I recently read David Ewalt’s Of Dice and Men (Amazon affiliate link), a book that provides an overview of what roleplaying games are and how they came to be.
I’m a game designer myself, so I’m fairly familiar with the industry. However, Ewalt’s work is intended for anyone; a novice or outsider can benefit just as much as an old-school gamer.
This can be credited to his journalistic work, actually going on the ground and talking to people who were intimately involved with the advent of Dungeons and Dragons.
And the book predominantly focuses on D&D. There’s a few reasons for that; not the least of which being that D&D is the largest game and that the events surrounding it tend to have to been played out over and over again within the industry. Ewalt’s own gaming hobby extends beyond D&D, though most of the examples of gaming are given from the context of D&D’s “3.5” edition.
With that said, it’s worth pointing out that in a 250 page book, more mention could be made of alternative games. Ewalt has a connection to D&D that runs deep, both in terms of the game itself and the interviewees throughout the book, but he misses a lot of potential by not looking outside the box. While he is able to draw a few connections that would be difficult to draw from scattered details and show a side of the industry that you don’t always get to see from the outside by getting an inside look at how the sausage is made, so many of the events are part of “nerd canon” as it were that there’s a little bit of overlap.
And it’s worth noting that Ewalt’s story is deeply personal. If you have no experience with D&D at all, this serves an illustrative purpose. I can appreciate it as a journalistic device as well, since it’s giving an insight to how the game is actually played.
These interludes are not poorly written, though I wouldn’t describe it as being made up of grand narratives. They’re evidentiary, not epic, and somewhat romanticized and streamlined (at least compared my own experiences).
I personally enjoyed the book quite a bit. It covers a variety of angles: personal interest, living history, explanation of a phenomena, and so forth. However, the one place where I will give it a bit of grief is this: Of Dice and Men really wants to be incredibly dramatic, and there are places where it is willing to sacrifice to do so.
Let me give an example. There’s a section where Of Dice and Men covers the whole history of gaming, but goes through it in maybe twenty or thirty pages. It also spends thirty pages on wargaming, which directly preceded D&D (Gary Gygax was primarily involved with wargaming when D&D became the new hot thing, as was Dave Arneson). The legal woes of TSR practically get a chapter unto themselves (which is not necessarily bad), while the decade and a half following them gets largely blipped over until we come to D&D Next.
Admittedly, this is the time which would be familiar to most gamers at the time of publication, but at the same time it feels like it’s a bit of a jarring transition. When you’ve already got 250 pages, what are another 50? Some incredibly influential games, like White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade get hardly any mention, and despite the in-depth history of TSR almost none of their other games get any serious coverage.
I don’t think that this is accidental, but I do think that if Ewalt had wanted to cover the full phenomena of roleplaying games as a culture he could have included some of the more notable alternatives, both because they’ve had a huge influence and because they serve as a potential gateway to people who don’t have an interest in the swords-and-sorcery setting that D&D is most known for. Likewise, the main discussion of D&D’s many settings is limited to Greyhawk and Blackmoor, both of which are noteworthy and meaningful, but the transition to different settings marks noteworthy philosophical shifts.
Do I recommend this book? Yes, I enjoyed it quite a bit. It has a lot of good ideas for people who want to get into gaming, and it has stuff that even an old hand like myself can get into and learn from. However, it doesn’t quite achieve what I think it set out to achieve. If you rely on it for all your knowledge you’ll be left with gaps. This is true of almost any book, but Of Dice and Men comes so close to greatness that it legitimately hurts when it only nears its potential.
That was the moment I lost six months of my life. Thousands of dollars. I began keeping a secret, hiding in shame.
I was a student teacher at a local school, the one I graduated from. My mentor teacher was a new teacher there, one I hadn’t known as a student, and over the course of three or four weeks everything fell apart. My memory of the incidents erodes; from the start of the weeks where I was cheerfully walking to and from the school, poorly-sung words pouring from my mouth to the end, where the only singing was in celebration of the end.
For three and a half years I had been studying to become a teacher.
In three and a half weeks, it was almost undone. When it ended, I was glad for it.
We don’t really need to delve into the details that got me back on track to become a teacher, or the experiences I went through when it all started to fall apart. I stopped sleeping except when crushed by fatigue, stopped eating except to keep up appearances, and stopped living until the storm had passed.
Not all of the troubles I experienced were unjustified; I had been poorly prepared by a program that hadn’t challenged me and hadn’t given me any hands-on exposure to my future trade until after I had “mastered” the theory; something which I have come to understand, on the basis of cognitive theory, does students no favors: the knowledge decays before it can be applied.
But the scariest part of the whole ordeal is the fact that the cataclysmic blow that shook me–the statement by a (white) teacher that we didn’t need people like me to be teachers (this amidst a massive shortage)–was met with a response that looked something like this:
“Well, yes, it would be ideal to have diverse teachers, but I’m the exception.”
