I’ve been reading some pretty interesting posts on other blogs lately, some really good items which have caused me to reflect a bit on my own gaming experiences over the last 30+ years.

The first was this item from Swords & Dorkery (an outstanding blog title, by the way); I encourage you to read it in full. The short version is that big business and corporate greed tend to screw everything up, even the comparatively small world of tabletop gaming. You’ll get no argument from me there. One passage in particular really resonated with me:

I think this has happened in gaming as well, because the giants of the industry are focused, laser-like, on selling product. It would be foolish and revisionist and false to claim that the old game companies weren’t in it for the money; by and large they were. But that was before the art of selling crap was as sophisticated as it is now.

On the first of Mike’s two separate, but related, points — it wasn’t always that way. Back in the mid-1970’s, TSR was primarily in the business of selling miniatures rules. They introduced the original D&D in 1974 and it “stood alone” for quite a while. But RPGs, by their very nature and almost by definition, encourage tinkering. Thus the idea of “rules supplements” was born. In the case of D&D, some of the material in the first two D&D supplements actually improved the game quite a bit, and they were a “must have” for gamers because of that improvement. But by the end of the decade (after AD&D 1e was introduced), TSR began churning out endless stacks of supplements, adventures, add-ons, etc., arguably because they knew that if they didn’t, somebody else would (Judge’s Guild, I’m looking at you here). Granted, much of this material was purely optional and not required; even a moderately imaginative GM could get along just fine without purchasing the latest linked series of five modules. The modules were essentially useless from a GMing perspective anyway, being as at least one of your players was sure to have purchased and committed the same modules to memory, but they were a treasure trove (no pun intended) of ideas — you could see how someone else constructed an adventure (or a linked series of them) and use that information as a template for framing your own ideas into a campaign.

However, by 1982 TSR had become quite accomplished at extracting the maximum number of dollars from its customers by releasing RPGs which were technically (by a strict legal definition) “complete”, but which either a) left out major genre components or b) were almost as sketchy in actual content as the original mid-1970’s OD&D. An example of the former was the otherwise excellent Star Frontiers “space opera” sci-fi game. It could be played and enjoyed straight out of the box, but the game lacked ship vs. ship space combat rules (an essential genre component) requiring anyone who wanted to run a serious long-term campaign to purchase a second boxed game called Knight Hawks. What made this omission even more glaring was the nature of the “starter scenario” included with Star Frontiers, a storyline launched by a “space pirate” attack on the ship carrying the player characters. The implication was that ship vs. ship combat was possible (otherwise space buccaneers couldn’t operate); it was possible, just not with the current set of rules. And, while we’re on the subject of that introductory module, it was semi-complete, as it was designed to be played as the first part of a multi-part adventure for which the players had to spring the cash for the rest of the modules in the series if they “wanted to see how it all turned out”.

Even more glaring was the 1984 release of the Marvel Superhero RPG. Calling it a “complete game” was a real stretch (with a tip of the cap here to Mr. Fantastic). The rules were “slight” at best (with omissions and holes you could drive a truck through) and the game contained stats for a mere eight heroes from the entire Marvel Universe (and one of those was the strictly B-List 1980’s Captain Marvel — meh). There was a sort of sketchy “outline” for how to stat out other Marvel characters, but if you wanted “official” stats on your favorites you had to buy other modules, books, and issues of Dragon Magazine — and a small mountain of them.

I was occasionally quite pleased to empty my wallet on a new RPG when I thought it was worth the cost. GDW’s brilliant Space:1889 RPG launched a series of interlocking games: a RPG, an airship-to-airship minis game, a land combat minis game, a naval combat minis game, a boardgame, and numerous modules and supplements. I eagerly anticipated each new release so that I could explore more of the wonders of Space:1889’s solar system, which was a delightful melange of Verne’s, Wells’, Burroughs’, and Conan-Doyle’s adventure tales. Now bear in mind that this game was nothing like TSR’s Marvel Superheroes (in which you were practically required to buy more stuff). Any of the Space:1889 games could be played and greatly enjoyed on its own merits without any further purchases, but the setting was so wonderfully well-realized that you wanted to acquire everything related to the game.

