This Spells Out Freedom
It means nothing to me, as long as there's a PMRC.
Here we go.
This was an official statement that pretty much exemplified everything I1 hate in this world2: Entertainment as moral instruction, and the association of a preferred entertainment style with being a good person. And on top of that, the statement is absolutely incoherent.
First, look at the caricature of the angry mothers, right in the center of a piece that argues that the very people they’re caricaturing are right and the company is going to do everything they can to please them. Holy shit. I try these days to not use memey internet cliches like “I can’t even,” but looking at this, I can’t even.
Second, note that they claim for their products the purpose of being an educational (if we’re being generous) or propaganda (if we’re not) tool to hopefully influence their customer base’s real-world sense of morality... so they can win the approval of people that aren’t their customers and who they don’t expect to become their customers. And this was published in a place only their hardcore customer base would see. Is your brain melting yet? Mine is.
Third, while they’re explaining to their audience why they are making sure their products will be acceptable to people who are not their audience, they engage in shameless pandering. But funny enough while they’re telling their role-playing customer base that “99.9% of all role-players have a great deal of intelligence, which is why they enjoy role-playing,” they are coincidentally also pushing the idea that agreeing with the company’s content policies is one sign of this intelligence.
One thing is for sure though. If you actually thought your customers possessed “a great deal of intelligence,” you would never, ever talk to them this way.
That was the public-facing stuff. You can see internal TSR memos from 1982, 1992, and 1994 concerning content guidelines here.
And now, we walk into Mordor. Wizards of the Coast’s June 2020 statement, “Diversity and Dungeons & Dragons.”
I don’t see this as altogether different than the Mad Mothers editorial thirty years previous. Not identical, but they pull a few of the same tricks.
Both are identical in a very specific way: They declare that their publications and the portrayal of the fictions within are a direct reflection and affirmation of their real-world morality, and it is their job to be moral stewards of their audiences. They claim that it is the function and responsibility of fiction and play to reinforce real-life positive values. They then define specific values which they deem to be real-world good, and then go about making the case that they are good people, that their products will be morally and qualitatively good, because their fictional and play material promotes and reinforces these things they declare to be real-world morally good positions.
And by implication this would make different creative choices immoral.
This is far beyond trashing the idea of “It’s not for everyone, but it just might be for you,” idiosyncrasy. You expect market leaders and corporate entities to embrace choices that appeal to as many people as possible. But this isn’t that. Both the Mad Mothers and the Diversity articles explicitly reject the “We want to be for everyone!” mindset by casting anyone that they don’t appeal to as bad people to one degree or another. They don’t seem to be interested in appealing to people with different tastes, even though they have the resources to devote to doing just that. (Gold star example: Look at the full range of comedy specials, and comedy programming in general, that Netflix releases.)
No, both the Angry Mothers and the Diversity pieces explicitly position their entire company's product line for being only for good and decent people, who just coincidentally are good and decent because they are all for the exact values these products will represent.
Related but not identical to #1: They position the fictional depiction of certain bad things in their fictional product to be an endorsement, or at least indifference to, those same bad things in the real world, and that this really, really matters in a fictional context. Even presenting these certain things in contexts impossible to replicate in the real world are to be eliminated in the fictional material.
In service to #1 and #2, both editorials denigrate past approaches and publications, and they position the new policies not as creative decisions or simply a new way forward, but as corrections to past errors. The old stuff isn’t just different, not just old-fashioned or out of date, but bad. Things aren't being freshened up; the old stuff is a mistake and in need of correction.
The disclaimer boilerplate they slather all over all of their classic material over on DriveThru3, similar to how different streaming services put disclaimers on old movies and TV shows these days, reinforces this. Do note that they are not changing classic material “because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed,” but the more recent releases will be changed. Curious how they demonstrate how awful they think the views of the people that built their business were and how important it is to preserve that for all time, but evidence of their own bad ideas from the day before yesterday is to be memory-holed4.
It’s very sleazy enough to not own up to what you actually thought the day before yesterday even if you don’t think that way today, and it’s damned corrupt to not hold yourself to the same standards you hold other people.
But this does make the older, preserved products seem more like they were created by human beings for human beings, and not a marketing department looking to create a customer experience.
Both pieces take the position that offending people means that they have done something wrong.
All of this (all four points!) is complete nonsense (utter nonsense!) even if you 100% agree with the morals and values being promoted by the company at the times of these statements’ releases. It denigrates the very concepts of “fiction” and “imagination,” and makes functionally impossible the core role-playing concepts of pretending to be someone unlike yourself in a world different than the one outside your window. It is infantilizing.
