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Some thoughts on silly bards in 5e D&D

Ron and I were talking on Discord about D&D play culture, especially the contemporary play culture among younger people (people for whom 5e is their first experience really playing and for whom 3.5e would be considered old). Ron suggested that I post about it. For a bit more context, we were talking about the origins of the kind of bipolar silly/killing squad style of play (with plenty of GM railroading, often seemingly out of the terror that play with devolve into the players making jokes and randomly killing every NPC they meet), and especially the way bards are played. 

I said: 

It makes sense that this would be associated with 5e. A month or two ago I did a kind of anthropological investigation on YouTube of popular D&D content and was kind of horrified at what I found. This mostly revolved around 5e ("4e is terrible! 3.5 is too old"). There are videos on YouTube with millions of views describing how to play D&D with what we are talking about as the desired goal, or perhaps, the grim reality, with plenty of GM complaining about how terrible and unruly players are. It is kind of reminiscent of the shift in liberal dialogue from before the collapse of the Soviet Union to after (before, capitalism was almost Utopian in the liberal economist's mind, after it became the best of the bad options, a grim and broken thing but better than nothing) when viewed in contrast to the OSR community fetishization of D&D play.

I also linked to a video, which has 4 million views and is a prime example of this. Watch with caution, and if you dare go further, look up "Abserd" on google images.

This kind of widely viewed, and mostly unchallenged content is what I think is primarily defining the strange type of play that seems rampant in the generation of players mentioned above. 

D&D 5E


Sean_RDP's picture

I have watched a lot of Puffin Forest and I realized it was largely disaster porn. Some of the videos have good things to say and some merit. And in some he admits that he has made a troll character. Troll as in meant to derail not the mythological creature. I wonder how anyone played with him twice, because his behavior is abhorrent based on his absurd (Abserd) videos. And it is clear that this kind of play, if it can be called that, is incoherent. But then my experience with Adventure League and other similar organized play suggests that "play" at those tables is not indicative of all play. It is a toxic situation.

And I think unchallenged is a great way to put it. Everyone thinks this is D&D or RPGs because 90% of content creators are trash. 

noah_t's picture

I do not have the necessary context to join Ron and Sam (and the other conversationalists on Patreon) in dissecting “the gross aspect” of misogyny and disrespect for consent in play-cultures around the bard, but I hope to see more discussion of it.

And it is clear that this kind of play, if it can be called that, is incoherent.

Sean, I guess what I want to say is that this video strikes me as very coherent. It shows an unwavering, unconcealed contempt for RPGs-as-a-medium, apparent in every word. System does not matter here. It is completely unrelated to the ‘trad’ v. ‘indie’ or D&D v. PBTA dichotomies. It’s not about tone or genre (witty comedy this ain’t). It will not be fixed by conducting a session 0 or using the X-Card.

Each instrument of play (character backstory, in-game choices, etc.) is used for a cheap laugh or a vacant pop-culture reference. Even details that hint at whimsy (notwithstanding the topic under discussion, I rather like the idea of a tribe of wild “bard-barians”) aren’t given the slightest consideration or elaboration. The entire activity of play is treated by this person and their group as only capable of producing a har-dee-har-har anecdote about the time someone really got one over on their fellow players.

It’s like seeing someone research and purchase a saxophone, seek out fellow instrument-owners with available garages or basements, meet weekly to practice for four hours, and very sincerely spend that time improvising various fart noises together, insisting all the while that it is fun, hilarious and successful.

And I think unchallenged is a great way to put it.

The fact that this video is nearing 5 million views indicates to me that this activity of ours may be attaining greater visibility within the culture while still being the object of utter scorn. It makes me think that the best parts of our hobby still qualify as underground art. In bringing up the various buzzwords above (trad v. indie, session 0, etc.), it occurred to me that a lot of the ways we have of talking about RPGs aren’t really useful for challenging what’s gone wrong in this kind of play, but that the vocabulary we’re developing here at Adept Play may.

Ron Edwards's picture

I'm trying to avoid getting into terms "actually" alleys and byways. So even if I'm wrong in what I say next, we should probably drop the issue of coherence.

OK, one and done: I think Sean is talking about coherence as Walt Freitag used it at the Forge, to mean playing on purpose, which at the time used the language of Creative Agenda. The more general meaning, which in this case means the non-play purpose of expressing contempt for the activity, applies as Noah is saying but still agrees with Sean because there is no playing on purpose. So I'm seeing agreement rather than disagreement and we shall not let that one word stop us.

Noah, I completely agree with you and Sean that this is not play at all. It's performative sabotage toward others trying to play, or if done by everyone present, performative contempt toward anyone trying to play.

