Lessons From the Dinner Table 5: LARPing, Blackballing, and the Price of Doing Business

Welcome back to an occasional series of posts where the joke is I am taking a gag strip about tabletop RPGs entirely too seriously. Specifically, Lessons From the Dinner Table is where I like to look over old Knights of the Dinner Table compilations and ponder what sort of lessons applicable to real-world gaming we can take from them – whether it comes to storytelling considerations of how the issues themselves are written, gaming techniques used (or abused) in the comic, or ideas concerning larger gaming communities which the series touches on.

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There’s two plot threads in this Bundle I want to highlight, one of which isn’t so good, the other of which pretty funny, and a lesson that can be drawn from how each of them landed.

The not so good one is an entry in the occasional “retro KODT” series of strips set earlier in the continuity, which are usually thrown in so that each issue can have a more small-scale story not bound to the longer-form storytelling in the main strips. In this case, they’re an expanded sequel to the old strip where Dave and Bob join a Vampire LARP and start acting weird. Back in the day, the original strip wasn’t so annoying, mostly because it was too brief to expose the weakness of the writing – and in particular, the comparatively shallow level of understanding of LARP on the part of the Knights of the Dinner Table team, which is exposed here.

This isn’t me being overly defensive – there’s some good satire you could do about the quirks of the LARP community, particularly the drama-prone world of Vampire-inspired games. But you need to really know the scene to produce something which isn’t outright shallow, just like you need to know tabletop RPGs to make something like Knights of the Dinner Table‘s usual fare. The plot here fails to convince me that it’s the product of sufficient research.

To an extent, this is the point: it’s the Knights stepping into somewhere out of their wheelhouse. The way they buy into sensationalist media panic about LARPers that sounds exactly like the sensationalist panic about tabletop RPGs they recognise for the bilge it is is a nice spoof of the way people in geek hobbies are frequently unkind about other geek hobbies, like they think they’ll avoid mainstream scorn by diverting it to someone considered nerdier.

Nonetheless, the core plot around the Vampire game reverts to a nasty angle where it’s revealed that Bridget, a participant at the LARP, uses it as a means of getting her chores done and otherwise extract money and favours from enamoured men. It’s clear from the description given (she doesn’t appear directly here) that Bridget is essentially the sort of woman who is very conventionally attractive and does chainmail bikini cosplay at cons, and I think in the intervening time since these comics came out it’s become clear that those people aren’t the problem – the problem is people who see such women and think it’s remotely appropriate or funny to harass them, grope them in an unwanted fashion, or generally treat them with even the baseline level of courtesy you’d give to any stranger who isn’t actively causing you a problem.

Furthermore, the plot is a regurgitation of the “beta orbiter” myth that incels are so fond of – the idea that attractive women attract a fringe of guys who hover around them because they lead those dudes on in an abusive fashion. The problem with this whole narrative is that it feeds into the idea that dudes cannot maintain their self-control when it comes to people they are sexually attracted to, and it excuses men who are doing the whole “if I put in enough kindness coins into this situation eventually sex will come out” deal. I’ve caught myself thinking like that before, it was a mistake, I amended my behaviour and worked on being able to have proper friendships with women.

The thing is, that’s a situation which can happen in any social situation, as is evidenced here by the fact that all the characters know Bridget from outside the LARP through her cosplay. Which is a big part of the reason I don’t think the arc really shows much of a handle on how LARPs work. Sure, some bitter dudes might have thought that a popular member of the LARP was using evil feminine wiles to get ahead, and there is a design and game-running issue in LARP around avoiding games turning into popularity contests (something which the World of Darkness LARP scene was chronically guilty of), but it is far from exclusively women who were involved in this.

Another plotline in this issue involves the Knights scamming people by selling their old characters at an inflated price on the online character exchange markets. This is, of course, a situation which is entirely absurd in tabletop RPGs, because that’s just not how the hobby community works – but the Knights of the Dinner Table writing team seem to realised that thanks to the centralisation of the HackMaster Player’s Association which they have established as being a setting feature for comic effect has parallels with the centralised account databases of MMOs, and so they could use it to tell jokes about MMOs stuff like sales of items, gold, and entire accounts (which, believe it or not, was already a thing in 2000-2001 when this material first came out).

