On OGL, ORC, and an Attempt at a Timeline

It’s been over a year since I’ve last posted here. It was a hell of a year.

They’re saying blogs are poised to make a comeback. It would be nice. While I greatly appreciate a well-made video essay, a badly made one is unbearable, and it takes way more time and resources to churn out one of those than just a written text, the latter of which is also way better for disseminating detailed information, like I am about to.

It’s also been a hell of a couple of weeks. I thought I would compile a post to clarify at least to myself what has been going on, because these things tend to be remembered very differently after a while, and digging through Facebook groups, Twitter, and various forums in a couple of years’ time would be a pain in the ass, especially since some of those forums have decided to disallow the posting of certain major outlets.

I am not going to engage in any legal speculation or commentary. I’m from Finland, where we have a civil law system. Wizards of the Coast is based in the United States, where they have three precedents in a trenchcoat and a council of tribal elders. There will be a lot of links, most of them to verified sources such as interviews and news articles. When rumour is included for the sake of completeness, it is marked as such.

Oh, this post is about the Open Gaming License. OGL 1.0a is a document of about 900 words that’s the single most significant page of text for the modern role-playing game industry. It was released along with the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons in 2000. Together with the D20 System License, it allowed companies other than Wizards of the Coast, then a subsidiary of Hasbro, to publish material compatible with D&D and advertise it as such.

Now, it has been recently argued by such eminences as Cory Doctorow and Devin Stone of LegalEagle that the Open Gaming License was unnecessary, and as game mechanics cannot be copyrighted, the companies could have been doing that anyway with far more liberty. While this may or may not be true, it does skip over a lot of context. None of this exists in a vacuum.

For one thing, Wizards of the Coast had recently bought the original publisher of Dungeons & Dragons, TSR Inc., who were famously litigious. They went after competitors, they sent cease & desist letters to online fan sites on GeoCities, they threatened legal action at the drop of a hat. It was joked that TSR stood for “They Sue Regularly” (actually “Tactical Studies Rules”, but that’s neither here nor there). The Open Gaming License was Wizards of the Coast’s way of promising they were not going to do that. See, while you could have possibly gone to court with TSR and won, that takes lawyers and lawyers are not cheap, and this is the tabletop role-playing game industry. WotC’s founder Peter Adkison is often quoted as saying “If you want to make a little money in the RPG industry, start out with a lot of money”. Going to court against the market leader was not a promising proposition for pretty much anyone.

Secondly, who the hell would’ve even thought of trying to make D&D supplements under fair use doctrine? The idea is outré. How would you advertise? Where would you have sold them? The PDF market didn’t exist in 2000 and it’s likely game stores would’ve looked askance at such a product.

No, the Open Gaming License was necessary. It allowed a publishing ecosystem to form, where these third-party publishers working off the base of D&D 3E’s D20 System created new material and borrowed from each others’ work. The threshold to create your own stuff and enter the market was lowered, especially once RPGNow opened and selling your game as PDF became a thing in 2001. Those early days of the OGL were a heady, booming era. Some of the companies founded on D20 that survived the bursting of the bubble are still players in the industry – Mongoose Publishing, Green Ronin Publishing, Paizo Publishing, Troll Lord Games, Goodman Games, Privateer Press, and more. It gave rise to hundreds, if not thousands, of RPG outfits, from actual companies with offices and staff to lone designers doing everything themselves. It was a flourishing era. In time, even some non-D&D games adopted the OGL. It was huge. Three editions of a Star Wars role-playing game were released under the OGL — the same ruleset that powers the Knights of the Old Republic video games. To date, there’s been a Call of Cthulhu D20, two different Lord of the Rings games, a Doctor Who game. Babylon 5. World of Warcraft. Even, I kid thee not, an EverQuest tabletop role-playing game based on the D20 System.

This could happen because of trust. The OGL 1.0a was supposed to be permanent. Eternal. Irrevocable. Wizards of the Coast has repeatedly pressed this point in the past, and it was and remains the stated intention of the idea’s father, Ryan Dancey. Even in 2008, when WotC rolled out a new edition of D&D and its sinister Game System License, which in turn led to the creation of the competitor Pathfinder RPG, they did not attempt anything so asinine as to try pulling the OGL. In cutting themselves off from the OGL ecosystem, they abandoned any hope of D&D 4E being successful even if the strength of their brand could’ve otherwise overcome the product’s own shortcomings.

D&D 5E returned to using the OGL, a new third-party ecosystem was born, and with a couple of lucky breaks called Critical Role and Stranger Things, it started making grown-up money.

Of course, we should remember that the dragon is a metaphor for greed.

On December 21st, 2022, the D&D Beyond blog posted an FAQ about the upcoming OGL 1.1, an update to the license. It included some worrisome language about royalty payments, but also the reassurance that “the OGL is not going away”. And then, on January 4th, 2023, someone leaked the OGL 1.1. It appears the YouTube channel Roll for Combat was the first to break the news, receiving the leaked document in the middle of a scheduled stream, which feels like a bit of a coincidence. The leak deemed real after a Gizmodo article by Linda Codega on January 5th. The leaked document was a whole lot of legalese interspersed with somewhat snide commentary. It was later posted online and I am happy to provide it here.

The most objectionable bits about it were language about claiming royalties for revenue — not profit, revenue — above $750,000; demanding reporting of income over $50,000; claiming a sublicense on all of the licensee’s content; and seeking to deauthorize OGL 1.0a. None of this was deemed acceptable by the gaming public, let alone the people whose entire livelihoods are tied to the OGL. It is a direct attack against third-party publishers.

And by the way, whoever leaked this is a hero. Also, I know I’ve dunked on Knights of the Dinner Table in the past, but this 2009 strip was downright prescient.

