A Draconic Autopsy

Histories of D&D and TSR have become thick on the ground. Representing the gold standard – in terms of completeness, standard of scholarship, and avoiding a slide into hagiography – are the works of Jon Peterson, such as Playing At the World (covering the design and initial publication of OD&D), The Elusive Shift (digesting the early fan discourse within the RPG fandom), and Game Wizards (covering TSR in the years under the control of Gary Gygax and the Blume brothers).

Peterson’s books hit the high standard they do largely because he primarily bases his research on surviving contemporary documents, which aren’t prone to the misrememberings, mythologisings, evasions, and other inaccuracies which creep in when you’re looking at statements made by participants, especially long after the fact. On the other hand, relying on witness evidence offered up decades down the line can often be more fun; Kent David Kelly’s Hawk & Moor series might be much more reliant on such recollections, but some of the material it is able to dredge up is pretty juicy.

Ben Riggs’ Slaying the Dragon takes a bit of a middle route here – Riggs admits his reliance on interviews with a good many of the primary actors in the story he’s telling, but he does a good job of flagging where this is the case, noting where he wasn’t able to talk to significant actors who might otherwise have given a different perspective, and even points out instances where he double-checked claims with other interviewees to corroborate some testimony. In addition, he is able to make some significant coups in terms of turning up documentation, and flags when he’s able to rely on that information in order to present his narrative.

Perhaps more importantly, though, Riggs extends the story into a period which has so far been poorly served by existing work. So far, most of the histories out there have tended to give a lot of attention to the Gygax-helmed era of TSR, and comparatively little to what came afterwards. Peterson and Kelly’s histories haven’t advanced the timeline past the Gygax era, but at least have the excuse of covering it in sufficient detail that giving a similar treatment to the Williams years would be a major undertaking in itself. Some of the more hagiographic treatments of the story have tended to either sing the praises of Saint Gary (a term Riggs uses here in jest – he doesn’t buy into the whitewashing of Gygax’s reputation) or maximise the role of Dave Arneson. (Riggs takes the position, which I think is the most reasonable one, that OD&D was the sort of thing which needed Arneson to come up with the seed idea in the first place, but Gygax to turn it into a product that could actually be sold to an audience and give them a faint hope of replicating something approximating similar gameplay.) Other, general histories like Shannon Appelcine’s Designers & Dragons have given broad overviews but haven’t gone into depth.

Slaying the Dragon, on the other hand, takes a much different approach. It dispatches the Gygax-helmed era in some 61 pages, and spends over 200 subsequent pages going into a deep dive on the next phase of TSR – the era which would see its critical and artistic zenith, its decline and fall, its purchase of TSR by Wizards of the Coast, and the initial phase of repairing burned bridges which Peter Adkison and Lisa Stevens of Wizards had to undertake.

In other words, this is the first deep dive into the Lorraine Williams era of TSR we’ve seen.

Continue reading “A Draconic Autopsy”

Apparently the “Old School” Comes Complete With School Bullies

As some of you might remember, I know Emily Allen in real life – that’s why I was able to land that interview with her about Esoteric Enterprises a while back. In the interests of both news reportage, signal-boosting, and generally wanting to support a friend, I’d like to direct your attention to two recent posts she’s made on her blog.

First, there was her announcement late last month that she’s pivoting away from writing OSR material to write some 5E stuff. Her explanation both of why she felt the need to do this and what she’s trying to do there is interesting and thoughtful, and in an ideal world that would be it. (Honestly, go read it even if you don’t care about the drama aspects of this post, that melancholic journey into the deep Shadowfell she’s talking about sounds intriguing.)

Then, however, she decided that she needed to explain her estrangement from the OSR community more clearly, in a post from a couple of days ago.

It makes for grim reading, and for the most part I don’t need to add much more to it. To summarise for those of you who are too busy to click the link, Emily explains that a range of harassing, bullying behaviours have been directed at her, stemming directly from her involvement in the OSR. In case you want to grasp for a straw of plausible deniability, the behaviour Emily describes does not exclusively relate to the random trolling of people who could be brushed off as not really involved in the OSR community – there’s also stuff where Emily knows exactly who has done or said something, and it’s been OSR people.

