit – eminently and observably toxic, destructive to others, straightforwardly no good.

  2. Some Thoughts

    Simply, yes, it should be possible to enjoy role playing, D&D, and all that entails without also having to accept the burden from the cultural phenomena. Unfortunately as we all know, that is difficult. As individuals, sure we can make the choice to reject the religion while still enjoying the game or other games. But culturally it seems inescapable. Modern culture has co-opted geek culture and geek culture has D&D as one of its pillars. Once forced to fight lions and considered (literally) a cult, we now find this enjoyable activity, be it art or casual fun, is a part of our society. 

    The best defense against it is to keep making games and keep engaging in meaningful play and discussions focusing on the art and the play. 

    A side question: could part of the evolution of D&D's cultural / religious identity be tied to the greater cultural reaction to all RPGs, but D&D in particular? The constant need to defend why we play these games at all lends itself to a certain kind of "us against them" mentality that often establishes a common spirituality?

    • The best defense you mention

      The best defense you mention is now, it seems, my actual job now, here in Sweden, so I guess that's good … in a sort of exhausting way, although that's probably just Kickstarter stress talking.

      For your side question, I don't know if cause and effect could ever be fully teased apart, but it does seem likely to me that the formation of the first "church" via the RPGA was fueled, rather than hampered, by the Satanic Panic. At the time, it seemed as if D&D were being suppressed and oppressed, but conversely, the ultimately inept yelpings of BADD may actually have privileged it in the longer term, culturally. No one was "bothered" about RuneQuest or Champions, so how important could they be?

      Not to downplay some of the actual damage done, at the personal level. I only brushed it superficially, when a parent was upset with me as a staff member at a community center in 1986, for playing Mentzer with the kids there, but that was no big deal. "I know what that does to kids!" – this from a classically liberal Hyde Park parent in Chicago, but no backlash on me as an employee, not even a meeting about it. Whereas the accounts I later heard from young adults in Florida, about getting deprogrammed for liking D&D, were horrific.

  3. I watched the whole series of these videos and thoroughly enjoyed them. I think the parallels you drew are striking, and thinking about D&D – The Culture, not The Game – from this angle really helps me to express other related phenomena that I couldn’t before.

    I used to think the tendency to omit the processes of running the game in many OS/R texts – while redesigning character creation processes and fortune mechanisms over and over – was a sign of igorance in game design.

    “You point at the Principia Apochrypha; why don’t you include that stuff in your text?”, I would ask.

    Now I realize they must deliberately omit telling you how to play in order to remain *compatible* with every other OS/R adjacent product and subculture, maintaining acceptance by the orthodoxy, even if their local practice might differ from others’.

    This has been emphasized for me because games like Cairn (an otherwise very close clone of Into the Odd which adds principles of play similar to Apocalypse World) and Errant (an OS/R game that tries to include many usually-not-codified procedures you’d use to run the game) have received sharp criticism from “the real OSR” (picture me using Dr. Evil’s air quote fingers here) for being so heavy handed in PRESUMING to tell the GM what to do to make the game more fun.

    • I’m glad you’re checking these out and commenting. The topic seems important to keep live.

      I looked back at the Adept forum (the small discussion site I maintained after I closed the Forge), to find that I initiated these D&D/religion discussions exactly ten years ago. A lot has happened in ten years … or maybe, far too little, depending on how one looks at it.

      For example, I think a lot of play-based, thoughtful designs have emerged from people self-identifying as OSR, which is a good thing and certainly counts as “happening.” Good play leads to good design at the table, and often then to good instructions for others to enjoy. Whoever’s doing that, more power to them.

      However, straightforwardly, I see zero, flatline, null-set content or value-added to be identified with the term OSR, no matter what word one may use for the R. As a concept, community, any identifiable “thing” at all. bluntly, I’m seeing nothing. Even cruelly, I’m seeing people chase unicorns (harmless I suppose), or enjoy a kaffeeklatsch with a few friends (a fine thing), or be total dicks “because D&D” (a bad thing, yes I’m judging, get over it), or all too painfully considering my comments in #3, go full incel and right-wing (very bad thing).

      There’s even an OSR lab server conducted by people active here, and familiar with the topics I’ve raised. They’ve played a lot of games, no bad thing in itself, but what has it demonstrated or dissected, which is what labs are supposed to do? I’ve paid a lot of attention and asked a lot of questions about that. My conclusion is as I said – a result of fat zero.

      You’ve raised exactly the right point to illustrate the problem arising from this romantic commitment to a null-set term: that we’re seeing games whose presentation is socially enjoined to mask their diversity and to sabotage their own operating procedures.

      If it weren’t for that, then I’d shrug about the terminology. I’d say, “Call yourselves Old School, New School, the Mighty Ducks, whatever you want, and keep playing and sharing what you do.” Which is what I’ve been saying for about fifteen years. Now, however, I’m getting harsher, for exactly this reason you’ve described.

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