During my most active contact with the social hobby, as a DJA member, GenCon booth person invested in outreach, and similar things, I found that many, many role-players were convinced that non-gamer society actively despised them. My contrasting take was that the non-gamer society was mostly a little baffled, and either completely indifferent or curious in a very positive way. My take also included the unwelcome point that the people who actively despised role-playing were most prevalent right there in its own social space: both in adjacent pop culture and at the tables. Even less welcome, I suggested, that if people wanted to address social appreciation for the hobby, the first thing to do was to find some among their own.

noah_t's picture

Ron, thank you for nipping a potential misunderstanding in the bud....Sean, I absolutely intended my post to express alignment with yours, beyond a verbal quibble. This topic clearly touched a nerve for me, so apologies if my aim was off and any aspects of it seemed like I was taking substantive issue with your statements.

Ron, after watching the video my first question was how far "up" into the larger culture this kind of contempt extends. Maybe a better (and harder) question would have been how far "down" it goes into the hobby itself.

Sam's picture

Noah, you are wondering how much this kind of not-play defines our hobby. To look at harsh reality for a second--how could anyone new to the hobby know anything else unless they knew a person who was actually playing? These people do not (and are not taught to) read and play the games they buy--just like you said Noah, no matter what game they are supposedly playing, they aren't. This sucks to say: everyone I have ever met in person who has had prior experience with RPGs plays in this way (besides my girlfriend: yay!). How many people is that? Maybe only about 10 (I don't really hang around the types of people who play RPGs...the American RPG scene that I have access to is truly miserable, maybe there is a better one but I can't find it). The only people I have ever played with who were worth playing with again had either never played an RPG (and never listened heavily to an RPG podcast, that's key!) or were willing to put aside their past BS and learn all over. I know this is a low number, I wish it was 30 because then it might be considered more statistically significant.

To be honest, I have come to despise mainstream "actual play" shows. I think would be hard to underestimate the horrific impact of shows like Critical Role, and especially The Adventure Zone (the 180th most popular podcast in America right now according to the Apple Podcasts charts, number 4 for fiction, number 1 for comedy), etc. on players of my generation, for whom these shows are their first experience of RPGs; these shows are often the reason that people my age start playing, and they don't know that they are just entertainment. I don't care about the intentions of the creators, or whether they are good or bad people or anything of the sort. They're making their money, and at least they aren't missiles for Raytheon or something so whatever.

I know multiple people who have terrible habits of play and bizarre expectations. Most of them have barely ever played (some of them have only played with me). All of them listened to/watched these shows before they ever actually tried playing. The saddest thing is that we all know that the best players are usually the ones who have never played before and don't have a bunch of "experience" holding them back. Now, people who have never actually played have listened to possibly hundreds of hours of other people pretending to do it or doing it really terribly. This seems like a genuinely new problem. 

Are these shows (and YouTubers like PuffinForest) the main reason for this weird new brand of non-play? I don't know. All I know is the huge impact they have had on my experiences with playing. 

Sorry that this comment was a rant, but I love this hobby, and I am genuinely angry that the influence of this weird type of non-play has reached people I know who have never even played before. 

Ron Edwards's picture

... which is what prompted me to ask Sam to post about this. Please be warned about unpleasant content, on the way.

What hit me began in the "Debriefing" discussion held by the participants about their game of Blueholme using The Lost City - when Sam talked about play culture which I had thought was more of a historical artifact and present only on the margins. Specifically play which turned interactions with NPCs into ogling and guffaws and, basically, casual sexual harassment grading into assault. The "new" twist to me came with associating this specifically with bards, and the fact that my social media is just RPG-oriented enough to bring tons of unwelcome memes my way ... and here, I realized how prevalent this whole idea of the bard as comedic lecher has become.

I looked again, and the fact is, it's really prevalent. To the point where if you say, "I'll play the bard," then the "the" is so fixed and understood and expected that it's a lot like saying, "I'll play the dwarf." There's only one way to do it and that's what everyone else is fine with you doing ... and not fine with you doing anything else. And in looking at what this means during play, well, it means using the game mechanics to have the bard attempt to have sex with anything and everything, in terms of resolution - rolling to addle NPCs and monsters and whatnot to "defeat" them with sex, specifically against whatever intention or goals or way-to-play they stepped into the scene with.

Yes, that. for which there is, incidentally, a name. And is apparently, we are told, hilarious.

So, Sam confirmed to me that yes, date-rape-to-real-rape is what he's looking at too, actually at the tables and not just in the memes ... and as the old guy in the conversation, to me, that meant two historical nuances.

  1. This sort of activity during play was known and reviled in the "early days," so that by the mid-80s it was anathema. The RPGA scrubbed it out of D&D as hard as they could - granted, unfortunately by sanitizing and neutralizing everything into oblivion, but at least this detail of what they eradicated, I can support.
  2. The bard as a character option dates all the way back to the mid-late 70s, but it was a terrible/optional option and generally derided through several unsuccessful rules retoolings into the mid-1990s. Since people really wanted to play musical trickster-ish types, big surprise, rules from Rolemaster, Fantasy Hero, Rifts, and GURPS Fantasy were pressed into D&D service at the tables all the time. ... and I recalled no instance of this version of "bardness" being involved. Even if the group was into social interactions and possible sex as content for play, it wasn't this rapey-hilarious standardized thing, and it wasn't articularly associated with being a bard.