Wizards of the Coast, of course, reacted promptly and quickly to the PR disaster of the cen— just kidding, they kept silent for almost a week. Then, on January 10th, the D&D Beyond Twitter account broke the silence: “We know you have questions about the OGL and we will be sharing more soon. Thank you for your patience.”

At this point, I was almost as angry at them for being this bad at crisis communications as I was for them threatening my friends’ livelihoods and my hobby. Note that I do not play D&D 5E. I already swore off Wizards of the Coast’s products in 2008 with the GSL travesty. While I cannot claim to have maintained a perfect boycott for 15 years, it’s been pretty solid. And still this threatens to directly affect me.

Of course, it’s not entirely settled whether OGL 1.0a can be revoked. Myriad people with a variety of law degrees ranging from alleged to actual, hailing from a variety of jurisdictions, have weighed in on the matter on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and various forums. From reading their learned takes on the matter I have determined that nobody actually knows until the gavel comes down. Nobody is particularly keen on suing WotC because, again, lawyers are expensive.

During most of this time, as the gaming internet was aflame, the silence from not only WotC but also some major players in the industry was deafening. Among the first to make big announcements was Kobold Press, who on the 10th announced Project Black Flag, an open system of their own. Kobold Press has been a major third-party publisher of the 5E era, and for them to break ranks was a big deal. Then, Wolfgang Baur learned the lesson about WotC 15 years ago.

On January 12th, the Twitter account DnD_Shorts posted an alleged leak from a D&D Beyond employee, exhorting people to cancel their subscriptions and delete their accounts because money is the only thing that the executives understand (for some fairly basic and limited values of “understand”, I suppose). True or not, it checks out — deciding to boycott the next D&D book is visible in months, but website subscriptions you can see falling in real time. And fall they did. Allegedly, they even tried hiding the unsubscribe button. No actual numbers have been released, of course, but the hunch is that they’re high.

That date, D&D Beyond also cancelled a scheduled Twitch stream. There have been claims it was supposed to be some kind of announcement but to my eye it looks like a regularly scheduled weekly stream, and cancelling it rather than putting unprepared people in the line of fire was the wisest course of action. Apart from the part where over a week after the leak they still did not have their act together.

Also on the 12th, Paizo Publishing, the second-largest OGL publisher in the market (okay, actually I think they are not, but that is because the French board game giant Asmodee releases the Midnight role-playing game under the OGL), broke their silence in a big way, announcing the Open RPG Creative License, or ORC. Paizo and a group of other major OGL publishers — at the time of writing I think it’s almost everyone who’s anyone except Darrington Press (Critical Role), MCDM (Matt Colville), Fria Ligan (Lord of the Rings), Asmodee (Midnight), and EDGE Studios (Adventures in Rokugan) — banded together to hammer out a new open license for their games, to be given into the stewardship of first their law firm and ultimately some kind of open culture foundation. Nobody seems keen on signing on to WotC’s racket.

On the 13th, the date that the leaked OGL 1.1 said was the cutoff, WotC finally made a more substantial announcement. It was unsigned and has been characterized as passive aggressive gaslighting. The text’s tone is deeply unprofessional, and if anything, it fanned the flames against WotC even further.

On January 17th, the Twitter account @DungeonScribe posted an alleged leak that D&D Beyond membership would go up to $30/month for players, AI DMs would be implemented, and base subscriber tiers would have stripped-down gameplay. These were widely reported on, but though verification was promised, none has been forthcoming as of this writing. D&D Beyond’s Twitter account issued a clear denial on the 19th. Personally, I am inclined to think the report false, but it is a part of the larger narrative so I include it here. D&D Twitter’s signal-to-noise ratio has been exceptionally poor even by Twitter standards, and at this point I would wait for Gizmodo’s Linda Codega, who has been doing exceptional work, to verify any further leaks.

By the time that on January 18th, WotC managed to piece together something resembling a human response, they had wasted a full two weeks. It is not public knowledge how they spent that time, but I expect a fair bit of fruitless witch hunting may have gone on, because it is the stupidest thing a corporation can focus on in a situation like this. Godspeed, good witch.

On the 19th, they turned out a draft of OGL 1.2 for feedback. The feedback survey is here. Bits of the D&D System Reference Document 5.1 are also to be placed under a Creative Commons license, which is nice but also meaningless since it is mostly just basic mechanics and procedures which were not copyrightable in the first place, and the experience table. This version of the OGL walks back on the royalty demands of the previous one and removes the sublicense clause. OGL 1.2 is also unacceptable in its attempt to revoke OGL 1.0a. This is explained as a defense against “harmful, discriminatory, or illegal content”. Indeed, the draft includes a morality clause, which is also unacceptable.

No Hateful Content or Conduct. You will not include content in Your Licensed Works that is harmful, discriminatory, illegal, obscene, or harassing, or engage in conduct that is harmful, discriminatory, illegal, obscene, or harassing. We have the sole right to decide what conduct or content is hateful, and you covenant that you will not contest any such determination via any suit or other legal action.

OGL1.2 draft, section 6 (f)

Sure, it feels nice and high-minded to ban bad things. Make them go away, not exist. However, someone has to make the call and those are not well-defined criteria. Even “illegal” is fuzzy. Illegal where? Russia? Saudi Arabia? China, maybe, where WotC prints its books? Or the United States, where the senile council of elders is in the process of enacting a rollback of human rights and Florida Man just banned the teaching of Black history at schools? J.K. Rowling would argue that trans rights are a hateful concept. Hell, I readily admit that if the Lamentations of the Flame Princess adventure Towers Two, which I did Pathfinder design on, is not obscene then I do not know what the hell is. And then there is that whole thing about “conduct”. As written, it would allow the license to be pulled for jaywalking. But that’s a spurious example. How about someone getting their license pulled as a side effect of being cancelled on Twitter. “Obscene conduct”? Without even going into all the sinister history that phrase evokes, I don’t want the state in my bedroom and I sure as hell don’t want WotC in there. This section of the license looks like Pat Pulling won.