The differences between the two pieces, however, are striking.
For all the changes that were being made by TSR going into the second edition era, for all the handwringing they were doing about their content... first edition AD&D books were still getting new printings through at least July 1990. yyuupp, six months AFTER the Angry Mothers editorial and policy declaration, and a year after 2nd edition hit the streets, there were new print runs made of first edition books. Unedited, as far as I can tell, nude illustrations and wanton wench tables and assassins and demons and devils all intact. Diversity and D&D is telling us that not only are they applying their new approach to new material, they are changing previous work when it is being reprinted.
Of course the biggest difference is the framing of why they are doing it. The Angry Mothers piece positions the issue as pressure from the outside. The Diversity piece positions its issues as coming from the creators and the player base. Maybe it’s heartfelt, maybe it’s just being far more clever with how to present their new policies. But it’s still a top-down manifesto pushing limits on ideas and presentation in their products throughout their product line, presented more in moral than creative terms.
And this is dangerous, especially coming from a market leader. It narrows the acceptable range of ideas within the gaming space, which is absolute death for a creative field. That a company prefers to present their products to reflect certain values, inside their fictional worlds and outside, that’s fine. A valid choice. For the market leader under the umbrella of a multinational corporation to present their creative decisions as moral guideposts is a direct attempt to control the imaginations of their customers, and the industry as a whole, when their only job is to enable the imaginations of those same customers and industry.
“Here’s your box. If you create outside of this box, you are a bad person,” says both the suit and the rabble.
Seriously, what fucking idiot inside a creative field comes up with a manifesto of moral conformity? I acknowledge (but still don’t understand) pressure from outside creative fields, but at that point I don’t see how every person within the field does not consider it their number one priority to protest, fight, and subvert every restriction placed upon them5.
My mind immediately just assumes anyone creating inside that box is a moron and a collaborator in the worst sense, and anyone working outside the box is a hero, even if they have nefarious motives for doing so.
Now, it’s easier to look back with 30 years hindsight and see the Angry Mothers thing as quaint. But the creative and cultural pressures were just as real then (remember this was right in the middle of the “family values” era, still a couple years before the Dan Quayle/Murphy Brown debacle, over half a decade before the Surgeon General of the United States was forced to resign for publicly acknowledging that masturbation was a natural part of human sexuality) as they are now, even if the specific issues aren’t exactly the same.
The 80s saw Dungeons & Dragons condemned in mainstream press as Satanic and creating a suicide risk in its players. Many children had their D&D books thrown away, or burned in front of them, and physically punishing children for expressing the wrong values or behaving improperly was widely considered a private family matter, a parent’s right, not abuse.
The pressures TSR were responding to in its Angry Mothers piece were every bit as real, the cultural landscape every bit as fucked, as our current situation and the landscape Wizards finds itself in.
And I still think TSR was wrong to give in to the pressures to conform to the greater cultural landscape. The form LotFP takes is largely my reaction to seeing how people responded to this pressure in my childhood. All those childhood years of having to defend role-playing in general and D&D in particular from ridiculous bullshit, only to have TSR come out and basically agree with their critics and accusers publicly. For fuck's sake.
And just a few years after the Angry Mothers editorial, Vampire showed you could throw that entire mindset and playbook away and not only was it just fine as far as the audience was concerned, they even overtook D&D at one point in popularity in no small part because restricting yourself creatively puts you at a massive disadvantage against those who do not.
But Wizards’ current stance, one that much of media and the public seem to enthusiastically agree with, sets off all the same alarm and bullshit bells as their old Angry Mothers stance. And even if it weren’t setting off alarm bells, counterprogramming against the industry leader is always standard practice for smaller operations. What’s that going to look like when a large, maybe majority, portion of the RPG audience will judge counterprogramming as an immoral action?
We can hope that most of the counterprogramming will just be people doing their own thing without malice. But there are people out there inordinately angry with what Wizards is doing (and furious in general about anything “SJWs” or “woke” people do). And they’ll be doing their own counterprogramming, and they’ll do it antagonistically. They’ll find an audience for it. And won’t that be fun for everyone6.
LotFP is certainly an alternate choice and “counterprogramming,” but isn't going to be involved in any “backlash” to Wizards; we’ve been around for almost 12 years now and our current product standards were pretty much fully conceptualized in 2011, excepting a few stylistic points that would be ridiculous to call political or moral. We won’t change in response to what Wizards is doing, or in response to changing attitudes of the general public7. We’ve got our vibe and will continue on with that, and ride the resulting ebb and flow in sales and popularity and criticism as best we can.
