# Starting with D&D

Does starting with D&D, compared to starting with other tabletop roleplaying games, lead to playing a wider variety of roleplaying games?

Ben and I ran a survey during the winter to explore attitudes and behaviors related to gateway RPGs (you can find the questions we asked here, along with some descriptive statistics). All of this data is correlational, so interpret any trends below keeping in mind that many unmeasured third variables could provide better explanations. Spoiler alert: after controlling for time-related variables, starting with D&D (compared to non-D&D games) is associated with playing a narrower variety of roleplaying games.

Also, note: I made a programming error in the survey which caused the play variety question to show up for only approximately half the participants. That kind of sucks, but even so the sample is still large (> 1000). The problem was that I based this survey on a previous survey as a template which had used random assignment. The good news is that the presentation seems to have been random. (In any case, you can find a link to the numeric data at the bottom of this post, if you want to perform your own analyses.)

Next, I am going to step through some analysis. The statistics are there if you want them, but I tried to write everything in English as well.

First, here is a histogram showing the distribution of play variety (figure 1). Response labels were 1 = Strongly Disagree up to 7 = Strongly Agree.

Overall, participants reported having played a wide variety of tabletop RPGs (N = 1370, M = 5.41, SD = 1.64), somewhat unsurprising for players with enough engagement to talk about games online. Based on the figure above, it looks like the distribution is censored, probably due to range restriction in the measurement. That is, the question we asked probably has trouble distinguishing between people at the high end of the distribution. Additionally, there may be some self-serving bias where participants overestimate the variety of games played. Some models (such as Tobit regression) can take censored data into account.

What about the focal comparison of starting with D&D compared to starting with a non-D&D game? There is a marginal statistical difference, but the effect is quite small, which is clear if you look at a visualization superimposing the two distributions (figure 2). Using a t-test, the difference between means is 5.44 for non-D&D and 5.28 for any edition of D&D (t(947.326) = 1.67, p = .095). Tobit regression provides similar results for the effect of starting with D&D (b = -.249, SE = .136, t = -1.83, p = .067, 95% CI [-.516, .018]). The following two figures use kernel density estimation, which is (to oversimplify) similar to a histogram, but smoothed. (“Non-D&D” here includes “other” results, which was n around 500. I skimmed the free text response for those participants and there are only a handful which could be considered a D&D variant.)

What if we increase the granularity, distinguishing between TSR D&D and WotC D&D?

These figures (3 and 4) might make it look like there is a clear split between the influence of TSR D&D compared to WotC D&D, however keep in mind that starting edition is confounded with date entering the hobby. WotC D&D came out more recently, so players that first land on WotC D&D tend to have started more recently (mean year = 2011) compared to players that started with TSR D&D (mean year = 1997). Dramatically, players also started much younger with TSR D&D (mean age = 12.37) compared to WotC D&D (mean age = 18.29). Both of these factors would give players starting with TSR D&D more time to explore other games, on average, so we should probably add both as covariates to control for that association.

Indeed, when you control for the age/time related variables, you get an entirely different pattern (see figure 5), where starting with either generation of D&D (TSR or WotC) is associated with less variety playing other tabletop RPGs compared to starting with non-D&D games. Based on this data, I think this is the tentative conclusion. Whether that is a good or bad thing is a value judgment that I will leave to you. This could mean that people are more likely to be satisfied with D&D. It could also mean that people with more variety-seeking personalities are more likely to come across non-D&D games initially, and it is this trait, rather than initial exposure, which is responsible both for the exposure to the initial game and the decision to continue exploring other games. This result concerns individual behavior, not broader cultural influence; it is possible (and seems likely to me, though I lack supporting data) that broad brand awareness of D&D expands the overall player pool and so has a net positive effect on the absolute number of people exploring other games.