These points saddened Sam. It means yet another bit of reprehensible nastiness in nerd-fantasy cool-geekness is found to be recent, and thus counter to the comfortable narrative that bad old sexist gaming has steadily and upwardly evolved into good new woke gaming.

I took it to the Patreon and gained hive-mind information beyond my own experiences which generally confirmed and helped formulate my two points above, specifically that although mind-affecting powers had been more formalized for bards in 3E and 4E (the latter being more about combat, though), what we're seeing here is very much a 5th edition phenomeon

The more sensitive aspects of the issue remain in conversation at the Patreon, within a small and trustworthy conversational space, as I type this. If you're interested in the thickets of ethics and sex in role-playing, that's probably where you should consider going. Here, I want to point out that both Sam and I lean toward sex-positive, often explicit content in our role-playing games, whether playing together or separately. The sanitizing and denial that characterized role-playing through a fair portion of its history isn't my thing at all, as my writings and games demonstrate all too clearly. I even take some credit for blowing off a few lids in the early and mid-2000s about it.

But I hope you can see through our respective participation here that Sam, I, and others always tune this mild preference within a collective understanding per group, and always in the context of the fiction we are enjoying, rather than as a trapdoor opening and "fun! sex! bard! rape!" appearing out of nowhere.

I don't go into moral guardian mode often, and I wish I lived in a hobby-world in which I didn't do it at all and could embrace an ideal of "free spirit, free speech, anarchy first" ... but here, I find my red line - saying "as long as it's fun for you at your table" is not good enough for me in this case. It's wrong.

Helma's picture

It took me a while to calm down and get reasonable, and it didn't really help that it is so easy to find the bad examples. I'd like to make a couple of points that I think are important in case we want to be able to continue playing the way we do like (which I gather is different for each of us) with people we do not know yet.
Yes, the first thing I did see in the Reddit subgroup Sam linked to somewhere was somebody describing the type of player I encountered 30 + years ago when I first tried to figure out if role-playing is for me and as somebody else pointed out at Ron's Patreon, the phenomenon of idiots trying to destroy everybody that is not like them is absolutely not special for our hobby (Gamergate is a very good example from another hobby). Something else that I would like to emphasize: Trolls come in all shapes as do their victims, which I think is important to keep in mind.
Sam has a point in his rant above, a lot of people coming new to the hobby do so because they have watch some of the existing “TV-shows” that use D&D 5e and other games for entertainment and to some degree are led to think that that is what role-playing means. Even I did encounter Chritical Role (in the form of cosplayers, I know that is what it was because it said so on the convention schedule) and I actually liked the variety of different “races” that were depicted in a positive way (which is what is obvious when you don't know anything about the topic). At the same convention I walked into a room where people could make a D&D 5e character and spend some time there – I'd like to share some of my observations from that. This still is the place and time where I encountered the most women (or maybe better, not men) in my contact with role-playing, both among the hosts and the participants. Another thing I observed was that most newbies there had some “experienced” friend with them (and keep in mind, gender is not an issue here!) and nearly all of the experienced friends did freely share advice about how things should be done and I think this is where the core of the problem may lie. Expectations, stereotypes and the like are inherited. They do not need to be in the text to exist, neither do they need TV-shows. I was somewhat dissapointed when I walked away from that place, but mostly because the whole D&D thing seemed so extremely complicated and I did not see, if that was role-playing, how I would fit in. Fortunately for me I decided to give it another try when Ron announced at Spelens Hus that he would be there during the “Halloween special events” with some friends and games that were not D&D and Ron was qick enough to catch me before I lost my courage and stole away from that room.
All of that said, I think it is possible to find others (or let them find you) that are interested in trying new things or in challenging their own expectations and the stereotypes they were told are integer to “fun” play. I mean, we don't do “auditions” for the Spelens hus group or put out advertisements and still, so far a lot of people who came and saw us play did stay until they moved away, and so far new people come in all the time and a lot of them stay.
Another thing to keep in mind, I'm right now on a quest to explore different kinds of “D&D” and I do think that I sometimes can see stereotypes and expectations peeking out from some corner. Right now I've started to play a half-orc barbarian which I guess invites a lot of stereotypes, I decided that she grew up with her human mother and I decided to start imagining her by thinking of vikings, but I did not want to mould her after “Assassins Creed Valhalla” or anything similar but after what I know about places like Birka or Haithabu (go google it). Does this lead to “culture clashes”? Hopefully only in fiction.
So, lets just try to be “good examples” when venturing outside of the “nature reserve” that Adept Play is, I'm sure, that way we will all be able to find others that we can enjoy playing with. And lets continue to record our play and put it out there to show that there is more to role-playing then the "trolls" we despise.

Ron Edwards's picture

Words to learn from and live by.

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