FMC Booklets / End of an Era

Prereq.: Why Am I Here?

The booklet versions of Fantastic Medieval Campaigns are out now (at-cost as per usual)! Links below:

So... not been super into TTRPG talk lately, especially in the context of the OSR from which I have been distancing myself (as a community, on blogs and on social media) for a long couple of months. This is partly because of a development in my life where I’m no longer socially isolated due to the pandemic or moving to a new place or my own social hangups—having less time to spend online or even an interest in doing so. However, I have also wanted to distance myself from the OSR community specifically for longer than that. I think that has been obvious, from me being more vocal about my own play preferences as well as my misgivings towards the OSR play style (which, if you have read my blog, you would know that I’ve always had). Taking this chance to put my thoughts together.

The OSR as a play style—an orientation towards playing TTRPGs—does not mesh with my own preferences, or more broadly with what we might call my brain’s reward pathways. Let’s think of Finch’s four “zen moments” from A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming: “Rulings, not rules” is the only one that resonates with me because it decenters the rulebook from play, which is very agreeable but also forgotten by the post-G+ wave of auteurs; “Player skill, not character abilities”, I don’t have strong feelings about; “Heroic, not superheroic” is simultaneously not a concern I have or something with which the post-2008 OSR would agree (“Your character is a money-grubbing good-for-nothing shithead […]”); “Forget game balance” is a misnomer for adjusting play expectations, especially since it does not necessarily if at all imply ridding games of formal rules altogether (with which even old D&D versions are jam-packed and heavily regulated by). The OSR playstyle also includes conventions not listed in Finch’s Quick Primer because they are conventions typically formalized in the rules typically employed by OSR players. I’ve talked at length, even revising my thoughts many times over, about gold for XP in particular as an expression of what Lacan calls the phallic drive:

[…] the player as an adventurer seeks treasure after treasure because that is the formal goal of the game: to acquire gold pieces is to acquire experience points, and to acquire experience points is to develop one’s character. The adventurer acquires gold pieces while exploring dungeons, and the exploration is thus oriented by the adventurer’s pursuit, as are other activities in the game such as combat (and, by extension, the referee can design locales and situations anticipating certain behavior from the players). Finally, the adventurers acquire enough gold pieces to level, and what happens next is key: the function of leveling up is to improve one’s own treasure-extracting abilities. Then the adventurers are thrown back into the fray, seeking out more valuable treasure in more difficult dungeons in order to attain higher levels of experience. Overall, the game enables the player’s fantasy by ensuring that there is always another dungeon to explore and pillage, or another experience level to attain, and the game never ends. For the Gygaxian adventurer, there is always another dungeon to loot. In the same way, the phallic drive always ensures that in the subject’s imagination there is always another thing to desire. For the typical male subject, there is always another woman to fuck.

I’ve specifically employed this angle, every time I mention it, to criticize the playstyle’s self-selection for typical male individuals for whom this aspect (being highly formal, regulative, and competitive) is appealing. Even Gygax agrees! Though he attributes its appeal to a physiological difference in men’s brains contra women, rather than to a difference in general / social upbringing, he understood well that D&D in the way that he wrote it (and played it) appeals to men more directly and specifically than to women who prefer social-oriented games and tend to derail D&D with trivialities or sub-optimal play behavior. It’s a war game, isn’t it? That’s what I kept being told—and they were right!

I last played an OSR game a couple weeks ago, specifically a Vecna adventure where in the first session you play as seasoned wizards who are supposed to get killed at the end by Vecna (or like an aspect of him or something; I don’t really know the lore). Of course, I opted to play the token female wizard. It was a boring adventure on rails until someone polymorphed a spider into a human woman, injured and confused and most of all scared (especially in that she had “dreamed” that we were all fighting and trying to kill her, which we were when she was a spider). The party was mostly trying to trick her into giving them info about the dungeon, but I got emotionally attached to this poor spider-woman and invited her to accompany us so we could protect her. Then Vecna showed up and everyone was dying until only I was left. I was being coached by everyone to find exits despite being trapped, even if it meant leaving the spider-woman behind, but I was certain that my character would die and that I did not want the spider-woman to die alone if I could escape. In the end, borrowing a gun (lightning staff) from one of my dead party members, I shot Vecna to death with many lucky rolls motivated by desperation and a refusal to die or leave the spider-woman behind. Maybe we still died there after, but it felt good to fight and live because my character believed so strongly in doing so. This was in contrast, from my perspective, to how the others approached the game—as an exercise in optimization, as if everyone is out for themselves and extending trust or concern is a weakness to avoid lest you lose the game. Homo economicus? Sounds pretty fucking gay to me.