The associations according to a Tobit regression including the covariates: TSR D&D (b = -.560, SE = .181, t = -3.09, p = 0.002, 95% CI [-.916, -.204]), WotC D&D (b = -.337, SE = .151, t = -2.23, p = 0.026, 95% CI [-.634, -.041]), year started playing covariate (b = -.066, SE = .008, t = -8.04, p < 0.001, 95% CI [-.082, -.050]), age started playing covariate (b = -.032, SE = .014, t = -2.37, p = 0.018, 95% CI [-.059, -.006]). (This seems to be a decent pass at an appropriate model, but notably the results are similar using standard OLS multiple regression.)

Here is the raw numeric data. Here is the Stata code I used for the analysis in this post. Please let me know if you have any questions, discover anything else, notice any errors, or have any suggestions.

# Gateway Survey Items

We closed the gateway RPG survey today. Below is a brief description of the survey items, number of responses, and some questions we can ask based on the data. If you think of other questions that you are curious about, leave a comment below. I have yet to look at the data for the final set of responses beyond some descriptives.

Following are the items in presentation order. The bold text represents the concept, behavior, or whatever, that we were trying to measure. Italic text represents the exact item text participants saw. Parenthesized text describes the variable type (numerical scale with label, free-response text, and so forth).

I have also included descriptive stats for some of the items (N = number of responses for the particular item, M = mean value, SD = standard deviation). Keep in mind that for the seven point scales, 4 = Neutral, 5 = Somewhat Like/Agree, 6 = Like/Agree, and so forth. 2764 responses provided the correct answer to an attention check item near the end; the stats below only include responses that answered the attention check correctly.

So: ConceptItem text (description of variable type); maybe some descriptive stats.

1. First RPGWhat was the first tabletop roleplaying game you played? (Selective list of options that we brainstormed, along with an “other” option permitting free-response text for anything we missed); N = 2549, top three: Dungeons & Dragons, any edition (n = 1658), Other (n = 508), Pathfinder (n = 120). 65.05% of respondents that answered this item started with an edition of D&D.
2. Attitude toward first RPGThink back to the first tabletop RPG you played. How much do you like that game now? (1 = Strongly Dislike, 7 = Strongly Like)
3. If first RPG was D&D: First D&D EditionWhich edition of D&D did you begin with? N = 1827, top three: 3/3.5E (n = 487), 5E (n = 382), B/X (n = 318).
4. OwnershipDo you own any tabletop RPG materials? (Books, box sets, and so forth.) (Yes, No); N = 2764, Yes = 2688, No = 76 (97.25% Yes)
5. Still play first RPGDo you still play the first RPG that you started with? (Yes, No); N = 2764, Yes = 1049, No = 1715 (37.95% Yes)
6. Delay trying another RPGHow long (in years) after playing your first RPG did you try another RPG? (non-negative integer free-response)
7. Attitude toward D&DHow much do you like Dungeons & Dragons? (For your favorite edition of D&D.) (1 = Strongly Dislike, 7 = Strongly Like); N = 2028, M = 5.27, SD = 1.63
8. Belief about effect of D&D on the hobby as a whole (item 1)—The popularity of Dungeons & Dragons attracts new tabletop RPG players. (1 = Strongly Disagree, 7 = Strongly Agree); N = 2618, M = 6.25, SD = .94
9. Belief about whether D&D crowds out other RPGsThe popularity of Dungeons & Dragons makes discovering other (non-D&D) tabletop RPGs HARDER. (1 = Strongly Disagree, 7 = Strongly Agree); N = 1613, M = 4.16, SD = 1.88
10. Belief about the effect of D&D on the hobby as a whole (item 2)—The popularity of Dungeons & Dragons is good for the tabletop RPG hobby. (1 = Strongly Disagree, 7 = Strongly Agree); N = 2676, M = 5.64, SD = 1.34
11. Favorite edition of D&DIf you have played D&D, which edition is your favorite? N = 2348, top three: 5E (n = 1121), B/X (n = 440), 3/3.5E (n = 270). 47.74% of respondents that answered this item said that 5E was their favorite edition of D&D.
12. Preference for designer authority (item 1)—There are a lot of house rules (customization) in RPGs games that I run or play in. (1 = Strongly Disagree, 7 = Strongly Agree)
13. Belief regarding whether system mattersWhen it comes to tabletop RPGs, a well-designed rules system is an important factor in enjoyable play. (1 = Strongly Disagree, 7 = Strongly Agree); N = 2217, M = 5.86, SD = 1.13
14. Preference for designer authority (item 2)—I prefer to play RPGs “as written” rather than adjusting, customizing, or hacking the rules. (1 = Strongly Disagree, 7 = Strongly Agree)
15. Preferences in play styleFor satisfying play, how important are the following aspects to you? (Aspects included: In-game shenanigans, Generating a satisfying story, Acting in character, Hanging out with friends, Challenge Exploration and discovery, Creative problem solving, Character optimization, Improving my character, Meticulous plotting; 1 = Very Unimportant, 7 = Very Important)
16. Preferences in game materials—How important are the following elements to you in tabletop RPGs? (Elements included: Fictional setting, Hackability, Mechanical innovation, Ease of use, Art, Genre emulation; 1 = Very Unimportant, 7 = Very Important)
17. Pleasure readingI read tabletop RPG materials for pleasure, apart from intention for direct use in play. (1 = Strongly Disagree, 7 = Strongly Agree); N = 1300, M = 5.81, SD = 1.37
18. Play usageI have played most of the tabletop RPGs (systems, modules, adventures, etc.) that I own. (1 = Strongly Disagree, 7 = Strongly Agree); N = 1327, N = 4.16, SD = 2.08
19. RPG play literacy/promiscuityI have played a wide variety of tabletop RPGs. (1 = Strongly Disagree, 7 = Strongly Agree); N = 1370, M = 5.41, SD = 1.64
20. Attention check
21. Age startedAt what age, approximately, did you start to play tabletop RPGs? (integer from the set [1, 200]; due to a typo, some respondents were only able to enter starting ages from the set [10, 200]); N = 2754, M = 15.93, SD = 6.79
22. Year startedIn approximately which year did you start playing tabletop RPGs? (Drop-down menu with year options); N = 2721, M = 2002.04, SD = 12.25, min = 1971, max = 2019
23. Other feedbackOptional: Is there anything else you would like to share with us? (free response text)

