Many things changed during my absence from the hobby. In fact, so many things changed in the 10-15 years I spent away from RPGs that I am almost tempted to say that RPG culture has changed more in the last ten years than in the thirty years that preceded it. Take a gamer from the late 1970s and drop them into a game shop in the late 1990s and it would not take them all that long to adapt. Take a gamer from the 1990s and drop them into the hobby today and I seem to spend my time reeling from one conceptual stumbling block to another.
One of the biggest differences between RPG culture now and RPG culture twenty years ago is that it is now possible to get paid to run games. It’s not just that this is now a socially acceptable thing to do, it’s also that there is an infrastructure and a set of norms governing how to present oneself, how to find customers, and how to build your reputation as a professional game-runner.
My first impression of this development was to be somewhat opposed to it… Every session I have ever run has been for friends, family, or fellow travellers and so the idea of getting paid to run games conjures images of people being invited to dinner and offering to pay for their meal. However, the more I thought about the phenomenon, the more I realised the wrong-headed and out-datedness of that first impression…
Watching the Detectives is a series of posts about drawing inspiration from fictitious paranormal investigators, occult detectives, police psychics, and monster hunters. The rest of the series can be found here.
The further we advance into the 21st Century, the shorter our memories become. Social media platforms run on engagement and engagement demands content. This perpetual demand for greater and greater amounts of content has resulted in hype cycles that last days, trends that burn out after a couple of weeks, and identities that collapse after a few months: Blink and you’ll miss a punk-pop revival or a 90s fashion flashback.
We live in an age of ever-accelerating cultural churn. A churn designed to produce cultural moments that matter intensely right up until the second they are dropped and everyone moves on. Back in October, saying that the trailers for Marvel’s Eternals looked terrible would get you denounced in the worst terms imaginable and then everyone just stopped caring and moved on to the next vale of tears.
This sense of perpetual acceleration can make it intensely strange to look back at older cultural products. Some IP is forever green because people have devoted billions to ensure it stays that way but move beyond the narrow range of intellectual property supported by 21st Century capitalism and you start stumbling across stuff that feels like it might have fallen through the cracks from another universe.
For example, James Herbert began his writing career in the 1970s and went on to sell 54 Million books in dozens of different languages. The son of a market trader who insisted upon designing all of his own covers, Herbert died in 2012 a multi-millionaire with an OBE and yet, for all the excitement his name bears in the 21st Century, he might as well have been a 1980s TV presenter or one of the Tudor playwrights who didn’t happen to be either Marlowe or Shakespeare.
What little fame the Herbert name retains is born of his first two novels; The Rats and The Fog. However, Herbert would go on to write a further 21 novels of which the David Ash series comprises three: Haunted, The Ghosts of Sleath, and Herbert’s last novel Ash. Though the series may have begun in the late 1980s and spanned four decades, the vibe of the series remained rooted in the 1970s of tight trousers and shirts unbuttoned to reveal suggestive amounts of chest hair.
Games Half Remembered is an occasional series about old games. Some of these games I have played, others I have merely admired, but all of them have stuck in my memory for one reason or another. The rest of the series can be found here.
There’s hiding your light under a bushel and then there’s Shadowrun.
For Real is an occasional series about scary, horrific, and unsettling stuff that presents itself as non-fiction. This might include the paranormal as well as true crime and odd occurrences. The rest of the series can be found here.
The British stand-up comedian Stewart Lee once did a routine about British attitudes towards political correctness. While the term ‘politically correct’ has been partially replaced by ‘woke’, there’s a similar degree of confusion as to what this concept actually means. In Britain, political correctness started out as an attempt to confront overt racism by claiming that the use of racist, sexist, or homophobic language falls outside of the boundaries of polite discourse. Regardless of whether or not it’s morally wrong to hurl slurs at your co-workers, it’s kind of rude. Over the years, as boundaries of politeness started to shift, people began using the term ‘political correctness’ to refer to any kind of bureaucratic meddling in existing processes. Thus, according to Lee, was born a generation of people who seem to confuse political correctness with health and safety legislation.
The reason for this slippage is that most people only encounter health and safety legislation in the context of being told that they aren’t allowed to do something they want to do. Thus, the fictional bureaucrat informing you that you’re not allowed to black up for the Christmas party has merged with the fictional bureaucrat informing you that you’re not allowed to do tequila slammers while operating a chainsaw.
One of the big lessons I took from my return to regular gaming under Lockdown was the need to re-examine old ideas. As I have said before, I returned to gaming convinced that I was a pretty good GM but I soon realised that my perceived competence was more a result of unchanging habit and unquestioned bluster than real skill.
One of the ideas I wanted to re-examine – Particularly in the wake of my experiences playing Dewey’s Ten Candles – was my resistance to the idea of non-traditional RPGs. By “non-traditional RPGs”, I mean the kinds of games developed by the designers who used to post to the Forge message board as well as the people who would then go on to operate under such rubrics as ‘indie’ or ‘story’ games.
I am aware that this describes a hell of a lot of games and covers a hell of a lot of ludic territory and so a more accurate description of the kinds of game I tended to ignore would be games that challenge the power structures of traditional gaming tables by deconstructing the role of the Game Master by re-distributing narrative responsibilities more equally throughout the group.
For ages, I refused to engage with this type of game. Then I returned to gaming and decided to give them a go. Not for the first time in my life, I wound up feeling a sense of profound shame and sadness over my own pig-headed stupidity.
Canon Fodder is an occasional series in which I write about classic works of horror fiction. This particular part of the series is devoted to the complete published works of H.P. Lovecraft, which I will slowly be working my way through.
Please forgive this brief divergence from standard format but our chronology has brought us to the point where Lovecraft decided to try his hand at satirical parody. Most collections tend to gloss over these stories as they aren’t particularly Lovecraftian, but I would argue they both deserve attention, if only for what they suggest about HPL’s creative process and self-perception at the time.