Are all OSR folk terrible? I’d like to think not, but it’s clear that there’s some severely bad actors in the scene, and generally speaking subcultural scenes get that way because they’ve made those bad actors welcome and aren’t making the effort to push them away.

The takeaway line, for me, is this:

Is this level of toxicity unique to the OSR? No, I’ve seen 40k fans. But the OSR is absolutely one of the worst scenes I’ve been involved with (and I like black metal!). 

So you can’t hide behind “all scenes have bad actors”. Emily’s fully aware of that and has been/is involved in scenes with astonishingly bad actors. Some scenes (or some parts of some scenes) make a proactive effort to clean house. Others don’t.

It sounds like the OSR either needs to do better or get used to some of its most talented and original voices exiting.

Incidentally, cards on the table: my comments section is not an unfettered free speech zone and never has been, and I’ve never been keen on approving comments which endorse unacceptable behaviour or espouse bigotry even when the subject under discussion is a total stranger to me. I’m certainly not going to provide a platform on here for people who are coming after one of my actual friends.

Two Designers Enter, Two Designers Leave

When it comes both to the designers writing the game materials and the publishers releasing them commercially, Dungeons & Dragons is in a Ship of Theseus situation: Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, and TSR as a whole ceased being involved in the game’s publication decades ago, and have ceased participating in mortal life in general for a good while at that (setting aside recent attempts to revive the TSR name, with varying levels of personal dignity and good taste involved).

However, whilst companies cease to exist once they have been dissolved as legal entities, human beings often kick around for much longer after you’ve dismissed them. After he was turfed out of TSR in 1985 and control ended up in the hands of Lorraine Williams, Gary Gygax saw to it that his version of events was promulgated far and wide. Years later, when the Internet was a thing and when forums like Dragonsfoot, through their advocacy of pre-Wizards of the Coast editions of D&D, were laying the foundations of what would later become the OSR, Gary was only too glad to make posts further pushing his recollections, fuzzy though the passage of time may have made some of them.

Dave Arneson, by contrast, was a somewhat quieter figure for the last decade or two of his life. However, this was not always the case. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, in the aftermath of his departure from TSR, he would vociferously promote his own version of events, especially when his years-long dispute with his former employers over the D&D royalties situation kicked into high gear. Even at this early stage, Dungeons & Dragons was already the 800 pound gorilla of the RPG market, with success of orders of magnitude greater than its competitors, and TSR had a tendency to throw that weight around; this created enough resentment that Arneson found many willing to accept his side of the story.

Such situations where competing narratives about an event obscure the truth are far from uncommon in history, and it’s the mark of a good historian to be able to pierce through them and provide an account supported by the facts and dispelling the misconceptions generated by years of gossip and rhetoric. Game Wizards, published as part of the Game Histories range from MIT Press, is Jon Peterson’s latest attempt to do exactly that.

Continue reading “Two Designers Enter, Two Designers Leave”

They Sued Regularly

2021 marks an interesting anniversary: it marks the point when TSR’s been dead and buried for longer than its original lifespan (1973-1997, a run of 24 years). From this year onwards, Wizards of the Coast will have been in control of D&D for longer than TSR ever was.

Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, Shannon Appelcline of Designers & Dragons fame just posted an interesting RPG.net column documenting the various infamous legal entanglements of TSR over their lifespan. What’s particularly interesting is the evolution over time; at first, TSR were actually being pretty co-operative, and there’s a possible alternate universe where they continued to play nice with licensors all through their lifespan, much as Chaosium have over the years. (Whether they survived longer in that universe or not is a different question.)

It was only later when they started burning bridges and getting more ruthless in their business practices that they started attracting legal disputes – and then got more aggressive. When I came into the hobby, Internet wags’ second-favourite nickname for TSR (after “T$R”) was “They Sue Regularly”, stimulated in part by the company’s utterly needless (and legally baseless) own goals when it came to aggressively going after fansites posting homebrew material. The article’s pretty decent at covering this history – check it out.

