So, there’s some controversy happening around the ENnie Awards, or rather an old controversy has woken up again. In 2017 Blood In the Chocolate – a Lamentations of the Flame Princess module which is essentially a gory Charlie and the Chocolate Factory parody with lots of edgy content which many have regarded as pointlessly offensive.
And when I say “edgy content”, I mean it’s absolutely god-awful, to the point where if you find old-timey colonial-style racism and mass sexual assault to be topics which cause you genuine, harmful upset, you may want to exercise caution in reading deeper. I’m going to put what stands out to me (and others) as the worst aspect of it in the paragraph below encoded via the ROT13 machine, which you can use to decode it if you really want to know, since the exact specifics aren’t too relevant to this article.
Nzbat bgure vffhrf, gur Bbzcn-Ybbzcn fgnaq-vaf ner zhgngrq gevorfcrbcyr cbegenlrq va n jnl erzvavfprag bs gur jbefg enpvfg yvgrengher bs gur cnfg. N cbgragvny rapbhagre vapyhqrf n “oreel betl” frdhrapr jurer gur “cltzvrf” nffnhyg naq tnat-encr fbzrbar gb qrngu. Guvf vf pnyyrq bhg nf fbzrguvat gur CPf pbhyq pbaprvinoyl gnxr cneg va vs gurl jvfu gb tnva gur gehfg bs gur ybpnyf.Punezvat, evtug? Juvyr V pna frr fpbcr sbe cbgragvnyyl vapyhqvat n frkhny nffnhyg frdhrapr va n tnzr va juvpu n) rirelbar unq obhtug vagb gur vqrn, o) rirelbar gehfgrq nyy gur bgure cnegvpvcnagf gb unaqyr vg frafvgviryl, naq p) vg jnf nccebcevngr gb gur gbar bs gur tnzr, yvxr vg’f n qnex cflpubybtvpny ubeebe tnzr be fbzrguvat, urer vg’f onfvpnyyl n tbbsl, tbamb wbxr jvgu rkgen enpvfz ba gur fvqr. Shpx gung.
Sounds bad, huh? For those of you who didn’t want to do the ROT13, we’re talking content which was bad enough that even the writeup of the module on the 1D4Chan wiki (content warning: link describes some of the module content) – yes, the one which has a substantial user overlap with 4Chan and is a minefield because of that – calls it out and suggests that the module was just a giant exercise in the writer (Kiel Chenier) injecting his terrible fetishes into the game like in that KC Green comic. (If you want a really in-depth dissection of it, the FATAL & Friends archive has your back.)
The subject’s come up because someone on the team for the Lancer RPG submitted their game for the ENnies, without realising this bit of the history; when the rest of the team saw that the game had earned a nomination for Best Electronic Book, they decided to withdraw the game from consideration and issued a statement saying that they were not interested in getting an ENnie until the organisers disown Blood In the Chocolate‘s award. Details on the back-and-forth are here.
Let’s be clear: it’s profoundly weird that Blood In the Chocolate got the ENnie. Yes, they won the award itself as the result of a fan poll – but the fact that a chunk of the hobby were willing to vote en mass for such a product is about as bad a look as the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies nonsense in the SF scene. Furthermore, it was on the ballot in the first place because it was judged worthy of being there, and if the ENnies judges that year decided that it was perfectly OK to wave it through to the ballot, that sends a terrible message when it comes to inclusivity in the hobby.
In addition, the sort of content which has got Blood In the Chocolate in hot water is also a just plain bad choice to put in a commercial product, and not just for the baseline offence caused, the fact is that Lamentations of the Flame Princess more or less bases its entirely image on being edgy and shocking in a way which I am embarrassed to admit I’d have probably found cool back in the 1990s or 2000s but which, when you peel back the surface layer of edgy bullshit, doesn’t actually have that much to it.
The thing is, I think even within gaming groups who’d be entirely cool with the Lamentations schtick, with all its gore and violence and its slightly disturbing emphasis on gory violence being perpetuated against women specifically, the scene which has caused the most controversy is the sort of thing which I am fairly sure many wouldn’t want to include in their game. And the thing is, when you are making a commercial product people pay money to buy, you should try to make sure it is full of stuff that a substantial chunk of your audience want to include in their game.
I think anyone who includes the content in question in their game is, most likely, being astonishingly irresponsible and a bad friend to their players, so I think most DMs wouldn’t want to actually include it in actual play. This leaves a gap in the structure which they then need to fill. Why bother including an option that 99% of competent referees won’t use when you could instead put in content that a decent range of gaming groups would be happy with?
Now, “freedom of speech!” is the usual defence people offer of this sort of content (though “you should be free to say this” and “this is deserving of being given awards and celebrated as representing the best of what our industry produces” are two different concepts). The thing is, Blood In the Chocolate‘s author – yes, Kiel Chenier himself – has now very thoroughly disowned the product, and “unaccepted” his ENnie.
This puts the freedom of speech advocates in a difficult corner. You can’t defend someone’s right to say something and then say that they can’t later on say that their thoughts on a matter have changed and they now don’t stand by their previous statement.
Furthermore, a publisher continuing to publish a book which has been disowned by its author has disowned is in effect trying to perpetuate speech attributed to the author which the author now wants no part of. At this point, Blood In the Chocolate is still being made available for sale by James Raggi, owner of the Lamentations of the Flame Princess line; Chenier notes that he hasn’t worked with Raggi since Raggi openly endorsed Jordan Peterson, the philosopher whose heavily-promoted, cultish teachings veer between far-right crap and outright blathering nonsense, and has committed to removing the product from sale as soon as the rights revert to him, which they will in 2021 as per his contract.
To my knowledge the ENnies have not yet responded to Kiel’s unacceptance. It will be interesting to see if they do. Insisting to stand by an award for a product whose author has disowned it, in very clear and specific terms, and who doesn’t want the award would be a very strange stance to take indeed. However, at the same time the ENnies have legitimately pointed out that they have made a swathe of changes to their procedures since 2017, and it’s generally thought that this was due to concerns that wins like Blood In the Chocolate were the result of people gaming the system. It would certainly be good for them to step away from Blood In the Chocolate themselves anyway, and it’s difficult to see how “I want to return my award and express the opinion that this product I wrote is shitty” isn’t a good case for that.
What’s interesting to me about this whole situation is what Kiel has to say about Lamentations of the Flame Princess. In explaining (but not excusing) why the module is the way it is, Kiel gives two essential reasons: firstly, he was trying to make a point about racist colonialism in history but went at it in such a clumsy, naive way that he just ended up recapitulating it rather than criticising it.
Secondly – and this to me is the interesting bit – he says he was deliberately playing up to Lamentations of the Flame Princess‘s edgy, shocking reputation. Though shock for shock’s sake garnered a certain amount of attention for Lamentations, and it’s had its time in the Sun, it really feels like in recent years it’s no longer the force it was in OSR circles and people are seeing through the edgy surface and discovering that there’s nothing that interesting underneath.
If you want a retroclone of the Moldvay/Cook Basic and Expert version of Dungeons & Dragons, Old School Essentials has way less baggage and is presented much more nicely; with authors shifting their products away from the line and superior clones available, it really feels like there’s no reason to engage with Lamentations any more. Let’s see how this develops going forward.