And let’s face it, this is Wizards of the Coast. If the last couple of weeks have shown us anything, it’s that they’re not your friend. This merely reiterates a lesson many of us learned in 2008. Examples of their shining moral leadership include the mistreatment of freelancer Orion D. Black, pulling LGBT content off DM’s Guild, the entire mess with Graeme Barber and the grippli, and actually releasing Tomb of Annihilation. Moreover, they’ve recently been embroiled in two different lawsuits, against Gale Force Nine and the author duo Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, where the crux of the matter was a malicious literal interpretation of contract terms against its spirit. And hey, we’ve also seen that they will cave to public pressure as well. These are not people I would hand the right to pull the plug on my work.

The argument has been presented that it is a shield against nuTSR’s Nazi bullshit, which in fact has nothing to do with OGL materials and is a pure copyright dispute. Even the outfit’s blatant racism and gross transphobia is incidental to the fact they’re claiming to own WotC’s intellectual property on the rough legal basis of “I licked it so it’s mine”.

There things now stand, and we wait. WotC’s survey has two weeks on the clock, but really, it is of academic interest. They have broken the trust of third-party publishers, burned away the goodwill of their audience and in general made a right mess of it. At this point, I think signing on to ORC is essentially the only way for them to salvage the situation. And ORC is the actually interesting thing here. As of last report, over 1,500 publishers have signed on. According to an interview with Erik Mona on Roll for Combat, an initial draft can be expected maybe around February.

If you’ve read this far, you deserve a reward. Here’s a cat on some game books.

Wendy’s d20 – The Game We Didn’t Need

On a good day, I don’t like commercials. I dislike targeted advertising and I detest branding. I have adblocker on all my browsers, an advertising ban on my mailbox and another on my mobile number, and when I go to the movies, I bring an e-reader so I don’t have to pay attention to the commercials. I feel a spiritual connection with Captain Kramer in Airplane!

So imagine my unbridled joy when an American fast food chain released a hundred-page ad trying to disguise itself as a role-playing game, advertising something I am not only deeply uninterested in but also unable to buy, seeing as Wendy’s doesn’t have restaurants in Europe.

I’m not linking Feast of Legends. If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve already run across it on your social media of choice way too many times over the past two days. I’m also not reviewing it, since it seems to operate a lot on in-jokes about Wendy’s and other fast food brands. There seems to be an obsession about their stuff never being frozen.

I’m also not reviewing it because it’s an advertisement, not an actual game. I’ve seen people on forums claim that it’s competently designed, though, which is an interesting claim since the damn thing gives every impression of being originally designed for D&D 5E and then hastily rewritten for its new system. Though it’s not D&D, knowing D&D is mandatory to actually play it since it doesn’t explain concepts like “saving throw” despite using them and you’re not told what the stats do apart from Strength. I can sorta tease out that Grace is probably supposed to give attack bonuses on ranged attacks and possibly Defense, and Arcana is probably supposed to give a bonus to spell attacks, but I have no idea what Intelligence is for. Nothing seems to actually use Intelligence, or Charm. It also uses keywords that are first not defined and then mixed up, and the equipment chapter, for some reason titled “Adventuring” is riddled with typos that even MS Word’s spellchecker should’ve caught. And of course you get buffs for eating Wendy’s (as a player, not character) and debuffs for eating stuff from other joints.

The adventure is decent, though there’s annoying wordplay-based riddles that don’t work if you play in a language other than English. The most interesting part of the whole thing is the thinly veiled references to other fast food brands, though much like Wendy’s, we’ve managed to avoid having KFC or Jack in the Box over here.

The layout looks nice, I guess. The art is sorta competent.

Initially, some people in my social media bubble were annoyed that the work credited no designers – or more accurately, credited the work to Wendy – but honestly, if I were guilty of perpetrating this thing, I wouldn’t want word to get out either. Anyway, the responsible party is an advertising agency, not a game company. The names are on Twitter for the willing digger.

And then there’s the other thing. Like, I generally find it a safe assumption that a company of a certain size, especially based in the United States, a country still suffering from national trauma over that one time they had to get rid of slavery, is going to be up to some sketchy stuff labour-wise. I accept that when I buy something made by a large American corporation, their CEO is most likely funding the GOP. Buying a senator or a share in a president is a pretty good investment, after all. Turns out that even by the modest standards of the American food industry, Wendy’s is pretty bad. Like, really bad. Quoting from an LA Times report from the Mexican tomato farms where they source their tomatoes:

One day, a mother confronted a boss. She asked for more tortillas.

Ricardo Martinez, who was standing in the soup line behind the woman, recalled the boss’ reaction.

“He told her she would only get a slap in the face,” Martinez said. “Then an older man stepped in and said, ‘Don’t hit her, hit me.’ ”

Martinez said the boss knocked the man to the ground and beat him. “She just needed more for her kids. What they gave wasn’t enough,” Martinez said.

People too ill to work were put on the no-pay list. They couldn’t get in the soup line unless they swept up around the camp.

Wendy’s had also organised a showcase game session with Critical Role, who then presumably looked at Twitter, went “oops”, and donated their sponsorship money from the week to charity, tweeting:

We’ve donated our profits from our sponsorships this week to @FarmwrkrJustice, an organization that works to improve the lives of farmworkers. If you’re able to, please consider a donation and learn more about their work: http://farmworkerjustice.org

Which was the right thing to do, of course. I’m not going after Mercer & co. here, though it would’ve been a lot better if they’d done their work and vetted the company beforehand.