In effect, the premise of the arc is “What if people in tabletop RPGs ended up selling characters to each other like MMO players?”, which allows the writers to do a fascinatingly multilayered set of jokes:

  • You have the direct satire of MMO account sales and the absurdity which is the gold farming market.
  • You have the absurdity of this being brought into a tabletop RPG context.
  • You have the worldbuilding involved in imagining how the HMPA manages this sort of thing to make it possible, which furthers the “HMPA bureaucracy” line of jokes.
  • You have the potential for scamming when account details are not automatically updated by the MMO’s servers but instead must be updated by hand by individual GMs.

The difference in quality between this plotline and the LARP thing is readily apparent, because with this one it’s evident that someone on the writing team, possibly multiple members, had their finger on the pulse enough to realise what was going on in the MMO scene at the time and come up with interesting ways to spoof it.

So the lesson is as follows: when dealing with real-world subject matter, the stuff you have actually got direct knowledge of or have done your research on will always look better than the stuff you haven’t got a deep understanding of. So concentrate on the former, not the latter, and do your research!

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This continues an awkward patch of the series’ development, where the storylines have become somewhat more ambitious but at the same time the judgement calls on what to use and what to hold back feel less refined than they would become later in the series’ run. For instance, the Vampire LARP plotline wraps up with a crude joke about Sara being tied up in Brian’s basement undergoing cult-style deprogramming, a joke which feels crass in retrospect, and I strongly doubt that Kenzer and Company would run the same joke the same way today.

Then, of course, there’s the infamous “Gary Jackson dies” plot; in true comics fashion, Gary would prove to have faked his own death (an astonishingly cruel act given that his own son, Timmy, wasn’t in on the faking) much later, but at the time it seemed to be a weirdly morbid story to run and (again, in true comics fashion) Kenzer were playing it like the dude really was permanently dead.

In case you’ve not read the comics (or the previous instalments of this article series), Gary Jackson was introduced to the comic as the creator of Hackmaster, the tabletop RPG the Knights and all their counterparts in their local gaming community play, and the head honcho of Hard Eight, the publishers of Hackmaster. As you might have guessed from the name, he’s a broad parody of a particular type of old-school gaming figure – the auteur who’s the boss of his company and uses that as a pulpit to push a particular vision of gaming. Gary Gygax, when he was head of TSR, was the original archetype of this. Steve Jackson of Steve Jackson Games fame kind of fits the mould; he may be somewhat more chill than Gary, but he did ultimately call his company “Steve Jackson Games” and make it a vehicle primarily for his designs, there’s a certain “game designer as the rockstar who draws the crowd” angle there.

I actually think a better fit for the parody, now that Gary Gygax is dead, is Palladium Books’ Kevin Siembieda; the combination of long survival in an often tenuous industry, forceful personality (if you get into Palladium stuff it quickly becomes apparent that Kevin is very keen to put his views across, and make sure you know it’s his views), a string of controversies and a reputed attitude to publishing which goes beyond being a bit old school and into the realm of being perversely archaic. (Siembieda’s reputation will forever be haunted by Bill Coffin’s post on RPG.net, where he claimed that – at least as according to Coffin’s knowledge as of 2003 – Siembieda was still doing all the layout on Palladium publications by hand, decades after more or less everyone in publishing had shunted over to using layout software on computer.) On the other hand, I suspect that calling the character “Gary Siembieda” would have attracted a lawsuit, so maybe Kenzer made the smart call there.

Either way: in this run of issues they decided to kill him off. Jolly Blackburn, in his introduction to this volume, explains the decision: Kenzer & Company felt that the age of the celebrity game designer had come and gone, so removing him could allow them to make the satire in the Hard Eight scripts a bit more current, and because they were aware that people kept speculating that Gary was based on a real person rather than a mashup of various different people and a whole bunch of entirely fictional personality traits. These all make sense as far as reasons to remove the character from the spotlight go – but having Gary’s writeoff arise from him apparently dying in a sudden and dramatic fashion (plane crash) would surely put the subject of Gary further into the spotlight.

Perhaps a better way would be to simply have him fade into the background and have the characters refer to Hard Eight, the publishing company, instead of Gary Jackson the person when discussing Hackmaster; say there’s been a corporate re-structure (perhaps prompted by some of Gary’s gambling debts coming back to bite him in the ass) which means he’s less involved in the day-to-day running of the place, and then you can bring in all the satire of more modern game company corporate structures you like under that umbrella and then bring him back when the character makes sense again.