And our vibe is, “Anything that has ever happened or can be imagined is fodder for imagination, play, and LotFP content.” ‘Unimaginable,’ ‘unthinkable,’ and ‘unspeakable’ are words heeded only by small minds, not concepts to be respected or taken at all seriously.
Or at least that’s true for me, James Edward Raggi IV, the publisher and green-lighter of projects. LotFP does give a lot of freedom and leeway to individual creators... To be a writer, artist, designer, is to be a malcontent who bristles at being told how to think and what to do so who knows how that’s going to sort out. I know there are many things we have coming up that would utterly fail Wizards’ content standards, the way they would fail all the TSR content standards before it. But the “individual creator expression” versus “company policy” difference is huge I think. I’m sure all of them have different opinions about things and some won’t be in line with popular or tastemaker (not the same thing) opinion, and I’m sure I’ll shrug and say “that’s fine” to most of it and it’ll make its way into the world as part of LotFP publications.
Or maybe one (or more) of our creators is all on board with TSR and/or Wizards guidelines and their expression of the weird doesn’t touch those particular boundaries. I’m sure I’ll shrug and say “that’s fine” to most of that too.
Having a unified ideological front makes for boring, useless creations. Within a company it’s bad enough; across an industry it is death.
But one thing is for sure and will remain constant. Anyone who agrees that what TSR was declaring in 1990, or what Wizards declared in 2020, is the one true and moral way to imagine or to publish, will in all likelihood not like LotFP as a company, or me as a person.
I know how this works. By putting myself in the “I don’t like it,” category concerning the Wizards great and noble proclamation, this will confirm to some that I am that sort of person, and they’ll be able to invent what that means. So in an effort to make sure people have the proper information to hate me for what I actually stand for and not what other people say I stand for…
No capable adult should be denied opportunities or work simply because of their demographic category, and when it comes to RPGs there is very little that can make one incapable.
My assumptions about the RPG player base and community comes from exhibiting at conventions in Finland, Germany, Sweden, the UK, and the US and seeing what the gaming public looks like. All follow the exact same pattern: The neighborhoods outside the convention centers are quite demographically mixed, and a great percentage of the service personnel employed by these convention centers are darker-skinned people… but the vast majority of the attendees to these conventions, both the publishers and the customer base, they’re overwhelmingly pale. The difference between outside the convention and inside the convention is much more pronounced in Europe than in the US.
What to do about this? Well, for me, I’m not doing anything. Gaming is something people do for fun, and to me trying to convince people to do less of whatever they are doing now for fun so they can do this other thing that I want them to do, on a racial basis (to use the common colloquial term), for the purpose of profiting off of them, seems sketchy as all fuck.
Yet when I was still in the RPG social media sphere, conversations that boiled down to “How do us white people get black people to stop doing the things they’re already doing for fun, and start doing this thing we white people want them to do, so we seem less racist?” seemed both quite common and shockingly clueless... even dare I say colonialist.
I do not believe that the RPG space is disproportionally ‘white’ as compared to the greater population because other groups are being excluded or shut out. Judging by the history of other art and entertainment forms, if any group of people were being actively excluded from things they wanted to do, they’d say “oh fuck you,” and do it in their own communities regardless. We’d then hear about the (demographic group) RPG scene doing all this exciting and different stuff (very quickly since no reason to think it would be invisible on social media), and then the greater public would start adopting the styles and trappings of the minority scene. I’ve been out of touch the past couple years, so maybe that started happening, but it wasn’t going on when I was in touch.
The “RPG Community” is primarily your group at your table (or your zoom conference or whatever). Whether you give the first shit about the needs and attitudes of the community beyond that is entirely up to you. It’s your fun time, and nobody should be able to tell you how to have that fun, and you shouldn’t be able to tell anybody how to have their fun, no matter who you are or who they are.
It is the job of an RPG publisher to produce the things they are passionate about producing. If someone feels underserved by what’s being offered to them, they can become an RPG publisher themselves and just maybe discover a whole underserved market and then everybody benefits having more and different choices available. Accept what you’re given, or take on the work and risk and responsibility to do it yourself. (If you think that’s too much to ask of someone, well fuck off, because that’s what I had to do.)
The RPG market is effectively open to all. The major marketplaces like DriveThru, Indiegogo, Kickstarter, Patreon, Amazon, none of these places discriminate on demographic factors. You simply cannot be stopped from participating on this basis. So even if I’m absolutely wrong about everything else having to do with this, I cannot prevent anyone from executing their vision nor making their work available to an audience. And I fully support the most open market possible for games and denounce efforts to restrict anybody from that market.