The last thing that bugs me here is the corporate bullshit aspect of it. The work is credited to the company logo, like their Twitter feed. On Twitter, “Wendy” dishes out snark and presents as a person. @Wendys (whom I blocked) isn’t a soulless billion-dollar corporation exploiting cheap labour in developing countries, she’s your friend who posts funny and relatable content! And now she’s a game designer, too! And you get buffs in her game by buying food from her restaurant! Yay friendship!

The YouTuber Sarah Z covered some aspects of this a year ago:

Also, while I am flattered that a soulless billion-dollar corporation considers me as a role-playing game hobbyist a demographic specifically worth targeting, I’d rather they didn’t. There is something about the idea of role-playing a lunch menu item – which is what the classes in Feast of Legends amount to – that makes my skin crawl. There’s something I find philosophically odious about actively participating in being advertised to, about taking on the role of a commodity that’s simultaneously being sold to me. It’s like being enthusiastically complicit in being oppressed by late-stage capitalism.

And seriously, if your annual revenue is in the ten-digit range, you can afford to include an editor in your ad budget.

Hugo Neepery, the 2015 Edition

These past couple of posts I’ve been warning that I’ll be writing up a separate post discussing the Hugos this year. It’s a somewhat controversial topic this year. You may remember how last year we had some trouble with a few authors having an entitlement problem. Well, they’re back, and this time the lunatic fringe also showed up to the party.

The way the Hugo nomination process works is that if you have at least a supporting membership of an appropriate Worldcon, costing around $40, you get to nominate works for the Hugo ballot. Since the English-speaking world sees some 1,000 works published for the novel category alone each year and the field is very broad, ranging from fantasy of manners to hard military science fiction, the votes tend to spread out quite a bit. Because of this, were someone to write up a slate of nominations, which Brad Torgersen did and then Theodore Beale imitated and expanded upon, and tell all their friends and family and fans to vote on it, it would only take a couple of hundred warm bodies to have an effect. This is entirely legal by the rules, but tremendously unsportsmanlike.

So, we’re left with the end result that the majority of nominees on the ballot did not make it there on literary merit alone. Indeed, there are a number of works there entirely lacking in merit literary and otherwise. The short fiction categories and Best Related Work are a lost cause this year, and though there are a couple of works there that I thought were pretty decent, like Kary English’s “Totaled”, Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s “The Day the World Turned Upside Down” (though last year’s “Ink Readers of Doi Saket” was much better) and one or two others, they’re still not quite what I’d think of as Hugo quality and the rest of the nominees are too weak for me to call it a contest. This is one of the more insidious things about slate voting. Even if there was something that would normally have a fighting chance on the ballot, the contest isn’t going to be fair if it’s accompanied there by stuff that’s merely okay or worse, and an award won in a category where the rest of the nominees are present only because Little Teddy wants to promote his vanity press is hollow. It’s a spectacularly shitty thing to do to writers who neither asked nor were asked to be on the slate.

Best Novella is particularly dire and contained nothing that I did not detest outright. I shall also single out John C. Wright’s Transhuman and Subhuman: Essays on Science Fiction and the Awful Truth as the worst book I have ever read, a nearly perfect intellectual, artistic, and moral failure.

That said, Best Novel has a lot of good stuff, and I think Best Graphic Story was the strongest it’s been in years.

My vote for Best Novel goes to Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, a novel about a fish out of water in a setting of courtly intrigue. It’s very much “Jane Austen’s The Lord of the Rings“. The prose is beautiful and the main character, Maia, is relatable to a degree that’s starting to feel manipulative. It’s sentimental and cozy, and somehow makes it work. It was also light in tone, which is a refreshing break from all the George R.R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie I’ve been reading lately.

I also liked Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword and Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem. Actually, Addison only edged out Leckie for first spot on my ballot because Leckie already won pretty much everything except the Pulitzer last year. Liu’s novel was interesting and a worthy successor to its models in the grand tradition of idea sci-fi, but the prose and characters felt flat to me. So sue me. I’m not a big fan of Clarke, Dick or Asimov either.

Jim Butcher’s Skin Game I can take or leave. I loved Cold Days, but this one just left me cold. I’ve been a fan of the series, and Butcher still writes eminently readable stuff. However, the focus on Dresden’s sexual frustration in this one was tremendously awkward to read, and the end resolution felt anticlimactic for all the stakes they had piled up. Also, the pop culture references went far over the top. Especially at the end.

Kevin J. Anderson’s The Dark Between the Stars I found merely dull. It’s very long, has aliens with katanas, and is simultaneously the sequel to a long series that it assumes you’ve read and the start of a new series, so it sort of assumes that you know all this stuff already and the actual payoff is going to be delivered a few books down the line.

For Graphic Story, I’m giving it to Rat Queens, Vol. 1: Sass & Sorcery. I have been reading a lot of Order of the Stick and Nodwick lately, and Rat Queens draws from the same well, the genre of D&D fantasy, where adventurers are a profession unto itself and mysterious strangers hand out quests in taverns. All three comics play with the tropes of the game and the genre, but whereas Nodwick is just a loose collection of jokes and Order of the Stick is an epic fantasy tale layered with the trappings of a role-playing game, Rat Queens captures the actual play experience like nothing I have seen before. It deftly weaves together the absurdity of a casual gaming group with the ostensible seriousness of the adventures they have. It’s also too funny to be read in public while trying to maintain decorum. And the art is pretty.

After Rat Queens, there’s the third installment of Saga, the first trade paperback collection of Ms. Marvel, and the first volume of Sex Criminals, all of which I liked. There was also a zombie comic of some sort, but it was not included in the voter package, was off the Sad Puppy slate and is a zombie story, which together killed my interest and I could not even be bothered to dig it up.

Also, it is a crying shame that Sing No Evil was not on the ballot. Or The Causal Angel, or Memory of Water, or “The Truth About Owls”, or the Southern Reach Trilogy, or The Blood of Angels, or Only Lovers Left Alive, or What Makes This Book So Great, or Sibilant Fricative, or The World of Ice and Fire or the second part of Heinlein’s biography, or nearly anything else than what we in so many categories received.

