Friday, January 13, 2023

Dungeons and Dragons, tabletop RPGs, and the threat of cultural vasectomy


I've not been gaming a lot these days because of my work in a law firm and evenings preparing for my next ERM course. But of late, it has been hard to be D&D fan because woke creatives have overrun my favourite hobby. The straw that broke my back was the umbrage directed at different racial categories like Orc, Elf and Dwarf, which somehow reminded some players of racial discrimination in the real world. 

In modern gaming, folks can find any excuse to get offended by something, so the concept of races has been relabelled as species so some folks will not get butthurt.

The past 48 hours have been dramatic for folks following what's happening to the D&D world. Apparently, in an ill-fated move to attempt to monetise the hobby more, the business suits in Hasbro managed to alienate the entire player base when they tried to withdraw the Open Gaming License that is the rice bowl of creators and supporters of the hobby. Just today, angry fans began to unsubscribe from the game portal, prompting the company to cancel an announcement of the new Open Gaming License.  

The drama is still going on; right now, anything can happen to the hobby.

Although I'm not really vested in any outcome, given that my last D&D game was over a year ago, I just want to see a constant change in my hobby. Like in all things, some changes will be welcomed ( like not-so-good paladins who love smiting infidels and the occasional fey), and some changes ( like changing races to species) will not.

As great as a hobby was for me, I don't want it to get stuck in the past.

I'm casually reminded of the concept of "cultural vasectomy". This arises when going retro completely dominates a medium like music, and we get so fixated on what's good with the past we forget to build something new for the future. Similarly, D&D's market share is so enormous thanks to shows like Critical Role and the incompetence of competing brands like Pathfinder, which will reduce their propensity for genuine innovation.

Just take a look at TTRPG gamers from my generation. Are they really growing? Stuck in the 1990s reading Sandman and any of Alan Moore's works, getting all twisted and angry with Amazon's Rings of Power because Galadriel was not meant to be such a feminist icon. Vampires can only be cool if they are modelled after Anne Rice novels, but Twilight sparkly vampires are sacrilege ( I play a sparkly Ventrue called Edward Cullen ! ). Gen X gamers traffic in cultural capital that depreciated aeons ago. Like those uncles who went to the U2 concert or listened to Depeche Mode.

How cool is that?

D&D5E is no longer changing because its creators do not wish to release a lousy edition. That has happened more than once. If they only make incremental changes to the rules, then we will always remain in the grip of this Millenial gamer's cultural vasectomy. I suspect the secret to excellent editions of D&D comes from shit editions published before.

So this is what I hope to see in the hobby:

  • Hasbro doubling down to kill the Open Gaming License. They bet on loyal die-hard fans of the hobby who will sustain them and pay for their books. If they got the balls to do that, they could count me as a loyal buyer of their books. 
  • The shitstorm peaks and the industry retaliates by launching a newer open gaming license. Let a thousand flowers bloom.
  • The industry fractures with Pathfinder and OneD&D taking market shares close to each other.
  • Plenty of competing RPG rulesets emerge as alternatives to Pathfinder and D&D, most will have a small market share, but some may have a dedicated and loyal fan base. Like Worlds of Synnibar.
  • Eventually, Hasbro restores the D&D licence under their control but slowly corners a smaller, more loyal fan base. This fanbase can consist of pariahs, just like in the 1980s. It can bring back the old 1st Edition grappling rules and THACO.
  • Players can choose between D&D (the Orthodox Church), Pathfinder (the Protestant movement) or hundreds of alternatives (Shrine to Petty Gods)
  • All purported groups in Singapore claiming to be a gamer's league eventually cannot sustain so many different rulesets so we all devolve into small groups of gamers who play mainly at home or through Zoom. 
  • So no more cults of personality in this part of the gaming world.
Anyway, I doubt Hasbro has the guts to do what I hope, but we shall see. 

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