The only reason I bring this up at all is that I see echoes of my experiences everywhere.
I’m not an extremist. I’m pretty politically moderate, and shy away from it.
But, at the same time, people don’t talk about this. When they do it meets two responses:
1. Changing the Subject
Polite laughter, minor discomfort. The victim of very real discrimination is written off as an extremist or as having a grudge:
This is what has kept me silent all these years, because simply saying “I experienced discrimination as a white straight male” is capable of serving as a death sentence for your career and your hopes.
I want to make it clear: I faced this discrimination, to my knowledge, exactly once.
The consequences, however, were no less real for me than the consequences of any discrimination against anyone. I was perhaps “privileged” in the fact that I was permitted to recover some of my standing and do the (supposedly) rare feat of acquiring a second student teaching position after leaving a first.
However, I was certainly not privileged by fair treatment and an ability to think of myself as just another person.
Prior to this incident, I had never thought of myself as white, at least not as my whiteness being a distinguishing factor setting me apart from anyone else.
2. Not “Real” Discrimination
The other response is simple:
“You’re not part of an oppressed class, so it’s not real discrimination.”
Where is the line drawn?
At what point is discrimination acceptable before it becomes a problem?
When can you condemn one person for another’s sins and not tarnish your own soul?
When can you take a class and judge an individual by it?
The nefarious element of all discrimination isn’t when it’s seen as awful and unacceptable. I’m glad that people are willing to stand up against people who discriminate; we need to do this.
We need to stand united on all fronts. We can’t just say “It’s never okay to discriminate” and have an unspoken clause of “unless it’s people we don’t feel need protection.”
Ending the Lie
“This is what happens when white men don’t get what they want.”
I had originally intended to include links to a variety of articles and examples of this statement on social media, but I don’t want to come off as attacking anyone. This is an exact quote that followed the Parkland shootings.
Traditionally, the argument that there can be no “racism against whites” is that there aren’t social hierarchies that oppose them.
However, there are so many memes floating around (in the Dawkins-esque sense) like the one above that they’re far from difficult to find.
I recall a time not too long ago when one of my relatives posted, in response to something political involving some sort of natural disaster or terror attack that she was “more afraid of young white men with guns” than whatever had caused the tragedy at hand.
Is it any surprise that young white men feel afraid when they are characterized in such a way? The only way to steer people away from violence is to show them an alternative. The act of feeding a narrative that white men are perceived more prone to violence is a self-fulfilling prophecy, much as similar narratives devastated minority communities.
What about Roll20?
Gaming is a passion for me.
I’ve been pretty negative so far in this essay, so I want to take a moment to affirm something positive that I believe:
Gaming is a tool to bring humans together. It transcends race, creed, gender, sexuality, and every other divisive category. Not everyone plays the same games, but play is a part of the human psyche.
Yesterday, I learned about something that moved me to end my silence.
I want to stress that the allegations that have been made are not necessarily verified. I have been through a similar experience, and it rings true to me. I haven’t seen a denial or a contradictory account, and several of the people involved have corroborated the same account.
Roll20 is an online service for playing roleplaying games. I’ve used them a lot in the past, though my use has dwindled because of having more personal obligations now that I’ve gotten more serious about making games.
It’s an okay service, though many people have gotten frustrated with the lack of meaningful changes in some areas of the platform (including, coincidentally, the user whose undeserved ban set off the whole incident). I definitely fall in that camp; I don’t feel Roll20 is as far ahead of some of the alternatives as it used to be, and I feel more and more like it’s outdated every time I use it.
The problem, however, isn’t the quality of the service, but allegations that have come to light about the treatment given to a group of content creators by one of its founders, Nolan T. Jones.
The story as I understand it goes along these lines: a number of roleplaying game content creators, among them Jim Davis and Cody Lewis, wanted to get together to do a show and asked Roll20 if they could get sponsored to do the show with them.
The response was that they wouldn’t, because Roll20 didn’t want to sponsor “five white men,” but Nolan was willing to go into detail about how the company would sponsor minorities (and bragged about a previous instance where doing so made a previously unknown talent famous).
Did Davis and Lewis deserve an endorsement and sponsorship? I don’t know. However, there are so many things wrong with Nolan’s actions, and by extension Roll20’s actions.
The problem lies in the question of why the decision was made. Roll20 can, theoretically, sponsor as many people as it likes, subject to budget concerns. However, the key decision making factor here, as Lewis states, is skin color and gender.
Part of me originally wanted to say that it’s okay in some contexts; Roll20 has the right to brand themselves as diverse, after all, but that argument doesn’t seem internally consistent.
Their own policies don’t allow for people to recruit on those lines when setting up games on their platform, so there’s a hypocritical double standard.
Would that argument hold up if tried with any other demographic and go without at least some condemnation? If they’d flipped the tables and said “Whites wouldn’t like a diverse broadcaster lineup”, wouldn’t they be seen at least as cowardly or bigoted in their justification of how potential talent would appeal (or not) to certain demographics?