A Long-Standing Conflict of Interest At Kickstarter Has Been Corrected

Long-term readers of this blog – or people stumbling across it in Google results – may recall two previous articles about controversies involving Luke Crane’s Kickstarters, the first concerning the Burning Wheel refund controversy and the second concerning the kerfuffle over The Perfect RPG, the latter in my view being somewhat more egregious in the grand scheme of things.

One of the conclusions I reached in connection to those two situations was that Luke Crane’s role at Kickstarter seemed to involve some inherent conflicts of interest – first having authority over the gaming division before reaching the rank of Vice President. During both Kickstarters, his role meant that he would have significant influence over the very section of the site his projects would be classified in.

(OK, sure, once he was a Vice President he was no longer specifically in charge of the games side of stuff – but if you’re running the games division at Kickstarter and a VP instructed you to do something, would you feel obliged to do it? I’d certainly think there’d be an expectation I would follow instructions given by someone on that level.)

In the case of The Perfect RPG, despite that project only being up for a scarce few hours, it very quickly gained the “Projects We Love” tag, which carries with it some benefits in terms of both being a perceived endorsement from Kickstarter and some benefits in Kickstarter’s promotional algorithms compared to projects that don’t have the accolade.

As I previously said, I think the only really tenable way for Kickstarter to operate would be to say that Kickstarter staff should not also run Kickstarters. Permitting this allows the same sort of blurring of the rules as, say, when gamekeepers and poachers start getting very comfortable relationships with each other. Even if nothing corrupt happens as a result, it creates a perception of nepotism and corruption which can almost be as damaging as the actual thing.

I also felt that if Kickstarter did not feel able to impose such a restriction on their staff, then they at the very least should expect their staff to regard themselves as on the clock when running their Kickstarters, and to run them in a comprehensively exemplary fashion, because if Kickstarter staff can get away with shitty practices or dodgy communication when running their own projects that either sends a message that it’s OK for anyone to do it, or (if other people get punished for the same nonsense) that Kickstarter staff get special benefits when running projects that other project owners simply don’t – which is nepotism and corruption, pure and simple.

Well, it’s resolved now, Luke is out, as per a statement to Polygon from Kickstarter, so the conflict of interest with respect to him is now gone.

I note that in his latest update to The Perfect RPG, apologising for the project, Luke addresses various subjects to varying degrees of effectiveness. He does not comment on his role at Kickstarter in any respect – not even to mention he is stepping away from it, despite Kickstarter announcing his departure to Polygon – let alone give any thought to the conflict of interest it represented.

One would hope that, even if Luke is not thinking about conflicts of interest at all, others at Kickstarter are.

Why You Might Be Hearing Some Fuss About Another Luke Crane Kickstarter

Update 28/03/2021: Luke Crane has now left Kickstarter.

A while ago I backed a Luke Crane project on Kickstarter. It didn’t end well, for reasons I have outlined elsewhere.

Now Luke Crane is running his Perfect RPG Kickstarter, a little zine of fun little micro-RPGs based around a droll little joke “Perfect RPG” concept. It’s a neat idea, but it’s kicked off more controversy.

I have not backed The Perfect RPG because Luke Crane has made it clear he doesn’t want my money, and I’m happy to go with that. But I figure since “Luke Crane Kickstarter controversy” might be a common search term in the near future, I’d throw up my view on what’s currently going on so people who make their way to these parts as a result of that needn’t feel like their time was wholly wasted.

So far as I can tell, the sequence of events is this:

  • The Perfect RPG Kickstarter goes live.
  • People notice that Adam Koebel is listed as one of the contributors to the project.
  • People remember that Adam did a really shitty thing on a livestream a while back, and followed it up with apologies which many felt didn’t ring true or came across as somewhat self-centred.
  • People ask Luke and other contributors about this.
  • A non-zero number of those other contributors say “Wait, Adam Koebel is contributing to this?” and yank their contributions.
  • Luke cancels the project hours after it opened.

There are some further wrinkles which may come up in whatever report on this has prompted your curiosity about this, which I may as well address.

Continue reading “Why You Might Be Hearing Some Fuss About Another Luke Crane Kickstarter”

Blood In the Chocolate, Controversy At the ENnies

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.