Got all that? OK then… what I’m sure we’re all thrilled to know now exists:
LotFP’s statement on Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity
Declaring a commitment to “diversity, inclusion, and equity,” is no more (or less) valid, not one little bit, than declaring a commitment to “family values.” Or “patriotism.” Or whatever the fuck else. “This book/movie/album is not inclusive,” is the same as “This book/movie/album doesn’t praise God,” as far as being useful criticism. Concerning yourself about “problematic content” in fictional media is no different than concerning yourself with Proctor and Gamble being “Satanic.”
The only difference between writers or artists (or editors, or graphic designers, etc.) of different demographic categories is perception. Individuals are unique with their very own experiences and perspectives that differ from those within their own demographic groups, and those without. No individual can be representative of any demographic category they belong to. Demographic groups are essentially arbitrarily defined groupings of individuals. Some people find comfort in these groupings. Some people do not. We’re good with people either way.
Therefore, it is LotFP official policy to not give a shit about any collaborator’s (or potential collaborator’s) demographic categories8, and that giving a shit about such categories, unless done for very specific reasons, is at best gauche and at worst a moral failure. With everything good (I won’t give you shit) and bad (… not caring about important things9) that entails.
LotFP every so often does open calls for pitches or portfolios. I don’t quiz the respondents as to their demographic categories (and frankly I wish I knew how to blank out their names and email addresses so nothing can be inferred), and their submissions are not judged on such.
The writer of any individual project has the final veto on their project in matters of in-publication representation. Very rarely am I as publisher going to give two shits, as within the fiction I consider that all style and window dressing to be left almost entirely to the creator’s prerogative. If the writer says “make sure (some proportion) of the people in the art are/aren’t (category),” then I back that up and the artist gets that instruction. If such things are unspecified by the writer then it’s up to the artist to make those decisions, and if the writer is on board, then so am I. Or maybe nobody thinks anything and it never comes up and the final product ends up looking homogenously like its creators. This is all personal style, and all morally and ethically the same, as far as I’m concerned.
We’re here to create things. These creations are for their own sake, not in service of a outside social good, as creation for its own sake is the greatest good10. We hope they bring something different and exciting to the world, and we cross our fingers that they return a financial reward. That’s it. That’s the business. We’ve printed merch with slogans like “Empathy Zero” and “Because Fuck You That’s Why” on it (available here!) because no matter what happens, no matter which way the wind blows, creators will be free to set the tone of publication, despite what the greater public thinks relevant, decent, or good.
If you think things should be different and that what we publish demonstrates horribly regressive views on this, then you need to pitch a project and work with me on a project that we can make to your values and specifications. I have no doubt, without even knowing you, that whatever you think is fine and proper in this area for publication can work with the LotFP style (I say again for emphasis). Weirdness and horror and unease can manifest in many ways.
LotFP will reflect the tastes and values of those individuals publishing under the LotFP banner. Anyone self-selecting out of working with with us ensures we will not reflect their values. Whatever the composition of creators we have now, we welcome and hope to work with centrists, progressives, liberals, conservatives, etc11. because it is official LotFP policy that politics is irrelevant to creative power, and the hope that more varied worldviews going in results in a greater variety of flavors in the books coming out.
We recognize that encouraging people to not self-censor, and being open to working with all sorts of people, that we will be working with people separately who can’t stand what others on the roster stand for. It almost guarantees the involvement of difficult, or even damaged people, and difficult, divisive final products. This is not only a cost of doing business that I accept, LotFP considers this a feature, not a bug, as the creations that result are more personal, more unusual, than they would otherwise be.
And LotFP will not move to sanction its collaborators creators in any but the most extraordinary circumstances. People are responsible for their own behavior, not the behavior of others, and will be allowed to be themselves, for better and for worse, without the judgment of a Finnish RPG publisher.
tldr: Fuck the world, fuck us, fuck you, let’s make some shit because that shit is literally the most important thing in all the world and nothing else matters.
Re-reading this, I notice that I oscillate between speaking as a person (I, James Edward Raggi IV) and as a company (we, LotFP). Same difference, no matter how unhealthy that actually is to both the person and company.
While there are many things that are technically worse in the world than how people approach the production of entertainment media, entertainment is how we’re supposed to decompress, escape from, and ultimately be able to cope with the stress and horrors of the real world. To tell someone that their way of imagining is wrong, that there are stories they cannot tell, is to magnify all of the suffering the real world inflicts on them.