You may notice that we measure several concepts using more than one item. For example, presumably playing with lots of house rules and preference for playing rules as written should both tap into a preference for designer authority (and they correlate, as expected, at r(2437) = −.62, p < .001). Another: “D&D attracts new players” and “popularity of D&D is good for the hobby” (r(2550) = .46, p < .001).

(The number of observations for pleasure reading, play usage, and literacy/promiscuity seem systematically somewhat low: ~1300 compared to ~2700 for most items; I need to look into that.)

One (somewhat) surprising point that jumped out at me from the descriptives is that for people that started with an edition of D&D, 3E was the most common.

Some possible questions:

• Do player preferences for game aspects cohere into conventional clusters? Are those preferences consistent with what you might expect? (For example, are people starting with 3E more likely to have a preference for character optimization?)
• Is starting with an edition of D&D (compared to other RPGs), controlling for years played, associated with greater or lesser RPG play literacy overall?
• Is starting with an edition of D&D (compared to other RPGs) associated with any of the preferences for aspects of play style or elements of game materials?
• According to consensual belief, does system matter? (At least based on the mean, the answer here is yes: M = 5.86, roughly = Agree).
• Is starting with an edition of D&D associated with preference for designer authority in rules?

What else would you like to know based on this survey?

Addendum: I just did a tally of referrer URL to see where respondents saw a link to the survey. To roughly summarize, about 30% came from Reddit, 30% came from Twitter, and 30% came from YouTube, with the remaining referrer URLs a smattering of other sites. In detail, N = 1167; the top five: YouTube (n = 363), Reddit (n = 358), Twitter (n = 311), survey.ascolais.com (n = 59), Facebook (n = 50). Referrer URL data only exists for some responses (1167 out of 2764), but preliminary checks indicate that referrer URL is missing at random (meaning it is probably reasonable to think of it as a random sample and representative of the respondent population at large).