The Hugo voting is open until July 31st, and there’s still plenty of time to get your Sasquan membership and Hugo Voter Pack and see for yourself if I’m right or wrong.

Foul Relics of the Past and D&D 5E

I haven’t been following the 5E development much. I figure that if something interesting comes up, it will intrude upon my consciousness in one way or another, via IRC, forums, an instant message one minute after I’ve gone to bed, or the like. I’m also waiting for the damn thing to come out before passing judgment on it, unlike the online army of prophets and oracles that has looked into the future or received a divine message and thus know for a certain fact that 5E will either be a terrible flop or usher in a new Golden Age of roleplaying games.

However, my fears of the former were grown today when I had to witness a flamewar on Monte Cook’s newest 5E poll, Uniting the Editions, Part 3. There’s one thing among the poll options that gave me pause, as it was not like the others. There’s an option there that does not belong in the 21st century, was a poor idea when it was first conceived over 30 years ago and wholly deserves the quiet grave it has lain these past three editions. The option has no place in a serious discussion on game design except as a warning example and should not be brought to light except to reflect on how far we have come as a hobby and as a society. The option conjures images of the worst stereotypes of roleplayers and will, if actually included in a finished product, bring deserved scorn upon the game and the brand.

No, not THAC0. I’m talking about gender-based ability score maximums. Though the term is pretty self-explanatory, I’ll explain it anyway. It’s a relic of AD&D 1E, where the Player’s Handbook contained this little chart:

It’s a bit small, but the only difference between the sexes is that female characters cannot have as high a Strength score as males. The chart lacks humans, but the earlier Strength Table I notes that a female human’s Strength caps at 18/50, while a male’s goes all the way up to 18/00. Basically, it makes women second-class citizens.

The only purpose these rules serve is to take up space on a page and, well, to be sexist. It’s worse than the Random Prostitute Table (from the Dungeon Master Guide), because that’s at least amusing in its pointlessness. This is just odious. Seriously, it brings nothing positive to the game, and this shit right here and shit like this elsewhere are a major reason the gender makeup of the hobby looks like it does. It is indefensible, useless, and offensive, and the only reason I can figure out for it to be trotted out every now and then like it was a good idea is because some people have this masochistic desire to be thought of as troglodytes.

Now, I’m not numbering Monte Cook among them. From what I’ve seen, he’s one of the good guys, but still, including the option in this poll even as a joke was a bad call. They’ve now made the results secret, but when I cast my votes, it had Feats leading with around 2000 votes, Skills coming up behind with over 1000, and Gender-Based Ability Score Maximums in the bottom end with 324, or about half again as many as THAC0. I think it was also leading over System Shock. The poll is also just begging for goons or Anonymous or a particularly vile strain of Redditor to dump it full of votes for chauvinism. This particular old hat has resurfaced a couple of times online during the last year, and we’ve had some lovely flamewars indeed (and I’m mostly writing this because of those other flamewars – it feels like something of a current topic and this poll isn’t just a single, strange anomaly).

The usual argument is for “realism”, which I suppose would hold water if the game were committed to absolute realism and Phoenix Command level of simulation. However, it isn’t. The hit points and ability scores and armour class are all abstractions, and the player characters are supposed to be exceptional individuals unrestrained by how much the “average” human can bench press. No “average” person decides to go down that hole in the ground and hunt some orc. 3.0 had rules for swimming up waterfalls and balancing atop clouds as feats theoretically attainable without the use of magic. This is not a level of realism the game has ever been particularly interested in replicating. Hell, as things are, most D&D settings even have gender equality, certain trends in armour fashion notwithstanding. We have a game where characters going to the sauna would spontaneously combust, and this is where you choose to make a stand on “realism”? (Besides, enshrining the gender binary in the rules like that also excludes people who do not fit in it, which is unrealistic. Somehow, that notion tends to make people advocating this crap rather uncomfortable.) And no, giving female characters a bonus on Intelligence, Wisdom or Charisma in the name of “balance” would not fix things, it’d just turn this into a different load of bollocks, since then it’d also discriminate against men.

The arguments against it are far more compelling. It discriminates against women and punishes a female player for wanting to play a character of her own sex. It enforces outdated and offensive sterotypes. It’s sexist and drives women away from the game, and its inclusion would be pandering to the pig-ignorant mouthbreathers and social also-rans that this hobby is trying to rise above. Indeed, one player I know has mentioned that she doesn’t want to play D&D because the game’s portrayal of women makes her feel like her character would be dead weight to the party – and this two decades after the chart above was consigned to the wastebasket of history.

Approaching from another point of view, even a less socially enlightened mind would perhaps wish to consider the notion that effectively excluding 50% of humanity from your game might not be the soundest financial decision, either in terms of directly lost sales or the public relations issues it would cause. This could actually be damaging to D&D, since it’s notable enough that mainstream media outlets like Forbes ran stories on the 5th edition announcement. If a generic fantasy heartbreaker someone released out of their garage has a 1920’s attitude about women, the most flak it can expect to catch is three pages on RPG.net and maybe an irate blog post somewhere. However, if D&D pulls a stunt like that, it’ll be all over the place, and not necessarily limited to the geeksphere.

Seriously, now. That chart has no place in this game or any other game, even as an optional rule. Put a picture of a dragon or a random sock colour table in there if you can’t figure anything else to fill the page. If I need to throw a player from my table, I don’t need the rulebook to help me.

Afterword: And then they figured it out, fixed things, and posted a follow-up, all before I got this blog post up. Good job, guys. However, I spent a couple of hours on this rant and I’m not about to let it go to waste.