“We (Wizards) recognize that some of the legacy content available on this website does not reflect the values of the Dungeons & Dragons franchise today. Some older content may reflect ethnic, racial, and gender prejudice that were commonplace in American society at that time. These depictions were wrong then and are wrong today. This content is presented as it was originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed. Dungeons & Dragons teaches that diversity is a strength, and we strive to make our D&D products as welcoming and inclusive as possible. This part of our work will never end.”
Of course my preference is preserving.
Zak Has Nothing To Do With This Book is the only real-world important book I have ever written (and hopefully the only one I ever will; doing that sort of thing costs more than you know) and putting it on the Gen Con table to be seen by every single person walking by is the only real-world important thing I have ever done.
Oh, fun story. At one non-Gen Con convention in 2019 I was told ahead of time that while I was allowed to sell books by Zak Smith, any book with his involvement had to be clearly marked. When the booth was set up on the first day of the convention, but before the doors opened to the public, I showed management two displays I had prepared:
I felt bad doing this, because I’ve had a good relationship with this convention and had made a ton of money there over the years, but the special labeling requirement was something I was willing to go to war, and maybe even have the booth canceled altogether, maybe forever, over.
After seeing the possible notices (and telling me if either of these had been displayed to the public I would have been ejected from the convention, but these were created to be shown to management in this manner and never intended as public notices) I was just told that as long as Zak’s involvement was listed in the credits in any book he worked on — it is — I didn’t need any separate notices.
I was also selling Zak Has Nothing To Do With This Book at this convention (which wasn’t part of any iteration of notice since Zak had nothing to do with that book… he didn’t even know about it until the buzz it created after debuting at Gen Con). It got noticed. One person came up to the table and went straight for that book, picked it up, and turned directly to the editorial in the back. This person’s face became more and more distressed as they read, finished, and walked off. Soon after, management informed me they’d had multiple complaints about the book and that I had to take it off the table. (At least that one person bothered to read the thing before they complained.) I could sell it from under the table if someone asked for it, but I couldn’t display it. I went along with this because there’s a difference between protesting and being a complete dick to someone caught in the middle of other peoples’ conflicts.
That created this situation:
Zak’s books were able to be on display and sold, but a book with a nonfiction piece concerning the Zak situation was banished from sight. That the thing that I have had the most suppressed has not been any work of fiction, but a nonfiction essay expressing my true feelings... on one hand there is a great sense of pride. On the other hand, that’s exactly what the world thinks of me.
(btw, I’ve mentioned this a few times, but the adventure portion of this book is not about Zak Smith. The situation in the adventure doesn’t fit his real-life situation at all. The Zak Canterbury character is an authorial self-insert, what with being a fool getting in trouble for someone else’s book. And I am the author, which should be obvious from the writing style.)
(I know this whole footnote would probably have been a better fit in the last post, but the problems people have with Zak are very different than the problems people have with Vikernes or Lovecraft and I didn’t want to create that association.)
That’s sarcasm, by the way.
Some people think one way, other people think a second way, yet more people think a third way, etc. ad infinitum. To try to exclude certain types of thought and approaches to entertainment media, to win points against them with the idea that if you reach a certain number of points they go away, it’s impossible, and not desirable.
All of these people who believe in the Mad Mothers approach, or Wizards’ current approach, they deserve to have entertainment that caters to their taste just as anyone else does. The problem is when they think everyone’s entertainment should use the Mad Mothers standard. Then they have to be fought.
But to think they should (be made to) go away? That anything in their wheelhouse is bad and to be attacked? That is the thinking and tactics of the enemy, and adopting this strategy validates theirs.
Winning in this environment means being able to produce and consume things that are to our individual tastes without being forced to accept others’ standards. Yes, it sucks when market leaders adopt product standards that aren’t to our tastes, and it especially sucks if it seems it happens in many companies, and types of media, in quick succession.
But victory is being able to disregard them and doing your own thing and cultivating that.
That’s the fight.
This blog is the response.
Well, we do tend to go for women as models for the player character stand-ins, and we did run an open call for writers specifying we wanted people under 20 years old once.
I don’t think it’s accurate to say that I don’t care, but I accept that what I care about, and how I show it, are sufficiently idiosyncratic that “I don’t care” is probably functionally true as far as a good number of people are concerned.
I’m theoretically not even against working with extremists (my definition: person who can not tolerate views that differ from their own), but I have trouble imagining how that would actually be possible since my views will differ from theirs.
oh, and for the record, I just now on April 26 took the political compass test again:
Three squares to the left of where I usually am. Damn pandemic. :p