# Gateway RPG Survey

Ben (of Questing Beast) and I have put together another survey to explore how people get into tabletop role-playing games, the role of D&D’s popularity, and how people use game materials.

We want to get data from across the RPG landscape, not just the OSR (or what have you), so feel free to share with anyone you think may be interested.

# Playing D&D with Muggles

I had the occasion to run a game for five players that, in addition to having never played a tabletop RPG before, barely knew about D&D at all. I ended up “running” 1981 B/X using Save vs. TPK pregens and The Tomb of Black Sand, with spells from Wonder & Wickedness—more on the scare quotes around “running” below. As it happened, I made the final decision about the ruleset and module about 15 minutes before leaving my apartment, and I have to say: OSR nerds, we have a grimdark problem. We have made strides toward more usable modules in terms of format, but perhaps there are more inviting introductions than reading out of a book called “Fever Swamp” for a casual Friday night game (great module, by the way).

There were five players, and from a stack of pregens they chose an elf, a fighter, two magic-users, and a thief. I explained the basic play loop—I describe the situation, you tell me what your character does, occasionally we roll dice to resolve an uncertainty—and the objective—recover as much treasure as possible without dying. A brief interchange was required to explain how the game was cooperative rather than competitive. Then I read a few sentences from the module about how Vincent Bine the necromancer was using foul magic in pursuit of immortality/ascension to set the stage and started the characters by the entryway of the dungeon, describing the blighted land around the heavy bronze doors.

The players fell quickly and naturally into heist mode, immediately treating the door as hostile ground, with the thief crouched above ready to drop down on any threat, the magic-users and elf arrayed firing-squad style behind the armored fighter, wands poised (because apparently all magic-users have wands, presumably Harry Potter style). Additionally, they immediately deployed ten foot poles to test for danger (be aware that 10”/10’ pole jokes are virtually unending with a table entirely composed of gay boys).

I scare quoted the word “running” above because, in terms of mechanics, the Moldvay book was little more than a prop (though a useful prop for communicating an aesthetic). The only rules that directly manifested during play were ability checks, spells, and thief abilities (which I ran as dexterity checks). Speaking of ability checks, the system I used for spell casting was unlimited spells, but to cast a spell without complication required passing an intelligence check. On failure, the intended spell still fired, but also came with a roll on the Wonder & Wickedness catastrophe table. I find this works well for a one-shot game because it pushes players out of the hoarding mindset that comes with having limited spell slots and also provides the temptation of a variable reinforcement schedule. After ability checks, the mechanic that saw the most table time was the output from the random appearance generator, which is built into Ram’s generator and is an amazingly useful tool for giving players some details to riff on. Bald magician, badly-dressed muscular fighter, and obese elf are immediately more engaging characters than a collection of abilities, and more immediately available than background details (failed careers are good prompts as well, but also have less immediacy).

Following successful entrance, there was some anxiety about the seeming shift in the room size, along with back and forth about whether to explore side chambers or go deeper right away (the initial determination was that side chambers were distractions). Casting rockspeech disarmed a spear trap in carved stone faces (with the faces coughing and sputtering as they vomited mechanisms and spear heads), though the the conversing spirit was greatly discomfited by the corruption caused by the festering tomb, and asked the adventurers to help remove the blight if possible. A spell catastrophe created a storm outside, however, and made it so that the magician could only speak by yelling, making further spells somewhat incompatible with stealth (so it goes).

The centerpiece of the next room was a pool, which of course led to a debate about whether the adventurers should strip down and wade into the pool or exercise greater caution. Despite discovering a bas relief of naked people frolicking in a pool, caution prevailed and one of the magicians dribbled a few drops of holy water into the pool. I rolled some dice to help with a ruling about how banshee tears should react to holy water, determining that there would be a non-explosive antimatter kind of situation, and had some of the tears hiss away into arcane steam. The players proceeded to boil away the rest of the pool with holy water and (totally on their own) discovered the hidden gold box. Somewhat wary due to the earlier spear trap discovery, the adventurers rigged the box with rope, taking care to avoid touching it, before taking cover above and pulling the box up from a distance, which in this case probably avoided a TPK given the resulting chain lightning detonation. (It still knocked everyone on their asses.) And additionally—I swear I avoided giving anything away directly—they found the double-concealed locket, which one of the magicians determined was a necromantic artifact of incredible power. (I only described the alcove with the box as set with a different kind of tiles, which were cracked by the chain lightning.)