Continue reading “Blood In the Chocolate, Controversy At the ENnies”

Kickstopper: Backing Away From the Edge

Atlas Games seems to have undertaken a slow process of updating their 1990s RPG portfolio via the medium of Kickstarter. Following the campaigns for a new edition of Feng Shui and Unknown Armies there came the inevitable and long-rumoured bid to revive Over the Edge.

This seems, on the face of it, to be a somewhat challenging prospect. Jonathan Tweet’s not offered much in the way of new Over the Edge material in recent years – indeed, before this Kickstarter it had been well over a decade since any new products had come out in the game line. Whereas when it first came out it genuinely represented a bundle of fresh new ideas both in terms of RPG system design and setting concepts, a quarter of a century has passed by and the field has evolved extensively since then.

Heck, a certain amount of that evolution was at Tweet’s own hands. In terms of really pushing the envelope in terms of how loosey-goosey you could make a traditional RPG system and how avant-garde a setting you can get, Everway arguably left Over the Edge in the dust. 3rd Edition D&D, which he was the lead designer on, may have had its flaws, but it does at least represent one of the most major system shake-ups that D&D has had since its inception, and yet at the same time succeeded far better at selling audiences on its reforms than 4th Edition did.

Whilst 3.X could hardly be said to be a revolutionary system – it’s basically TSR-era D&D with a swathe of ideas borrowed from Rolemaster, especially in terms of characrer generation – there’s no denying that it was an influential one, in part due to the glut of D20 knock-off products yielded by the OGL. Thankfully, the tide has receded and the floodwaters have sunk in recent years – to my eyes, it seems like the RPG game design ecosystem is much healthier in terms of diversity of system than it was at the height of the D20 craze – but the end result is still a generation of gamers who one way or another have had their attitude to system shaped by 3.X D&D – either through their embrace of it, or through their reactions against it.

On top of all that, away from Tweet’s own projects other games seem to have rather stolen his thunder in terms of some of the more unique setting and atmosphere aspects of Over the Edge, with Unknown Armies absolutely nailing the postmodern weirdness angle (especially in terms of the occultism-tinged aspects of it) and the various World of Darkness and Chronicles of Darkness games taking the whole “urban environment in which weird stuff goes on in the shadows” concept and wringing everything they could out of it.

Is Over the Edge redundant, then? Or is there cause to believe it can be revived? Let’s dig deeper and see…

Continue reading “Kickstopper: Backing Away From the Edge”

Something You Should Know About Adam Koebel

28th February 2021 Update: When I wrote this article I called it Something You Should Know Before Giving Money To the Dungeon World Guys. At the time, it wasn’t apparent to me that Dungeon World co-author Sage LaTorra had dissociated himself from Adam, but based on LaTorra’s actions in pulling his work from an RPG zine which he’d contributed to without being told that Koebel would also be participating in the project, I’ve decided to edit the title to more specifically focus on Adam. (The old URL will remain because I don’t want to break incoming links to this, hence putting this explanatory note at the top.)

10th June 2020 Update: Adam has put out a fuller apology. It’s kind of bad, not least because it’s astonishingly me-centred and first plays down the incident as “a mistake”, and then characterises it as a “creative risk”. Jaron Johnson has done an excellent summary of the apology, along with the incident and its aftermath here. The player directly affected by Adam’s behaviour has a good Twitter thread here which, among other things, disclosed how the aftermath of the session went. Suffice to say, whilst the players held it together on-air to the end of the episode, the aftermath of the episode was very different – and included Adam trying to cajole the players into doing one of their post-episode aftertalk videos despite the affected player being obviously and visibly upset, and all the rest of the players trying to take the view that it was absolutely not the time for that.


So Dungeon World co-creator Adam Koebel also does actual play videos with RollPlay, with his Far Verona campaign recently concluding its second season.

The reason the second season concluded is that it was cancelled, and the reason it was cancelled is that Adam sprung a sexual assault encounter on one of his players without warning. The player directly affected, Elspeth Eastman, has recorded her explanation of events here; RollPlay have not edited the episode in question so if you really want to see what happens you can if you like. (It’s the last encounter of the session, beginning about 1 hours 16 minutes in, I am not going to link it here because I don’t want to needlessly increase its exposure; if you really want to see it you can search in YouTube.)