(P.S., The GM did a good job of running that adventure despite its faults! And it's not the other players' faults either. The adventure as written was just boring, and that's separate from the play-style discrepancy.)

The OSR play culture—the aesthetics and other aspects that derive from the game’s playstyle, as well as the body of literature from which OSR works take inspiration like the Conan series—is greatly informed by the social context of settler society as well as its mythologization in literature aimed towards the same demographic for which old D&D self-selects: i.e., white males (where the operative thing is not just being white or male per se, but being integrated into a social context which elevates those things and generates a specific subject in doing so). Both the Underworld and Wilderness adventures prototypical of old school aesthetics reek of phallocentric and settler-colonialist imagery, especially in how they interface and intersect with the game’s phallic orientation (in the Lacanian sense). I talk about this at length in the same post as before, but wanted to repeat myself to emphasize that this is an aspect of the OSR which is basically intrinsic to itself and which I have repeatedly criticized as such. It’s not just orcs in caves or Conan in Cahokia (idk), but even other aesthetic concepts which are conceived to encourage the same playstyle and relationships to the fictional world: of being adventurers, heroic or not, in some precarious situation which forces them to seek riches in dangerous places or die trying (for lack of an alternative). The stunt inside the complete edition of Fantastic Medieval Campaigns was the culmination of this critique, and indeed most of what I’ve done here could be read as a critical effort. (I’d say it was intended as one, but I’m dead to my text and am only a fellow reader.)

The OSR community (speaking less of a specific community than of the various ones which have emerged around OSR conventions or aesthetics) reflects the OSR playstyle and culture because the OSR reflects them. I have criticized the mainstream OSR—how sad is it to be in so deep that you find yourself against the mainstream of an already highly specific niche—for being heavily commercialized, and mediating so many potential relations through a (niche) market, in contrast to its history of DIY cultural production on Dragonsfoot and G+ (which, at least, had that going for them—genuinely admirable). However, no matter which circle you enter, no matter how much they hate chuds (I only have a vague idea of what a chud is), they tend to self-select for personalities whose interests align with the OSR’s culture. They crave nostalgia, if not for the D&D of their childhood then for the semblance of significance in something ancient and forgotten (best reflected in the “aesthetics of ruin” which permeate post-Gygax OSR aesthetics). They recoil at the suggestion of inhabiting characters as subjectivities and seek every opportunity to optimize play in worlds or rulesets which give them no pause to do otherwise; although characters may not be an optimization game, the way that these same types might play later D&D, their activity is guided by such formal regulative principles anyway (which in turn explains the more recent obsession with OSR rules-craftery, in contrast to previous wide usage of D&D Basic for its nostalgic appeal and simplicity). They tend towards chauvinism, both in the sexist and general senses, and it’s not just “chuds” but leftist types who by virtue of their “virtue” turn a blind eye towards their own social biases. I’m not speaking of any clique in particular but most cliques, who also extend leftist infighting tendencies towards each other—“They’re grifters / capitalists / academics / white / cis / male, unlike me for whom everything is circumstantial and justified through my particular context!” Wow, that’s crazy!

This isn’t to say there aren’t exceptions, because in my time here I’ve met lots of kind and sincere people who simply enjoy the way they play—there’s nothing wrong with it per se, and it’s just not my favorite (and tends to self-select a certain genre of person, despite exceptions). As I’ve said over and over again, I play to enjoy socializing with people, so the specifics of how we play don’t really matter to me if they aren’t actively awful. However, I have had enough experiences to warrant reflection on my involvement, especially as real life has simply become more fulfilling. I only really got deeper into OSR spaces because I felt pressure to live up to peers who invited me into them. What’s been the outcome? Countless hours lost in stupid discourse. Pedantic arguments to justify my own perspectives. Multiple unwelcome sexual advances or strange comments. As I’ve said before, you can’t even necessarily blame men because most of them (out of 7) don’t self-identify as such; they assumed such comments were welcome or appropriate because I’m a woman, or other reasons. It was my mistake thinking, after having had female friends all my life, that I could find people more like me here than possibly anywhere else. Now I resent myself for wasting time here and not on hobbies I would have preferred if I gave it any more thought. Why couldn’t it have been fanfic or drag or even another TTRPG scene? Why did I let so many convince me they had something to teach me? Because it was unfamiliar? Because I didn’t know better? Because I lacked self-esteem? Fortunately, in all respects, I’m good now!