The whole issue goes against Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous admonition that people be judged “not by the color of their skin, but by their character”
Many of them prefer not to use the term discrimination to refer to the incident, but Cody Lewis of Taking20 has come forward with a statement involving what happened.
I won’t be using Roll20 again. I’ve canceled my subscription, more because this incident reminded me that I don’t use it than any sense of offense.
At the same time, it would be nice to have a chance to get some clarification from Roll20. Unfortunately, they have not released any official statements, other than deciding to stop moderating the subreddit on which the allegations were revealed.
I don’t think they owed anyone anything, but if the accounts that I’ve heard were accurate, it sounds like Jones took glee in the revelation that he was willing to do business with some people but not others because they weren’t “different” from the mainstream roleplaying community.
Why It Matters
I’m a believer in the value of principle over expedience.
We want a future where everyone has a chance to participate on an equal playing field. That means moving beyond zero-sum game and identitarian ways of thinking, because these worldviews only lead to conflict.
One day, I will have kids of my own. They will be at least 50% white, and have an even chance of being male. They will have their own dreams, their own hopes.
I want them to live in King’s dream, a world where their character, and their choices, define them more than the color they may wind up being or the biology they may have.
The carte blanche denial that whites can be discriminated against fuels the very extremists that the denial is supposed to restrain. Left without validation for your experiences, it is very easy to walk the road of bitterness and hate. Only God saved me from bearing a grudge against a person who discarded my dreams, who took my hopes and tore them up because I didn’t fit the demographic that she desired to see.
You don’t have to go very far to create resentment. It starts with a drop, but it’s a bucket that fills quick because people only see their own experiences.
Unfortunately, it’s become expedient to blame a class rather than a person, to seek correlation rather than causation. We don’t want to confront the things that lead to evil, because they can be found in us.
The truth is that we should evaluate everyone on their merits. That means moving beyond simple explanations like “privilege” and “hierarchies”, and embracing individuals for who they are.
It’s the end of 2014, and I’ve fallen behind on the blog (again) because of taking some teacher certification tests. Unfortunately, I didn’t get around to everything I planned to do this year, though there are some exciting things I did get done as well as things that will be going on.
One of the biggest issues with playing tabletop games is finding a group who will enjoy and play the same games, and who won’t try to kill each other when they share a room for about three hours, which is what most sessions run, if not more. As a new player, you should almost always join a group that someone else is starting or has run for a while, but occasionally you’ll find a GM but need other players.
One of the best things to do with any friend is to introduce them to a hobby they’ll enjoy-I’ve personally introduced several people to tabletop gaming, and a few more to specific games such as Shadowrun or the like. However, there are a few things that really help before you start to get people involved in the hobby; most people my age play video games and know the basics of what goes on in a tabletop game from references or video games heavily based on a tabletop system, like Neverwinter Nights, but don’t really have a real clue about how things work-they know about rolling dice and comparing numbers, but they’ve been doing the equivalent trying to learn a language by listening to it, rather than being engaged in the core of what they are doing they are merely gleaning an occasional number or the number of sides on a die (this isn’t always the case; but games that both explain and fully implement tabletop systems are rare). Continue reading “Table Reflection: Teaching New Players”
“Your torch illuminates more of the dungeon past the cobwebs.”
“I lunge onward, ready to bring the goblin king to justice!”
“The ground gives way underneath you, dropping you into a pit of spikes. You had 20 HP left, right? Yeah, you’re dead.”
Most veteran roleplayers will immediately see what’s going on in this exchange-the Game Master has just killed a character with relatively little justification. Today’s Table Reflection will look at creating a gaming experience that is rewarding and challenging at the same time. Continue reading “Table Reflection: Challenging versus Punishing.”
Okay, I’ll admit it, I’m a guy (as in male, XY chromosomes, plentiful testosterone). Most of the people I hang out with and run games for are too. I don’t have insight into women from a marketing perspective, so I’m not going to try to talk about how to interest women in gaming. Instead, I’m looking at a simple thing; handling women and men at the tabletop while playing roleplaying games (this applies a little to any community which is male dominated and often perceived or legitimately believed to be actively hostile to women), mostly from my own experiences as someone whose table often includes a woman, written to guys who wonder why women don’t want to roll up a barbarian and join them. Continue reading “Table Reflection: Playing with Women”
So I watched Commando yesterday (I’ve been buffing up on action movies to work on 1-800 Regime Change), and I was pleasantly surprised. The first thing I noticed was a long montage relating to Schwarzenegger’s character and, more importantly, his motivations. Immediately we saw Colonel Matrix’s drive when he was spending time looking after his daughter and doing things with her. Continue reading “1-800 Regime Change: Birthing A Mercenary Part 1: Love, Drive, Fear”