Heartbreak & Heroines: Game Called on Account of Drama

Okay, now I am annoyed. The funding for Heartbreak & Heroines has been cancelled by the creator because of some rather disgusting drama brewing in the blogs out there.

No, I’m not going to go into specifics. You can google it if you really want to know. I think the place for this kind of thing is not on the blogs but in a court of law, and I’ve already squashed one comment about it. Suffice it to be said that whoever is in the wrong in this particular case is a failure as a human being, but it is not my place to decide the truth of it. For now, I refuse to touch this with a ten-foot pole.

Dammit. I wanted that game.

Delicious Flamewars, Heartbreak, and Heroines

A roleplaying game project came up on Kickstarter the other day.

For those of you who don’t know, Kickstarter is a site where an aspiring publisher of whatever product can put up their idea, pitch it to the public, and set a goal for how much money they need to produce it and release it. Members of the public may then pledge money to the project in exchange for future copies or whatever. It’s a pretty nifty system.

Anyway, this particular roleplaying game is called Heartbreak & Heroines. It’s “a fantasy roleplaying game about adventurous women who go and have awesome adventures — saving the world, falling in love, building community, defeating evil. It’s a game about relationships and romance, about fairy tales and feminism.”

That last word, there, “feminism”… that’s a bit flammable on the internet. Predictably, it soon caught fire on RPG.net. Here’s the first thread. It’s a bit of a trainwreck and you may not want to actually read it, though it does contain the immortal lines “WFRPG is one of the few RPGS to acknowledge the historical reality that everyone in the medieval Arab world was a reanimated skeleton” and “For me, the weird experience has been the vast number of men who are so ardently supportive of women in gaming that they find a feminist RPG to be offensive”. There’s also a Q&A thread where the author herself comes to answer questions, and does so in a manner far more polite than I probably would have managed.

So, she pissed off a bunch of people without trying or intending to. With feminism and inclusiveness. I think there might be something wrong here, but I can’t quite put my finger on it…

As a general thing, I keep a healthy distance from arguments and flamewars like these. I mean, I’m a white, heterosexual, college-educated male from Finland. I’ve got privilege coming out of my ass. The issues do not personally touch me and the discourse around them is mostly unfamiliar to me in a way that makes me feel like I might inadvertently offend someone I don’t want to. I always feel like I’m moving on thin ice when I go there, so I generally don’t. It’s easier to stay in my comfort zone where I am always right. It’s a pretty large playing field for me.

However, this time I am willing to make an exception, and I’m pretty sure that I’m right.

See, to me there’s something fundamentally wrong about the attitude Heartbreak & Heroines encountered there. “Hubris”, they said. The author was compared to that of F.A.T.A.L. Further down the line we are presented ideas that having racial and gender equality in a medieval fantasy setting is “silly”. We also get the classic “not tolerating bigotry makes you a bigot yourself” line.

Seriously, people. I’m not saying I’m above writing extravagantly lengthy posts describing the exact depth of my hatred for this game or that, but I at least had played the game first (except in the case of F.A.T.A.L., but I think I can be forgiven for that). This one hasn’t even been entirely written yet.

So, given that the people being pissed off seem to have been in desperate need of pissing off anyway and probably secretly wanted it (see what I did there?), I can only give my wholehearted approval to Heartbreak & Heroines and Caoimhe Ora Snow. I can also give $15. Would pledge more, except it’s the con season and I’m not exactly rolling in cash right now.

I’m not saying you should do the same, mind you. I hate it when people use the “buy this or you are a chauvinist/antisemite/racist/True Finn” argument. For all I know, the game might end up being crap (though the author’s previous work seems solid enough). Just… you might do worse than pledge a few coins. Also, if they don’t reach the goal, I won’t get my copy, and then I’ll be annoyed.

Rulesets Have No Expiration Dates

There’s a strange notion I’ve run into a couple of times during the latest bout of Old School Renaissance arguments – namely, that the rules of old D&D editions are somehow “obsolete”.

Let’s get this straight: no roleplaying game that I have ever seen has come with a “best before” date stamped on it. There is no exact science behind game rule development that has advanced by leaps and bounds in the last thirty-odd years, like computer or mobile phone technology has. Beyond the physical properties of the product, there is nothing, nothing, objectively better about a game that has been released in 2010 as opposed to a game that was released in 1978.

Some ideas are, of course, newer than others. There has, certainly, been innovation, with people coming up with new ways to do things and new things to do. Separate race and class, classless systems, logarithm-based systems, point-based systems, percentile systems, diceless systems, dice pool systems, storytelling mechanics. However, most of it is just applied mathematics (with the exception of the stuff that isn’t, like the fortune cookies in Tähti), and that crap has been around for some millennia now. Whether the execution of a ruleset is actually mathematically valid, whether you get the probability spreads you intended, is just a matter of numbers and if the numbers are wrong, they’ll be just as wrong if they were crunched today as they’d be if they were crunched thirty years ago. That is the only objective thing, and the rest is preferences, taste and fashion.

Then, there are some aspects of games that really do become obsolete, such as when the technological development passes a sci-fi game by (I’m looking at you, Cyberpunk 2020. It’s been ten years since I’ve even seen an NMT phone outside of a rerun on TV.). I am also told that a number of early Palladium games list homosexuality as a mental illness, and there’s probably any number of fantasy and semi-historical roleplaying games that have content loosely based on interpretations of history that have since been discovered to be inaccurate. I couldn’t cite any examples, but it’s my understanding that some of the armours in certain editions of Dungeons & Dragons fall into this category (though, if we’re entirely honest, a historical analysis of the equipment chapter of any edition of D&D would make anyone who seriously cares about such matters weep).