(Arguably, in fact, this is exactly what they did in retrospect – Gary faking his death and then coming back later is just a very dramatic and silly sort of “corporate restructuring” with exactly the effect of taking him away from the day to day running of the business. But that’s not how it was presented when the story ran!)

The only really funny joke associated with the plot is the idea of ghoulish gamers sneaking into the funeral so they could rub their dice on Gary’s corpse for luck – in itself a pretty good jab at celebrity culture in general. That said, perhaps if Kenzer wanted to write a character spoofing the culture around prominent gaming industry figures, they might have more meat now than then – between Kickstarter disasters, revelations about poor behaviour by developers, the rise of livestreaming celebrities and various other forms of online drama, the subculture’s tendency to elevate people onto pedestals only to knock them off when they either abuse that position or disappoint their fans makes the whole “gaming celebrity” idea both more relevant and more tawdry than ever before.

From a gaming perspective, the most interesting idea here is the Muncie GMs’ idea of having a “player exchange”, where players in participating groups are randomly scattered to other GMs’ tables, allowing them a chance to play with a cross-section of gamers they otherwise wouldn’t interact with – an idea proposed to encourage mingling and broader social interaction within the community, rather than people just sticking in the same old gaming groups all the time.

It’s certainly an interesting idea, but highlights something significant – namely, that it’s possible to do that sort of thing without requiring people to roll up one-shot characters because Hackmaster operates on a much smoother organised play-type basis than any real organised play scheme has ever functioned. Knights of the Dinner Table presents a fantasy where the results of games at other GMs’ tables are already respected, and you can pretty much take your Hackmaster character anywhere and they’ll be accepted at anyone’s table with their magic items and other powers intact, even the odd homebrew ones, but at the same time GMs have extensive discretion about what goes on at their table.

That isn’t really how it works. In any particular organised play setup with this sort of take-your-character-anywhere deal – whether it’s in national networks of World of Darkness LARPs or Living Greyhawk or the D&D Adventurers’ League or major festival-scale LARP events and so on – there’s an inherent tension between the need for uniformity between venues on the one hand and referee freedom on the other. Lean too hard on the former and the referees just become glorified mouthpieces for the central planners of the campaign and are unable to really do their own thing and exercise their own creativity when it comes to coming up with adventures and plots; lean too hard on the latter and you have such massive conflicts of vision and setting consistency and power level that it becomes awkward for people to take their character from place to place.

A more localised setup could work better – then, at least, the centralised decisions could be made by planners who are broadly in touch with most of the participants and have a reasonable handle on what the local gaming community’s consensus is. But once you expand this sort of cross-compatible campaign beyond a certain scope and try to maintain consistency across all that, it becomes a nightmare – you have to make decisions based on the overall health of the greater campaign, not what would maximise the fun of any particular subset of your player base, which in turn means that as a player sooner or later something you found really fun in the campaign will get squashed by the central authority in a way which infuriates you because the very thing which you and your buds in your local gaming culture was kind of out of step with the way most other local gaming groups played and was enjoyed less, or something along those lines.

As a result of this sort of factor, I find this sort of massive campaign to usually end up being an ambitious dream which never quite delivers on its fullest potential. The closest I have seen is the largest of the fest LARP systems, where at least you have all the participants in the same field together for the major events, and even there you often have decisions made which expose the fact that a) there’s a great chunk of people on the field whose type of fun is entirely incompatible with what you and most of the people you tend to spend the most time with find fun, and b) in order to maintain the numbers that make the game viable, the game organisers need to take a “big tent” approach and produce something which appeals to a broad range of players.

The combination of these factors means that you can’t expect them to make decisions in line with what is fun for you all the time – sooner or later, they’re going to make decisions that are there to reinforce the fun of people whose priorities are different from, orthogonal to, or even actively contradictory with your own fun. And that’s going to be annoying to you, because it means the game is less fun for you, but the organisers decided that your fun needed to be compromised on for the health of the wider game ecosystem and they might be right.