Adam’s apology video, which I won’t link here because I really don’t think it passes muster in any respect, largely tries to pass this off as an “oops, we didn’t talk about people’s lines and veils or any other sort of safeguarding stuff before the game started and by the time it got awkward it was too late” situation.

I’m sorry, that just doesn’t cut it. That is shit you say when, for example, you have a giant spider encounter and didn’t realise that one of your players has a phobia of spiders. You shouldn’t need people to tell you that sexual assault isn’t something they are cool with happening in a game: it’s one of those topics where you need to get people to specifically agree to it prior to anything happening before you even include it in a game.

You should goddamn know that sexual assault is the sort of topic which you don’t introduce to a game without some sort of conversation, and if you have not had that conversation, you shouldn’t do it. Nobody as active on the indie RPG scene as Adam should be unaware of this. More disturbingly, for reasons I will get into later in this post, it honestly seems like Adam didn’t at the time recognise that what happened was essentially sexual assault, when the issues with consent in the encounter in question should have made it wholly goddamn obvious that it was an assault.

On top of that, as Elspeth notes what is done to her player character is radically at odds with what she had requested for the PC’s character arc in previous discussions with Adam. Supposedly he passed it off to her as him misreading her intentions, but the intention was for the character – a robot bartender who’d been cast aside by his former owner – to learn to be more assertive and say “no” to people more often and exert more agency. An encounter in which that agency is taken away from them is not how you accomplish this.

I simply can’t take Adam’s apology seriously. You cannot credibly apologise for something if you do not actually understand what you did wrong, or do not really consider what you did to be all that wrong, and Adam’s apology is so lacklustre and misses the point so much that I think he must still either doesn’t understand what he did wrong, or is unwilling to say that it was actually all that wrong. Yes, some form of conversation about lines and veils and an X-card mechanic should have happened, he’s correct to say that. But he totally fails to address why he thought it was appropriate to do such a scene without prior discussion in the first place, especially on a stream which a significant online audience was watching.

Now, people have taken this up with him, and he’s since made a somewhat better apology – but I dunno, folks. It feels a bit rehearsed, a bit stiff – like he’s gone over the immediate backlash to his initial apology and tried to craft something which makes the right noises. In other words, it’s not an apology intended to convey his actual feelings of contrition, it’s an attempt to stop people shouting at him by saying what he thinks they want to hear. If he is going to step away from starting any new campaigns and do the work on himself to work out why the fuck he considered it appropriate in the moment and avoid doing it again, great, good on him – but I’m going to believe he’s done the work when I see the results.

In particular, take a good strong look at his wording: he is going to work on himself before he starts new campaigns to sort his head out, and in his existing campaigns he is going to implement safeguarding measures. If you read that in a hurry that might sound good, but it’s not, because it’s a honking great contradiction. There are only two things which can be true here, neither of which match what Adam is doing in terms of actively continuing his existing streamed campaigns:

  • Good safeguarding is a sufficient and proportionate safeguard for his existing campaigns. In which case it should be fine for new campaigns too and there’s no good reason for him to beg off on starting new ones due to this situation; the statement that he is going to do so is a meaningless PR gesture, and in general if your apology includes a meaningless PR gesture as opposed to something you actually sincerely mean that kind of means the apology is probably bullshit.
  • Adam has realised his internalised attitudes are dangerous enough that he really should not start running new campaigns until he has sorted them out, even with safeguarding techniques. In which case, those same techniques won’t be sufficient for his existing campaigns and he should stop running those too, and by not doing so he is deliberately endangering his players, because, by his own admission, he has realised he cannot control himself in this respect and needs to do significant self-examination before he can be trusted again.

I bet that by the time his existing campaigns are done and he needs to start a new one to keep the e-fame flowing, he’ll discover that actually, the work he’d done on himself whilst his existing campaigns were running was sufficient, no need for a break at all. What convenient timing!

Of course, you may feel different about this and that’s your right. But if this does bother you and you were intending to promote or put down money for Dungeon World, it might be worth thinking about how you feel around promoting Adam’s work in light of this.

(Content warning: from here on in I am going to go more into the specifics of the incident)

Continue reading “Something You Should Know About Adam Koebel”