At this point, the players decided to go back and explore a side chamber. One of the magicians cast read magic on some of the runes, in the process learning some details about Vincent’s ritual in progress. Some other spell (details of which I forget at the moment) triggered a consequence that the next door the magician would open would lead to a location determined randomly by a table in Wonder & Wickedness (keep that in the back of your mind for a moment). After determining to help the still-living “willing” sacrifices on the way out, the party decided to return to the (now-drained) pool chamber in order to explore more of the dungeon.

The thief broke her lock picks trying to unlock the big bronze double doors leading deeper into the complex, so one of the magicians decided to use his portal spell to connect one of the other doors in the room to the chamber beyond. Casting this spell led to (catastrophe) summoning an imp which stole the magicians eyes (meaning the eyes vacated the magician’s head, appearing in the imp, so the magician could see through the eyes of the imp rather than the now-empty sockets in the magician’s own face, without being able to control the actions of the imp). And, the adventurer that opened the now portal-linked door was the one that would trigger a random location, which in the event ended up looping back to the pool room itself. Then, the other magician lost his soul to a spirit (another spell catastrophe!) while trying to charm the imp that now controlled the first magician’s eyesight. I determined that the spirit in possession of the soul was the banshee, who the players encountered in the chapel room. The adventurers struck a deal with the banshee: the soul to be returned in exchange for the locket from the pool.

The banshee then tried to convince the adventurers to help Vincent complete his ritual, as she was sure that Vincent could help restore normal eyesight to the imp-afflicted magician in payment, and that is where we left the session.

Final note: with zero prompting, this almost perfectly recapitulated “you play Conan, I play Gandalf, we team up to fight Dracula”—except rather than Dracula it was Vincent Bine the necromancer and instead of Conan it was Thor. In particular, the five brave adventurers:

• “Petit Gross” (obese elf)
• “Thor” (muscular fighter)
• “Kevin” (player not named Kevin)
• “Gandalf the White”
• (And I forget the thief’s name)

# Marketing Imagination

Many of us, where by “us” I mean people who discuss tabletop roleplaying games online, have decided to market aspects of our shared hobby. Whatever your attitude toward this development, I think few people would argue against the reality of this basic claim. If you are selling something on drivethrurpg, or a similar platform, you are marketing your work. Considering various hobby developments in terms of how they fit into the process of marketing, then, would, at the very least, probably help explain hobby dynamics.

Colloquially, people often use “marketing” as shorthand for either advertising or persuasion techniques. While advertising is part of marketing, it is a rather small part, on balance. A broader perspective will be more useful. (There is some business speak incoming, but stay with me.)

One framework for developing a marketing plan is the following:

Here are a few, far from comprehensive, examples of how this applies to tabletop roleplaying games, particularly the online part of the hobby.

The marketing mix is a classification for strategies used to get your creation into the hands of your audience—your choice of what to create (product), vector of exchange (place), and so forth. Ron Edwards’ heartbreaker essay can almost entirely be summarized as a critique of the mismatch between hobbyist writer hopes or expectations and some elements of the marketing mix—mostly product and price. He wrote that the market context at the time—which has changed substantially—would generally lead to failure for hobbyists publishing a certain kind of game in a certain way. He then used this claim to argue that designers, or at least designers in the orbit of the Forge at the time, would do better for themselves if they focused on the kind of games Edwards liked, which prioritized originality of concepts in mechanics and trope landmarks detached from mainstream Dungeons & Dragons. So, the heartbreaker essay speaks to concerns about the marketing mix.