Take that factor, and then apply it to an extensive organised play network where the central organisers are further removed from the action of the game itself, and you are going to expect to see similar things, but more often and more egregious, and that’s how most organised play schemes have seemed to me when they have tried to do the whole “Living Campaign” thing where the results at your table feed into the wider story. Knights of the Dinner Table unfolds in a world where it’s much more viable to run this sort of network, to the point where participating in them is the norm, and it’s important to remember this before thinking that some of the wilder tabletop experiments run in the comic could work in your own campaign.

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This sees the cross-campaign invasion wrapped up comparatively quickly so that it can be used to set up a “grudge match” storyline which runs through this whole Bundle and into the next one, so there’s not much to say about the A-plot here which I didn’t already just say about Bundle of Trouble 17. Oh, one of the players shows up in Drow cosplay complete with all-black face makeup – hence the presence of similar cosplayers on the cover – and yeah, no, don’t do that folks, it never ever ever looks good. Even if you don’t intend it as blackface, it looks enough like blackface that Community made a joke out of it. Go with purple or slate-grey or something which very obviously doesn’t correspond to any sort of human skin colour if you must go there, and maybe think about whether “skin colour is a distinctive indicator of being part of a mostly-evil species” is a trope you even want in your roleplaying to begin with for good measure.

That aside, there’s an interesting B-plot in this issue following up on the “Gary Jackson died” plot: the efforts by his ex-wife Heidi, who now controls Hard Eight, to exert her authority. She doesn’t come onstage yet – that would come substantially later – but there’s a strip where her attorney comes down and explains that Hard Eight is bleeding money to an unacceptable extent, and they are now going to have to tighten things up considerably if they are going to stay in business.

This is the first salvo in a plotline which would develop rather slowly over the next few years, but (at least from my recollection) was rather nicely done, not least because both sides here are largely in the right and largely in the wrong. On the one hand, Heidi’s lawyer clearly has no feel for the internal culture at Hard Eight, and he and Heidi don’t seem to care about RPGs that much.

On the other hand, the Hard Eight crew are digging their heels in and being needlessly resentful (to the point of being borderline misogynistic – perhaps primed to be such by Gary’s previous griping about Heidi), and ultimately Heidi has a point: the costs involved in producing a high-production-value RPG rulebook are very high compared to, say, novels, something which Heidi is very aware of.

The clever thing the writing team do here is establish that, even if Heidi doesn’t really understand or care all that much about tabletop RPGs, she does know publishing – she runs a successful fiction publishing company as her main job. Her concerns about Hard Eight’s business model might be based on the norms of a different industry, but she’s not some greedy dilettante who’s come into this inheritance and demands to know why it isn’t printing her more money, she’s a successful businesswoman who can recognise an astonishingly precarious business when she sees one. That being the case, Heidi keeping the lights on at Hard Eight at all is an act of altruism, since she could just shutter the thing and spend the money on growing her main business, which is much more profitable.

This is very much in keeping with other discussions I have seen of the economics of the RPG industry, where few indie RPGs make enough money that indie game design can be someone’s full-time job and many companies – even big ones – only turn a profit because they pay their freelancers a pittance, especially game designers (whose position is very precarious since there’s always hobbyists who’d be happy to turn their homebrew material into a gaming product for beer money).

I am reliably informed that RPG freelance design pays absolutely miserably, with rates that compare poorly to most other writing gigs including porn; in general, becoming involved in the RPG industry as a means to actually make an income and support yourself (rather than to get your labours of love out to the public whilst accepting that unless your products really take off and you build a significant fanbase it’s never going to be a full time job for you) is an economic trap that anyone would be well-advised to steer clear of. If you can produce literally any other type of writing, there’s other fields which pay substantially better. It’s like how the AAA videogame industry can inflict hideous working conditions of people in part because people really love the idea of working in videogames; some people are very keen to break into RPGs, and there are RPG publishers who are only too willing to exploit this to the hilt.

Perhaps because Kenzer & Company know how it is for a small business in the field (and, indeed, quite likely keep their tabletop side afloat in part from the Knights of the Dinner Table comic book revenue), this particular plot thread has actually turned out to prove remarkably astute in the long run. Remember, these stories were originally published in 2001, when the 3E D&D boom was taking off and everything looked to be plain sailing for Wizards of the Coast, and a mere 2 years after Wizards’ purchase by Hasbro. However, Jolly clearly has a sound business head on his shoulders because he recognises an important reality here: whenever a company finds itself a subsidiary of a different company, it’s in the position of continually needing to justify its parents’ continued investment and support of its endeavours.