Of course, that was in the late 1980’s, when you could still flip through the pages of a rulebook or supplement to decide whether or not you wanted to buy it. These days all you can find on the store bookshelves are the hardback tomes related to the latest iteration of D&D, True 20, Star Wars, or the latest of the dreary Goth/emo RPG series {Name of Supernatural Being}: The {Marginally Evocative Noun of Your Choice}. Unless we’re willing to make a major time and money commitment (most games require multiple rulesbooks at $35-$40 a pop, and each typically contains several hundred pages of rules), we wind up giving them a pass.

So what do we do now? We read a boatload of positive Internet reviews of the latest RPG hotness, available only as a $17.95 PDF download from RPGNow or Drive-thru RPG (which are essentially the same outfit) and we decide that PDF is the way to go. And this brings us to Mike’s other point I quoted above:

But that was before the art of selling crap was as sophisticated as it is now.

Talk about your “sophisticated crap sales”! Now I’m not dissing all PDF-based RPGs; I’m actually quite fond of some of the purchases I’ve made (Hideouts and Hoodlums among them). But the problem is that it’s generally a blind shot in the dark. Unless you’re willing to download a bootleg copy to “try before you buy”, you never really know what you’re getting until it’s too late.

I am deeply aggrieved over my purchase of the truly dreadful Icons RPG. By and large, the assembled rank and file of Internet geekdom swooned in paroxysms of joy over how “great” this game is, so much so that the publishers have released an apparently endless stream of supplements and add-ons for it. So, dumbass that I am, I went ahead and paid $15 for a PDF copy thinking I was going to actually get something for my hard-earned ducats; what I got was what the great Groucho Marx once called a “tootsie-frutzying”. I’d call Icons “slight” but I don’t want to make it sound more substantial than it is; the game makes the old TSR Marvel Superhero game look like Ben-Hur by comparison. And, by the way, that’s a very easy comparison to make, because Icons is largely derived from that old TSR chestnut. The author of Icons is the same guy who designed Mutants and Masterminds, and it shows — he basically took the core of MSH, grafted a streamlined version of M&M’s combat system onto it, and has somehow successfully managed to pass it off as a “new” RPG. There’s nothing remotely new about it and certainly nothing much to see here. The typestyle of the Icons PDF is a really large “Comic” font which, along with the copious illustrations (most of which are really bad attempts at emulating the Bruce Timm “animated” style), help to pad out a very slim set of rules to something which approaches a respectable page count. If I’d been able to see a copy of Icons before my purchase, I’d never have bought it. Not to argue with Mike, but peddling crap RPGs isn’t even a “sophisticated art” for a publisher anymore — he just has to offer them as “blind” PDF purchases. And, believe me, Icons is pure, unadulterated crap. Actually, that’s not strictly accurate — it’s watered down diluted crap, which is even worse being as you’re paying a premium price for it and not even receiving full “crap purity” for your bucks.

If you’re hell-bent on buying a PDF format superhero RPG, I’ll happily recommend a number of far better (and far cheaper) choices. Supers! (which, oddly enough, is laid out in the exact same font and illustration style as Icons) is heavily derived from the old West End Games D6 system (used in the 1980’s Star Wars and Ghostbusters RPGs); it’s not a great game, but it’s adequate enough for a “beer and pretzels” style of play, and at its present reduced price of $4 it neither breaks the bank nor leaves you feeling ripped off. Super Crusaders is an interesting system, but is badly marred by a very disorganized rulebook and some horrendous spelling and typographical errors (one of the chapters is titled “Arch Enimies” [sic]). But after you figure the rules out, Super Crusaders is different, it’s fun, and you can’t possibly go wrong with it for a measly $1 (although I strongly disagree with the author’s contention that Nazis don’t make effective villains. As readers of this blog know, I’m “old school” all the way and in my book no supers RPG is ever complete without a few Nazis and their weird evil super science. Besides, in our oversensitive politically-correct society, who’s left to hate on besides Nazis and the KKK?).