Here’s what I’m doing now: hanging out with friends; baking; programming and drawing pixel art; reading and talking about books; sitting at cafés; adoring my kitten; dancing; planning a regular D&D–baking–brunch function for friends that like to play the same way I do (or that I generally like to spend time with). I keep meaning to write about my other interests here except it feels awkward since I don’t think anyone’s here for that, and I get the same enjoyment from talking about my interests with friends. So that’s what I’m up to! If I get a craving to gush about Euphoria or Les Mes I’ll indulge myself, but it’s nice to have distance.

These were my favorite posts, in alphabetical order. That's a lot of favorites, but I have a lot of posts. What's the saying, that 90% of everything sucks?

May see y'all around! I won't be like gone gone, just deprioritizing and shifting focus.

Comments

  1. It's been an honor and privilege to call you my friend 🫡 (I will continue to do so.)

    Fun fact: the first time I ever saw you was when you posted the OG Small Town Gothic and I thought it was the nearest thing ever.

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    1. same to you ty!!! thank you for hanging with me :D

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    2. oh geez small town gothic... maybe one day

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  2. I generally try to avoid commenting, but I just wanted to say I've enjoyed reading this blog since it came to my attention probably a year ago. Even when the topic wasn't the OSR, or even RPGs. I do hope you'll continue writing here if the fancy takes you, but regardless I'd like to thank you for the time and effort you've put into writing this blog, and the enjoyment I (and many others, I'm sure) have gotten from reading it. Best wishes to you and your future endeavors, and thanks again.

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  3. Proud to call you a friend and fellow blogger, even if I ran the session that solidified the P/OSR as not being for you! (Though you’re also right that Vecna Lives! specifically sucks)

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    1. same to you!! i've said this on discord but for the public record, i feel like your improv-heavy play style tends to work well with mine so on a 1-to-1 level we have compatible play vibes 😂 which is interesting as far as like, what approaches are compatible despite not necessarily being the same

      and honestly at least i can say i "killed" vecna and lived. that must count for something!

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  4. I'm sad to see the end of an era, but I can sympathize to a certain extent, having had similar experiences in other RPG circles. I hope you don't resent yourself for too long. Personally, I'd be happy to see you write about your other interests. It could get odd for non-RPG-related stuff, but it's your blog after all!

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    1. thank you so much :) my brain seems to crave writing so i'm sure i'll be on here every now and then! but keeping more distance between myself and the larger "community" has been really nice

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  5. I understand where you are coming from and why you would deprioritize this. I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to get to know you a bit better before you came to this decision; I have found your posts insightful and entertaining, and they have also imparted a perspective I rarely see (period, but within the OSR especially). This brings me to a thought on "wasting time" and resenting yourself for it - I don't think I'd call this wasted time. Your work helps people like me re-examine the OSR through a lens we perhaps aren't used to, and that in and of itself has value I think.

    At any rate, happy trails. Give the kitten a headbutt for me!

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    1. hey blackout, same to you! i feel like we would sometimes have proxy conversations via enziramire haha :) but thank you so much, it means a lot feeling like at least the products of being here were worth it. hope you're doing well! kitten is receiving many headbutts

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  6. Hey there, longtime reader. I'll miss your voice in this scene very much. You bring a rare light to an often dingy space.

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  7. This post hits on some really important/interesting points! I'm sorry you feel like you wasted your time here - on a personal level, that's super fair! Sounds like you've had some pretty shitty experiences, and I'll just say I can definitely relate and leave it there. There's definitely a reason I mostly don't play OSR games, and that the long-term groups I play with are both mostly women and mostly queer. I will say though, I know I've personally gotten a lot from your posts, especially the ones about political theory/etc. but also the ones analyzing RPGs as a whole.

    I'm glad you are focusing on other things that you think will better serve you! Personally, I'd be more than happy to read about that stuff here too, but do what's best for you, and I wish you the best with whatever that is!

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    1. thank you so much! :) and honestly it's all good, like just taking some leave and keeping distance has calmed me down to where even if i don't want to participate in the same way or to the same degree, i don't feel like it was all for nothing.

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  8. I really enjoyed your blog (it's one of my favorites to see pop up in RSS) and I think you're a great critic, both as a Marxist and as an RPG-enjoyer. Honestly, this post leaves me a lot to chew on with my own relationship to the hobby.
    Have a good pride and be well!

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  9. This post makes me feel less alone; I share many conclusions and sentiments that you hit upon, both in regards to TTRPG's and leftist spaces and life.
    Your openness and honesty is commendable, and I'm so happy you've found new ways to fill your time with joy.

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