If the subsidiary is a high-performing, profitable endeavour, there’s a basis to say “Hey, let’s not mess with a winning formula here” – but if ends up in a place where it’s unhealthy and bleeding money, then the parent company is left with the choice between letting it die on the vine or trying to turn it around, unless you have a Marvel situation where the IP produced by a subsidiary is valuable enough in the downstream to let the lights stay on in the comics division even though the MCU movies are where the big return on investment is to be found. And the tabletop RPG industry’s history shows that in this field, sooner or later your RPG’s going to run into a fallow period. Sure, Hackmaster is a widely-recognised brand in the world of the comic just as D&D is in our world, but as in our world that level of recognition only brings in so many people to the hobby, and it still has the problem where once you have sold someone the core rules they can basically play forever while never giving the publishers another dime.

And even if the subsidiary remains profitable, it only takes a change of heart at the parent company to put a damper on some of the subsidiary’s activities. In the long run, we have seen this with Wizards. The substantially slower release schedule for 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, with Wizards only putting out a couple of major new products a year rather than the stream of material that characterised previous editions, does have its silver lining – it makes the game easier to keep up with, it means the game is being expanded in a more cautious and deliberate manner, it makes it likely that the game will have a longer shelf life in its current form because it can be spun out over a longer period of time.

Nonetheless, it also seems likely that this is making a virtue out of a constraint – that Hasbro is simply not giving Dungeons & Dragons the RPG (as opposed to all the other board games, videogames, books, and other multimedia spin-offs of the D&D brand) the sort of budget which would be necessary to keep up the sort of release schedule seen in previous eras.

Wizards’ crop of people working exclusively on RPG design is substantially slimmer than it used to be, and significant amounts of the 5E ecosystem – like the production of virtual tabletop tools – has been spun out to licensees, rather than being kept in-house (so Wizards allows their licensees to get a cut of the action in return for the licensees taking on a lot of the financial risk of actually developing and supporting that stuff).

It is a stark contrast to the 4E days, with their much more rapid release schedule, plans for sequels to the core rulebooks along the lines of Player’s Handbook 2Dungeon Masters’ Guide 2, and Monster Manual 2 to continue to come out annually, and the virtual tabletop and especially the online character designer being sufficiently core to the concept that I know 4E fans for whom losing access to the Character Builder (or a similarly up to date samizdat counterpart) would be a dealbreaker for them.

Moreover, that game plan for 4E, where the virtual tabletop and its associated subscription model would be a cornerstone of the development process, was itself reported to be part of how 4E was pitched to Hasbro to persuade them to fund the creation of a new edition in the first place. One could speculate, in the light of all this, that to get Hasbro to greenlight 5E Wizards may have ended up advocating for a more modest approach – an outcome which this strip in a way ends up signposting. Indeed, it’d put the Hard Eight stories in a good place to tackle the controversies around the 4E edition wars years later – but that’s a story for then.

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This set of issues has a couple of plots that surround the “black die” tradition in Muncie’s gaming groups – wherein when someone attempts to join a gaming group the existing members of that group can exercise an vote on whether they can join by dropping dice into a container, and if any one of them uses their “black die” in this vote then the prospective member is rejected.

This is, of course, a device inspired by the practice of “blackballing”, as originated in old-style fraternal societies like the Freemasons and whatnot which, historically, used a system of voting on measures which required unanimity (the admission of new members being merely one example of such) by placing coloured marbles in a box, allowing for anyone who wished to vote against a measure to do so with confidence that their anonymity would not be compromised.

By itself, this is just a joke about how the gaming groups in question are tight-knit and insular, like the fraternal organisations which were formerly a big deal in American social life but have been declining for decades; one could argue, in fact, that gaming groups and clubs fill a similar niche to such organisations in the lives of participants, but have the benefit of a common interest in games binding members together rather than the more diffusely-defined spheres of interest of many fraternal outfits.

However, the way the stories in question utilise the black die also make them an interesting case story as to how a measure which could be devised for the best of reasons can, if implemented sloppily, end up being misused by bad actors as a gatekeeping measure. In particular, there’s a story set among the Knights set during the early days of Dave’s involvement in the group, where Brian hasn’t exercised his vote yet and holds it over Dave’s head, basically threatening to use it as a gatekeeping measure.