How about a more recent example? Take SWORDDREAM. Superficially, SWORDDREAM bills itself as a social manifesto of sorts: be inclusive, facilitate consent, pay fairly, and so forth. A big part of what the principles do, taken together, is define a group of people based on shared values and, perhaps, by generational cohort. This is a form of segmentation and targeting, making SWORDDREAM a guerrilla—or collaborative—marketing strategy. Consistent with this understanding, one of the major venues of SWORDDREAM activity has been on a marketing platform—itch.io dreamjam—the page for which is currently the highest ranked Google search result that leads to a page explaining the SWORDDREAM principles. (Please avoid misunderstanding this point as some sort of veiled dunk on the content of any specific SWORDDREAM principle. I am analyzing SWORDDREAM functionally, looking at how it seems to be operating, rather than implying some ulterior or hypocritical motive.)

One final example. On Twitter, I have seen several iterations of negative feedback regarding an upcoming official D&D Eberron sourcebook, culminating in the question: why are books like this successful?

The framework above suggests some reasons, even being agnostic about the aesthetic quality of the cover. First, place: Hasbro has these in distribution, and the retail channel both increases the likelihood that “new Eberron book” will enter the audience’s consideration set for entertainment expenditure and provides an avenue for purchase. Second, segmentation: based on past products, Wizards of the Coast has a group of loyal customers that will of their own accord seek out official D&D settings or new Eberron products. Third, positioning: D&D has a recognizable brand that immediately places the product in a conceptual space that already exists in the minds of a relatively broad audience. You might respond: of what relevance is D&D brand equity to me, a lowly hobby producer lacking the resources of Hasbro to buy a portion of the collective meaning space that already exists in the minds of potential audience? (That is what the D&D brand is, after all.) The lesson is, again, to get out of your own head and think from the perspective of the people you want to derive value from your creation. Have you created some, however limited, fragment of shared meaning that people other than you will understand? Actual successful communication between people is far less common than most people imagine. Reuse this established conceptual landmarks if possible because otherwise you will have to do that work again.

# Survey Redux

A study! This survey focuses on how people use social media. Some questions may look familiar. This will allow me to look at how beliefs have changed over time. You may already have received an email invitation if you previously expressed interest in surveys.

You may notice that there is a principal investigator mentioned who is not me. I am a grad student and I may wish to publish research in peer reviewed journals based on this data. Dr. White is a professor that I work with. We are collaborating on research involving social media use.

Here are the details:

## Tabletop Roleplaying Games Study

• Take a 20-minute survey about tabletop roleplaying games and social media for researchers at the University of British Columbia.
• The principal investigator of this research is Dr. Katherine White.
• This survey is expected to take 20 minutes.
• This survey involves no compensation.
• This survey will help researchers understand how people incorporate social media into leisure activities.
• Choosing to comment, “like”, or “follow” posts or web pages associated with this study may associate you publicly with the study.

Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below or directly by email.

Feel free to share the link with anyone you think may be interested.

James of Mythic Fantasy takes aim at the doctrine of combat as fail state. I agree with the sentiment, especially contra the strong position that getting into combat always indicates poor playing. That said, combat can be tedious and boring, particularly if repetitious or lacking distinct circumstances.

This is engaging combat:

The D&D equivalent: showdown against 30-300 bandits with a fog spell and some tactics.

(I imagine someone may object that Ged’s spell is more powerful than fog cloud. Well, of course. Ged is the the future archmage of all Earthsea. You go to war with the army you have.)

Also: remember to use morale rules.

# Repercussions

This post is for people that have played or discussed tabletop roleplaying games with Zak. If the context seems unclear, you are probably outside this audience. That stated, this reflection seems to belong here.

I am going to write about online aggression. Offline aggression has more substantial consequences, especially when embedded in professional or romantic relationships. I discuss online aggression because that is what I can speak to honestly, rather than to equate the two forms of aggression. While Zak’s behavior online and in his personal life may share some causes, the second deserves more severe condemnation.

I retained greater distance from Zak than some, but was close enough that I feel warranted and perhaps obligated to discuss my experiences. I have interacted with Zak online since around 2012. We played in a handful of online FLAILSNAILS games together as players. I defended Zak once proactively against charges of homophobia, when he was in the midst of some controversy, and more low key in many other instances. I met Zak and Stokely in person at Gen Con in 2017. I saved seats at the Ennies for him and some of the other Lamentations folks.