But the PDF format supers game I strongly recommend is the aforementioned Hideouts and Hoodlums. It’ll likely be a little extra work for members of the “D20 Generation” (“There’s a die roll for everything!”) to figure out the looser 1970’s-based rules, but for old-schoolers like me it’s great quirky fun. What’s not to love about going down into a dungeon subterranean hideout, killing crooks and zombies more crooks, and appropriating their treasure neat stuff. Waitaminnit, you can kill zombies and undead in H&H. Yeah, quirky, pulpy, very 1930’s/40’s, and very very cool. Plus the three main books and the single supplement will set you back less than a combined $10 (less than $5 if you’re willing to use the authorized freebie older editions of Books 1 & 2).

Another interesting blog post was one of WordPress’ currently featured picks. So many points in this post resonated so strongly with me that I can’t possibly mention them all. But this one dovetails nicely with Mike’s rant for reasons about to become apparent.

…there’s something special about the kind of culture that Oswalt describes as “geek culture” – a joy in knowing something that most people don’t.  As he writes:

Admittedly, there’s a chilly thrill in moving with the herd while quietly being tuned in to something dark, complicated, and unknown just beneath the topsoil of popularity. Something about which, while we moved with the herd, we could share a wink and a nod with two or three other similarly connected herdlings.

That “wink and nod,” whether literal or metaphorical, underpins a lot of fandom.  We all want to be part of something special, and when our passion begins to ooze into the mainsteam – as happens so rapidly today with anything of artistic value – we feel that our identity has been co-opted.

Please do read the whole post. While I agree that the Interrant has by and large sucked much of the joy out of being a comics/game/sci-fi/fantasy/pulp weenie (nothing will kill your love of a fringe hobby or pursuit faster than thirty minutes of reading message board posts on the topic), there has been a real benefit to online culture: the “clique” aspect of some pursuits has, by and large, been destroyed. However, certain groups still stubbornly maintain that “us vs. them, we’re the cool kids against the great unwashed” mentality.

Think Tekumel. I’d originally included here a long list of online incidents involving Tekumel’s creator M.A.R. (“Phil”) Barker and his merry band of Minneapolis fanboys, who consistently boo-hoo about Tekumel’s lack of popularity, while at the same time loudly and publicly excoriating new players who somehow break some minor point of Tekumel canon [“Tsolyani women traditionally rouge their right nipple before their left one when preparing for an important social gathering, you ignorant twit!” Yeah, I can see how that kind of error can be a real game-breaker] and telling Tekumel players outside Barker’s group that only they are playing “real Tekumel” — the best the rest of us can do is play at it, and incorrectly at that (and such incorrect play is “very upsetting” to Professor Barker). But I excised all of that as pointless; there’s no reasoning with such people. If you want to keep your “private world” private, Phil, then quit publishing it. But stop trying to have your cake and eat it, too — you can’t sell players a world setting and expect them to never use it, adapt it, tinker with it, or make “mistakes” with it. If I had your attitude I’d be getting pissed off because somebody used my Villains & Vigilantes character (the one based on me) from a previous post as a villain instead of a hero in their own campaign. Somebody might even (g-g-gasp!) be using the pic from that post on their dartboard right now! The horror! Sorry, Phil, but as I mentioned earlier, RPGs are by nature tweakable. If you don’t want RPG players fiddling with Tekumel, keep the damned thing to yourself — and stop expecting players to happily keep forking over their money while eating your rudeness and pompous disdain.

And for God’s sake, please tell your core players that if they’re not allowed to discuss details about what happens in your sessions, then they should STFU about it — nobody liked the “clique kids” in high school and we damn sure don’t need to be dealing with that crap in a hobby setting.

The example of Tekumel’s creator and core players is, fortunately, an extreme and isolated one. Most gamers aren’t quite this cliquish. Hopefully the expansion of “geek culture” will break down these kinds of segregational walls and make the enjoyment of (presently) fringe games, movies, TV shows, comics, and other staples of “geek life” more accessible, more inclusional, and more pleasurable to a wider range of people.

I’m sure you agree. Unless, of course, you’re one of those people who think “geek” and “exclusional” naturally go hand-in-glove. If that’s the case, if you’re one of those people who think “geek culture” ought to remain a small cliquish closed society and a “closet” thing, I feel the need to ask you:

Why the hell are you reading this blog?

Think about it.

Have fun! — Steve

Copyright 2011, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.

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