Rules, though… Rules keep. The OSR games are an obvious example, but they’re the ones that provoked this neophiliac brainfart in the first place, so let’s look at some others. Call of Cthulhu was first released in 1981. Now, six editions and 29 years later, it’s still the same game, it’s still good, and people are still playing it. Pendragon is another. 25 years and five discrete editions, and the brilliance was already there in 1985. The Traveller character generation system from 1977 still rocks, especially once they tweaked it to fix the death-at-chargen issue. Dungeons & Dragons looks actually anomalous in the extent of the changes between editions, especially between the second, third and fourth editions of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. They’re less separate editions of the same game than they are separate games.

Of course, different rulesets are good for different things. Pendragon has a laser-like focus on emulating the very specific tone of a very specific telling of the King Arthur stories. Some of the modern storygames are written for playing one single specific story. Deathwatch is probably completely pants for playing anything that doesn’t have Space Marines in it. The fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons is very good for annoying me. The interesting thing is that the different editions of D&D have very different focuses and support very different playstyles. Characters in the older editions tend to be fragile things, which gears the game towards a more careful, exploratory and cerebral approach to exploring a dungeon – and while they’re not exclusively dungeon crawling games, the environment does default to the dungeon. I don’t think this really changed until AD&D 2E, which seems to be geared to run any kind of fantasy game, as we can see from the myriad of innovative settings developed for the edition. 3E and D20 took this even further, redesigning the entire ruleset from the ground up to be a flexible, universal system. From this point of view, 4E is sort of a return to the roots in its tighter focus (namely, annoying me and tactical combat), except that they found some completely different roots to return to.

In short: just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s bad. Just because you don’t understand or like the playstyle doesn’t mean it’s bad. However, if the math doesn’t actually go the way they thought it did… then it can be bad.

In the interests of fairness and balance, I will soon be tackling an irritating rhetorical tactic often used by the other side of the debate.

Would You Like Some Cheese with Your Whine, Mr Kask?

It would appear that there’s yet another tempest of fecal matter in the offing around the phenomenon of the Old School Renaissance. This time the poop-flinger is none other than Tim Kask, the first editor of The Dragon, an ancient and slightly obscure figure from the early days of gaming. A guest editorial of his was posted at Lord of the Green Dragons, and it… looks like a really bad troll, actually. Seriously, I get better stuff from the incoming SomethingAwful links.

Now, I rarely jump in on these blogosphere tiffs. Usually, nothing is resolved and the end result can only be something really ugly. However, in this case, I do not think it can get a lot uglier than what Mr Kask wrote there, and he has managed to personally rouse my ire.

Also, when someone drops their pants, paints a huge bullseye on their buttocks and moons, what am I supposed to do?

Mr Kask’s post is a collection of personal attacks against people he doesn’t feel a particular need to name for claims he does not feel a particular need to source. This is slightly frustrating, since though I can identify some of the people, the more outlandish assertions made in the post cannot be verified. Who, for instance, are the “[t]wo particularly obnoxious individuals [who] have set themselves up as some sort of Star Chamber in which they pass judgments that others are actually supposed to care about and heed”? While the scene clearly has no shortage of obnoxious individuals, I cannot quite place these descriptions. Keeping your targets anonymous, of course, allows you to invent whatever villainy you’re accusing them of.

Most of his shots seem to be aimed at James Edward Raggi IV, presumably due to this post, who, despite being around half Mr Kask’s age, acts rather more mature in his response. Then, I’ve seen more mature displays than this diva show from my nine-year-old cousin. There’s also a swipe at Eero Tuovinen of Arkenstone Publishing, who’s “an obscure self-styled publisher from a small European country”. The man has a company that publishes (and imports) games. What, pray tell, is he then supposed to style himself? As for “small European country,” it’s called Finland, and I’m debating whether this additional descriptor is his way of trying to make Eero recognizable without naming him or just some strange jingoistic anachronism or what. There’s also the line “We built a market in five short years that virtually dwarfed the hobby of five years previous. In addition, we did not do it with a government subsidy or grant,” which has this lovely unstated suggestion of “unlike those godless Communists.” In fact, the whole diatribe becomes even more hilarious than it already is if you imagine it read in the voice of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Then there’s this gem: “OSR (whichever phrase you prefer), is, on its surface, an oxymoron. For something to be “reborn” or revived, it must first be dead. The original spirit of D&D never died; it just was buried under all the crap that came out with editions after the second.”

If you take an extremely myopic view of things, that is largely true. However, from the viewpoint of the gaming community at large, it was dead. AD&D 2E was dropped the minute the Third Edition came out. The older editions were ten years or more out of print and difficult to find on the secondary market. Awareness of them waned. New stuff wasn’t available at the game stores, and the majority of the gaming community had turned to other games. On account of no games being actually available, there was no influx of new players to the old systems. Sure, there was always Dragonsfoot, but that forum quickly garnered an apparently well-deserved reputation for irrational hostility towards new things, and if that’s your idea of keeping a game alive, it’s time to call in Dr Kevorkian. Now, the Old School Renaissance has reinvigorated old-school Dungeons & Dragons, brought it back to the limelight and to store shelves. What, in this, is such a horrid thing that it needs to be attacked and denigrated? What about it is so complicated that it cannot be understood? It’s not defined by anyone in particular, and if it has leaders, they are such by the power of the vox populi. The internet is quite democratic in this. It is also democratic in that even if you were the first editor of The Dragon and were there when they figured out how to use fire, you will get called on your fabrications.

Since OSR is defined as the recent increased interest in old and out-of-print editions of D&D, playing them, rereleasing their rules, and writing new material for them, it’s a mite nonsensical to try opting out of it. It is what it is, the label is stuck, and complaining of things, especially in Mr Kask’s tone, will bring with it a number of other labels that are far less complimentary. Also, I question the marketing sense of declaring your contempt for the competition mere paragraphs before announcing that you, yourself, are going to soon release something that’s presumably going to be targeted at the same audience. If a part of that audience is, say, heavily invested in the hobby, like gamers tend to be, they might take it badly. I’m not going to claim there was much chance of me buying whatever it is Mr Kask is selling to begin with, but this little rant kinda sealed the deal. There’s a certain irony in thousand words of drivel fermented in bitterness that keeps proclaiming that the fun is what matters.