Not long ago, Zak preemptively blocked a friend of mine for associating with the wrong people, seemingly out of the blue. This was a person who had gone to bat for Zak against unfounded accusations repeatedly in the past. At the time, I assumed Zak must be lashing out to deal with something else going on in his life. This was the most recent instance of several where I found myself using back channels to warn others about potentially engaging with Zak. For example, in a direct message on January 11th I wrote:

“I know you already do, but probably best to take care around Z; I don’t know what’s up with him.”

There are others. In August 2018, in another direct message I wrote:

“I can’t entirely tell whether Zak just has a blind spot around Apocalypse engine games due to the way he thinks or if he is fighting against the style and framing more instrumentally.”

Other people recount similar experiences. Patrick (of the False Machine blog) wrote a book with him and ended up totally disavowing any relationship. All of which fits into a broader pattern.

My approach to discussion differs from Zak’s, but participating in his discussions to the degree I did was a form of passive assent. I disliked how his approach would spill over into adjacent spaces and how he would involve only tangentially related grudges whenever possible. His scorched earth tactics probably did discourage some trolls and prudes, but they also drove away many other valuable voices. The collateral damage was too high.

People who criticized Zak for whatever form of prejudice were missing the real issue. Zak was, as far as I can tell, an equal opportunity aggressor. I have been in his gaming circles ever since he encouraged people initially to join Google Plus, based on the promise Hangouts technology presented for Constantcon and other online gaming. Accusing him of prejudice, so absurd for anyone who knew him even in the slightest, provided cover for his aggressiveness and lack of compromise, which caused indisputable harm. People stopped engaging online to avoid having to deal with him. I wish I had been there more for friends and acquaintances that Zak assailed directly or for those caught in the splash damage.

People are, in general, uncomfortable with holding inconsistent attitudes toward related objects. Understanding every positive thing Zak did as a form of manipulation is almost certainly a mistake. People are complicated. Assuming people can easily be classed into worthy and worthless was Zak’s consistent conceptual error. I try to avoid this error, but being welcome in social spaces is contingent upon behaving well, on balance, over time.

# No homework!

I am somewhat averse to manifestos, in game design and elsewhere, but if I were to champion one manifesto for tabletop roleplaying games it might be this: No homework for players! This principle is implicit in many classic/OSR cultural traditions, but is rarely stated explicitly, even in the secondary commentary of blogs, forums, and other ephemera. But if you look, you can see the various traditions all working toward the principle of minimizing player homework.

Some such traditions include aversion to complicated character creation and aversion to canonical setting material (“lore”). Classic/OSR play culture tends to be relatively hostile to the idea of character builds, which really took off in D&D 3E with the profusion of character option (“splat”) books. Complicated character creation takes at least two forms, which I will call character optimization (similar to the older term min-maxing) and character backstory. (Character optimization seems to capture the idea better because min-maxing focuses on the competitiveness of individual players rather than the affordances of game or play instances.) Players optimizing characters engage with rulebooks rather than socially with other players. This is good for companies that make money by selling books, but character optimization moves game engagement away from play at the table. The mantra “we explore dungeons, not characters” captures the related aversion to extensive character backstory, prioritizing the definition or discovery of characters based on events that occur in play at the table. See the following discussions for representative examples: Hack & Slash on character builds, this wishlist for oldschool games, and Noisms’ Theorem of Character Generation Length and Player Cautiousness.

Forbidden Lands, which I have been reading recently, is one game that tries to communicate this principle directly in the text, and succeeds reasonably well, directing the referee to expose players to the setting only through play at the table: To convey the history and myths of the Forbidden Lands to the players in-game, you use legends. … In this way, the players build their own knowledge of the Forbidden Lands and its denizens (Forbidden Lands Gamemaster’s Guide, p. 6). Forbidden Lands also includes a fictional device, the Blood Mist, which functions like fog of war in a video game, obscuring both fictional geography and history: “The demonic Blood Mist that covered the lands for three centuries, draining the life out of anyone who dared to wanter too far from their village, has suddenly and inexplicably lifted. You, and other restless souls like you, are finally free to leave your homes and travel far and wide in the Forbidden Lands, looking for treasures and adventures” (Forbidden Lands Player’s Handbook, pp. 5-6). The Blood Mist works to identify the extradiegetic (player) experience with the diegetic (character) experience. What other games attempt to state this principle directly?