By the end of the story he’s relented, but it’s still kind of an ugly side to his character – a nasty exploit of the system, enabled by the fact that a) he wasn’t keeping his voting status anonymous, which made it possible for him to exert this pressure on Dave in the first place, and b) the group hadn’t required him to vote by a cut-off point, allowing him to do so for more or less as long as he liked.

I haven’t ever been involved in any tabletop groups which have had such a formalised blackballing process, though I would hope in most such cases that wouldn’t be necessary: if you are an established group you are presumably friends with each other, if you have serious reservations about playing with a potential new member of the group it should hopefully be possible for you to raise this with the other participants and for them to take it seriously, just like a friend should take this seriously in any other situation.

On the other hand, I have been involved in LARP events where a variety of blackballing has been used as a safeguarding measure. Due to the fact that they involve more people than a tabletop group, the odds that at least two of the people signing up for your LARP have serious interpersonal issues are that much higher (particularly since many of them have probably interacted with each other extensively at other LARPs and connected social circles).

In addition, LARP events can entail fairly long-term interactions (over the course of an entire weekend) in contexts where people might not necessarily be able to get away easily (for instance, if they caught a lift in another participant’s car to get to the event). If someone has behaved abusively towards you in the past, it’s obviously going to be a very fraught matter to be shut in a youth hostel with them for an entire weekend, even if there’s plenty of other people there.

I have seen LARPs take a policy where when you book you can name people who you absolutely do not wish to attend, with the expectation that the referees will respect this and refuse the bookings of anyone so vetoed by someone whose booking they have accepted. However, I’ve also seen an increasing understanding that such systems, whilst they do give abuse victims a really strong message that they can raise objections to someone’s presence and be taken seriously, can also be very badly misused.

In particular, a “no questions asked veto” system means that an abusive person acting in bad faith can in effect get their retaliation in first by putting in their own booking with their own abuse victim listed in the veto section; it can also provide cover for people exercising prejudice against other participants for illegitimate reasons, or exacerbate interpersonal conflict by creating a “mutually assured vetoing” situation.

It is also an approach which doesn’t really allow for proportionality. Perhaps A had a bad experience with B in the past – maybe even one where B was very clearly in the wrong – but A doesn’t necessarily think that barring B from a game is really necessary. Maybe A would just like reassurance that they will be able to keep their distance from B at the event, or that the referees won’t write plot which requires them to be in close proximity to B, or just wants to say something like “B gets inappropriately handsy when they’re drunk, how much alcohol is likely to be at this game?”

As such, I have seen more events lately where the policy is that if there’s someone whose attendance at the game would cause you a severe problem, you can name that on the booking form but that doesn’t prompt a veto – it means that if they try to book that prompts the organisers to discuss the matter with you to see what the issue is, what actions seem proportionate (if any), and so on. Another measure which seems useful is the publication of a full participant list prior to a game, so people can take a look at who’ll be showing up, spot anyone who might be an issue for them, and make an informed choice about whether to attend after all and/or whether to raise a problem with the game organisers.

Is this sort of safeguard proportionate or sensible for a tabletop group? In some respects it seems unlikely. Being together with someone in one room for a few hours in front of four other people can be fairly intense, and if you really don’t want to be in the room with someone who has badly mistreated you in the past, you shouldn’t feel like you have to and true friends won’t ask you to.

On the other hand, in a face to face tabletop session there’s much less scope for participants to find themselves alone with each other than there is in a LARP, where participants are roving around a larger space. I am aware of some very grim things that have happened at LARPs (often at fest-level events – sadly, if you get 1000s of people in a field, it’s an unfortunate statistical uncertainty that a small proportion of those people will be utterly awful assholes – but smaller events have their own risks) which it simply wouldn’t be viable to do at a gaming table, because it requires the absence of witnesses who might intervene.

On the third hand, many tabletop sessions happen online these days; the steady growth of online tabletop having been nudged into hyperdrive by the pandemic. Whilst this sort of online interaction precludes in-person nastiness, it also often means making your direct message inbox open to other participants in the game – and given the tendency of some creeps to issue forth unsolicited dick pics in much stranger contexts, you can’t rule out the possibility of some socially maladjusted person showing up to an online convention game or something and then sleazing on people until they’re thrown out.