Overall, what we have here is a petty and small-minded attack completely untroubled by facts, common courtesy or reason. Note, if you will, how Mr Kask fails to actually counter any of the arguments or observations that he attacks, even noting that some of them are true, but still somehow “asinine” or “moronic”. Most rants are actually trying to make a point somewhere, while this one is just trying to convince the reader that some conveniently anonymous people are morons and that the Old School Renaissance is somehow bad, based on him saying so.

I am going to remain neutral on the topic of whether the OSR or TSR have produced better material, as I am unfamiliar with far too large parts of both corpuses to pass objective judgment. However, the latter just went on the lead for having produced more annoying spokespersons.

Award News – Bleargh

The results of both the ENnies and the Diana Jones Awards are now in.

The Diana Jones people haven’t yet updated their website, though. According to Robin D. Laws, it went to Dominion.

The ENnies, this year, featured a lesson on why the popular vote doesn’t work when one of the contestants is orders of magnitude larger than all the others combined. WotC sweeped nearly all categories it was nominated for just by being better known, including the Fan’s Choice for Best Publisher, which is beyond ridiculous. Their marketing has featured outright lies (At D&D Experience 2007, the official line was that 4E is not in the works. At Gen Con…), promised products have never materialised (The online game table is now over a year late and still not in sight.), their website is a travesty, the first draft of the GSL was a direct attack against the open gaming movement, and their policy on PDFs has less connection to the real world than the D&D economic system.

I would also contest the Product of the Year going to Player’s Handbook, which is only a third of a game and despite being laid out for eight-year-olds with lots of white space and a ridiculously huge typeface still doesn’t contain enough empty margins to write in all the errata.

Best Aid or Accessory to D&D Insider? A user-hostile collection of occasionally functional applications and features that never were? Are you kidding me?

Howl of the Carrion King, at least, won the Best Adventure it deserved – and it really is a splendid module. Still, WotC’s King of the Trollhaunt Warrens, which nobody seems to have even heard of, nabbed second place apparently just by being 4E. Seriously, I can’t even find reviews for it outside of Amazon.com, and even there the most positive one of the three states that “The module is similar to all WOTC and TSR adventures and has little to no role-playing. This adventure is basically fight after fight.”

Silver. Over Purge the Unclean or Barrow Grounds. My ass.

Then there’s Best Monster Book, with Monster Manual, a collection of stats and occasionally questionable art choices beating Creatures Anathema, a book chock-full of flavour, great ideas and adventure hooks. It also contains the following: “The most infamous of Attack Squigs is the Ravenous Face-Biter, appropriately named for the way in which it tries to bite the faces off of its enemies, ravenously. Other less well known, but no less vicious, varieties include the Drooling Snapjaw and the Pig-eyed Gouger.” It’s got orks! It’s got the eldar! It’s got ‘nids! And it got beaten by the adorable dire puppy!

Another serious issue is that the Best Free Product category pitted freebie quickstart rules – marketing materials, essentially – against genuinely free games, and then one of the damn things was actually allowed to win. The D&D retroclone game Swords & Wizardry got silver, at least, but in my view, and the view of quite a few others in the blogosphere, there were only two nominees there that should have been eligible in the first place. The other was Trial & Terror: Supernatural Victims Unit.

Dark Heresy received a well-deserved Best Production Values award. I mean, you can say what you will about recycling art, glorious though it be, but that book, as a physical object, is one of the finest items in my game collection. I accidentally dropped it a while back, and the pages tore away from the covers. I pushed them back in, and they stuck. In normal use, you wouldn’t know anything had happened. That’s quality. I can’t say how it stacks up with the competition (except that CthulhuTech is also a very pretty book, though I understand that an early print run was somehow faulty), but it is not a misplaced victory.

Also, Best Setting went to Paizo’s Pathfinder Campaign Setting, which really is one of my favourite fantasy settings, nowadays. It combines elements of classic pulp fantasy and horror literature with Dungeons & Dragons to great effect and manages to create a kitchen sink setting with a distinct feel of its own instead of just a mishmash.

In other news, WotC has announced that in 2010 they shall be revisiting Dark Sun for 4E. I shall politely refrain from posting my thoughts on this.

WotC’s Releases Fan Site Kit to Widespread Ridicule

I am trying to find something to say about WotC’s fan site kit and its terms of use, but I’m drawing a blank. Everything has already been said, by other bloggers such as mxyzplk at Geek Related or d7 at The Seven-Sided Die, or by me in one of the previous instances they did something like this.

Their kit is a small collection of images, mostly of the covers of their products, and some very confusing terms of service. There’s a lot of suspicious content that I am unable to decipher, but it does appear to forbid you from posting modules and web applications on your fan site.

Which sorta makes sense. They’re the two things WotC has repeatedly screwed up with in recent times, so they wouldn’t want a freebie someone knocked off on their lunch break to make them look bad. That’s what their marketing and legal departments are for.

My memory fails as to how long ago this thing was first announced, but I am tempted to say late 2007, and no later than when the GSL came out in June 2008. Over a year in the works and this is the result. Hooray.

The nice thing about it all is that you don’t need to use it. The kit doesn’t contain anything special and certainly nothing worth the fear, uncertainty and doubt of their legalese.

It all just rubs me the wrong way philosophically. A major part of roleplaying games is the creation of your own material. That’s a significant part of their attraction and the thing that really sets roleplaying games apart from board games and computer games. This runs counter to that, and at the worst is a direct attack against the very core of the hobby, at the least yet another illustration that the market leader Does Not Get It.