For a player that wishes to fictionally position their full engagement, the Blood Mist justifies lack of adventurer knowledge regarding locations and other details of the fictional culture. In effect, to use a buzzword, this kind of device mitigates metagaming through setting design choices. There is precedent for using similar strategies to kick off campaigns, such as adventurers in Empire of the Petal Throne (1975) beginning as barbarians fresh off the boat. Any establishment of setting truth independent of a particular play group (canonical “lore”) comes into tension with the no homework principle, because player-accessible lore affords extradiegetic learning (homework!), allowing players to discover the setting outside of play at the table.

Homework is engagement with a campaign outside of social play. Character builds, character optimization, and studying lore are all examples of player homework. Homework means that players can hone their effectiveness, what OSR jargon calls, somewhat contentiously, player skill (see Matt Finch’s primer), by dedicating effort on their own, apart from a gaming group. For clarity, I phrase the principle imperatively, but as with most aspects of gaming (and life), there is a continuum. One could see choosing a class in OD&D as homework too, but this would miss the broader point. The more a game or campaign affords or rewards player homework, the less engagement with the game will exist in play at the table, the social interaction between players.

# Share reviews

A couple days ago, LS/Beloch, of the Papers & Pencils blog, started a conversation (public thread) on Google Plus about what concrete, immediate actions people can take to foster a functional OSR community. People had a lot of ideas, which he then summarized. It is a good list, and worth checking out if you missed it.

I want to highlight one particular suggestion, and add to it. Specifically:

The number 1 thing the OSR needs is more reviewers. People who do the hard work of finding new stuff that nobody has ever heard of, reading that stuff, and getting into the nitty gritty of what is good and what is bad. Bryce Lynch of 10′ Pole is a great model for how to do this right, but there’s more stuff being produced than he can parse on his own.

Personally, I was surprised at the number of people that mentioned wanting more reviews. I write them sometimes, mostly as a systematic way to prompt myself to get familiar with a product, but I rarely feel like many people pay attention to them, especially since, I think, I am not primarily a reviewer and my blog is not primarily a review outlet. I post more about other topics, such as rules hacking, necromancers, and Dark Souls. This means that any readers I have probably come here primarily for things other than reviews. This is true for most gamers writing about, or evaluating, the content other people create.

I can only think of two dedicated review outlets for DIY D&D/OSR products: Bryce Lynch’s Ten Foot Pole and Ben Milton’s Questing Beast YouTube channel. Being so focused on a single topic or function is a good way to distinguish yourself, but it is also a lot of work and I doubt many other people will step up to create and regularly update comparable review outlets. There are, however, lots of people who post reviews with some regularity, either as G+ comments or on blogs, even if that is not the focus of their output. For example, Ram also regularly posts reviews, but that is not the main subject matter of his blog either. This means that people, especially those that might be most interested in many of these reviews, rarely see them.

There is something you can do to help make this situation better. If you come across a review someone else wrote that you think is useful, insightful, or impartial, consider sharing it to a relevant G+ community or other fan-specific outlet, such as a subreddit. I rarely share my own reviews this way because it feels like spamming someone else’s space. Such sharing will help people interested in the material find the relevant reviews and avoids the problem of ulterior motives in self-promotion. If someone other than the review author shares the review though, this serves as weak form of peer review. Just sharing a review to your own social media feed is probably less useful. People looking for, say, modules or supplements to use with DCC are more likely to see reviews if they are posted to DCC-specific outlets.

Unless the review is snarky clickbait. Burn that shit down and bury it in the poisoned ground.

(This is an expanded version of a comment I left on LS/Beloch’s original thread.)