So there’s a balance to hit. Too much safeguarding becomes obnoxious gatekeeping. But on the other hand, creeps have a way of casting around until they find a social context where they can fly under the radar. Maybe your tight-knit group of old friends doesn’t need this sort of safeguarding – but if you are putting together a new group of strangers, or running a convention or local meetup, it’s a good idea to think about participant safeguarding. Because if you are running the convention or meetup that isn’t trying to keep an eye out for creeps, then the creeps the others justifiably show the door to will show up at yours.

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This is a bit of a “back to basics” Bundle – after the tournament arc wrapped up in the previous compilation, there was a stretch of issues where the comic returned to the core formula and focused on just B.A.’s home campaign, both in the main story and in the side stories not set in the timeline of the current campaign that broke up the pacing and provided more bite-size laughs alongside the longform plotline.

That plot here involved the Knights finally getting back in control of the Untouchable Trio – or, rather, the proteges of the previous iteration of the Trio, who’d finally been returned to B.A.’s campaign as NPCs and killed off through various flavours of rules shenanigans. The specific details on how this ended up happening isn’t particularly important for the purpose of this article series because it entails a particular set of rules and associated institutional framework around Hackmaster gameplay in the character’s universe which simply doesn’t exist around any tabletop RPG in our own world.

However, the plot line does end up throwing up two points of interest. The first is a pep talk B.A. gets from Weird Pete when the dust has settled. B.A. is despondent because he regards the Untouchable Trio (or a variant thereof) returning to the campaign as a failure on his part, because the Trio usually cause the campaign to go completely off the rails. Pete points out that despite all the strife in the Knights’ game, they all still turn up week-in week-out to play his game – so by that metric, it clearly is a success.

I think this perspective risks overlooking the fact that the referee is also a participant at the game table and has a right to their own enjoyment: nobody should expect someone to gamemaster a campaign which they don’t enjoy. On the other hand, if your enjoyment is closely tied to whether your players are enjoying themselves, and so long as you’ve accomplished that you feel the exercise is worthwhile, then that’s great.

This really feels like a moral the strip has been building towards for the decade or so of its existence, at least by accident – now the comic has been going for this long, the only plausible reason for the Knights to keep showing up to B.A.’s game is that they like the game and they basically like playing with each other. (By contrast, the Black Hands seem to play together solely because nobody else will put up with them, hence the much more dysfunctional dynamic.)

Another point comes up was the new-old characters are introduced, and Bob, Dave, and Brian insist on properly roleplaying through them finding out about the demise of their former mentors, much to B.A. and Sara’s surprise. The point here is that when people have some aspect of the game world that they’ve invested emotional weight into over the course of the campaign – in the Knights’ case, their former PCs – they’ll naturally tend to treat it more seriously and be less inclined to gloss over the deeper roleplaying associated with it.

This feels like an important landmark in the Knights maturing as players. Some people drift away from tabletop RPGs before anything like this happens, but I suspect with many people who stick with the hobby, they find that as time goes by they want to dial up the serious roleplaying a bit more if the subject matter merits it, especially if the issue at hand is something which they have ended up emotionally investing in over the course of the game.

For some gamers, of course, emotional investment in characters or roleplaying or storylines is just a crock and they want to get down and dirty with the more game-y parts of the game. I rather suspect that many such gamers have either drifted away from RPGs over the years, or only play a fairly narrow range of games which happen to scratch that particular gameplay itch, rather than really being part of the “core” RPG audience any more – particularly when you get away from games like D&D which are much more amenable to a series of tactical combat encounters being the focus of play. Fundamentally, there’s many better options for those sort of people which have a similar aesthetic but involve less of the stuff they find dull – like the various dungeon-crawler boardgames out there, or World of Warcraft.

There may still be a niche for “high Gamist” RPGs out there, but I think it is difficult to produce them, partly because well-engineered rules with lots of tactical options take a lot of work to get right (look at how many iterations of errata 4E D&D had) and partly because there’s a lot of competition in that space not just from other RPGs but also from other types of game. I feel like they are also the sort of thing which is best served by going beyond just rulebook, pen and paper, and theatre of the mind: it calls for minis, terrain, and perhaps cards and other aids for keeping game stuff straight (much as Fantasy Flight attempted with the 3rd Edition of WFRP), which is economically much harder to provide than just a book you can upload to DTRPG and activate the print-on-demand options on.

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