Bullying and the Paradox of Tolerance

Content Warning: this post contains references to bullying, abuse, gatekeeping, body shaming, and contains strong language.

In the tabletop role-playing community there has always been the issue of bullying. I faced it many times while playing. Maybe more than others, because I have always been very vocal. Numerous times I have acted as the “lightning rod” to pull a bully’s attention away from another. Most importantly, when I see it, I call it out. I do not tolerate that kind of behavior at my table or in my life.

This is an issue which plagues the TTRPG community. We do not like to bring it up. There is a very basic reason for that. The TTRPG community has always been a “fringe” community. Despite the current popularity of D&D thanks in part to media like Stranger Things and Critical Role, TTRPGs have had a tendency to pull in people who just don’t fit in with mainstream culture. In essence, the players it attracts are people who have themselves been the target of social harassment because they are “different”. Because humans love to categorize other humans with binary logic, there is a mental breakdown within the TTRPG community that as a group who has been bullied for being “weird” or “different”, we in turn cannot be bullies.

[Please note: this is purely on the issue of bullying and harassment within the TTRPG community, and is not going to delve into other accusations or claims regarding Critical Role, a source of media that I personally do not consume. However, this particular issue is one I have been following, as it deals explicitly with an issue I have been fighting for decades.]

This does not logically follow. One does not cease to exist upon being the target of bullying or harassment. This is not like murder, where once a person is murdered, then that is it. They cannot in turn become a murderer after being murdered (yes, I know that they could have somehow set a bomb, etc., but arguably they already became in intent a murderer before their own demise). That is because their ability to do anything further has been stopped. Not so for the victim of bullying. They are not over. They can even actively be engaged in bullying when they themselves are being bullied.

Example from my real life: there were two kids in middle school who constantly made fun of me. We all played trumpet in band (I did not play it well, but I gave it my best). When one was behind me in the marching order he would make a point of hitting me in the back of my head with his trumpet’s bell every chance he got. They were not the popular kids. They were in turn picked on by other kids, but I was the “runt” (I was literally the shortest “boy” in my class every year after about 3rd grade). So I became their target. Their bullying led to my first “blow up”, when we were walking from the junior high building to the high school building (our band room was in the HS building) one day, one of them decided to push me off the path into some mud. I was wearing a brand-new pair of white sneakers. I lost it. I said horrible things that dare not be repeated in the heat of the moment. They didn’t get in trouble, because no adult claimed to have seen it. Then at lunch, they decided to further tease me. I then verbally attacked one of the boys and made fun of him because he was fat. Not my finest hour. That day ended their bullying of me. But in the moment I went for the one bully based upon his physical appearance like that, making a table full of thirteen year old boys laugh at his expense, I was a bully. I still feel bad about that moment.

Now, a lot of you may write off my actions. You may think that my actions were appropriate considering the bullying I was facing. Yes, what I did made the bullying stop. But it was not right. I use this example though to illustrate that being bullied does not stop one from being a bully or vice versa. My bullies were also being bullied by others, and then, in one instance of retaliation, the roles reversed and I became the bully.

Back to TTRPG space. We have a bullying problem. There is a reason why. For those who gravitate towards TTRPGs, they offer us an escape. A safe haven. We start to look at the people creating those games and associated media as if they are our friends. And we get VERY protective of the things that offer us comfort, especially for those of us who have had very little of that to spare. Add into this mix a vicious desire to actively dominate other people. Being the target of bullying and harassment does not erase the warped psychological need to dominate another. You wind up with local gaming groups that operate as cults of personality in miniature, with the person that controls the group making the decisions of what to play and when to play, and threatening anyone who defies their control with exile from the table.

And when you already feel like an exile and an outcast from the larger community?

Exile from what community you have found and feel a part of becomes devastating. You wind up even more willing to put up with the abuses and transgressions, because the alternative is that you are left absolutely alone. And if you happen to be other than a “man” in one of these groups, you wind up being used as sexual currency.

This is a massive problem, that we are only now starting to openly talk about within the community.

Now that we are to this point, I will address the Critical Role sized elephant in the room. Recently someone who has been very vocal regarding criticisms of Critical Role came forward with some claims. The most prominent of these was that fans of the program, or “critters”, had been mercilessly harassing them for years with a constant barrage of threats of physical violence, sexual violence, and death threats. Critical Role’s response was to launch an investigation, then release a public statement that amounts to, “We did nothing legally wrong in this situation. Don’t bully.”

So, where did Critical Role fail in the handling of this? I don’t know that they botched the roll, but I also don’t think they succeeded either. They allowed their fan-base to shift the issue from bullying to certain secondary claims made. The same fan-base that was being called out for carrying out online harassment campaigns. Critical Role allowed the more toxic element of critters to control the narrative. When you allow the extreme fringe of any group to control the narrative, it infects the rest of the group. Now, because of the soft-shoe “definitely advised by legal counsel on how to limit liability without alienating any of the existing fan-base” approach, the person who made the claims to begin with is being deluged by even more critters on the basis of attacking the thing they loved and being a liar-liar pants-on-fire.

Critical Role further exacerbated the situation by not taking a more aggressive position. By not saying, “If you are engaged in bullying, harassing, dog-piling, name calling, or in any way attacking those who criticize Critical Role, you are not welcome in our space,” they have enabled that toxic environment. By not saying, “We are a business. If something needs our attention, we will deal with it. We have lawyers to do that. What we do not need are people thinking they need to be our crusaders. If you have to have a crusade, then crusade against systemic racism. Crusade against the injustice within the gaming community. DO NOT crusade on our behalf. If you ever find yourself considering doing so, DO NOT,” they are enabling their critters to engage in these group attacks on any dissenting voices.

“But Critical Role is about embracing everyone in the community! If they start calling people out or saying they aren’t welcome, they would be hypocrites!”

This is where we get into the Paradox of Tolerance. The reasoning behind this argument is that if you claim to be advocating for tolerance, you must therefore be arguing for universal and absolute tolerance. Therefore, if you come down against people for any of their actions, including being intolerant, you are a hypocrite because you yourself are no longer absolutely and universally tolerant. This has really caught on with certain groups on the Internet over the last decade as what they consider to be their ultimate argument against “the Left”.

[Odds are, anyone trying to use this argument has never bothered to read Karl Popper’s full analysis of this issue. That’s often the case with philosophy. People just grabbing the most easily distilled fragments of what is an incredibly complex line of reasoning. Often, the philosopher in question will go on to refute the popular snippet that the public takes and runs with.]

In this context, they will argue, “Critical Role claims it is for everyone! But then they followed up with saying bullying won’t be tolerated! Well, I’m a bully, but I’m also part of ‘everyone’, so which is it? Are you for everyone or not!?!?” (see current argument going on over Games Workshop’s recent “Warhammer is for everyone/except you fascists-racists-sexists-abusers/you will not be missed” post and the response from certain corners of the fan-base and you will observe the same argument being made over and over again.)

This is all, of course, bullshit.

What the people making this argument are trying to do is undermine the notion that their behaviors are unacceptable within the community. They want to play-act as if they are the victims. That somehow, not allowing them to behave without consequence for their actions is unfair.

Some of you wonder why those who are not cis-gendered men and people from marginalized groups don’t like to hang out at the local friendly game store? It is because, no matter how many signs you post up, no matter how many times you assure others that your table is a “safe space”, it means nothing if you do not take action and hold the actual bad actors to task.

Those making the argument of the Paradox of Tolerance are intentionally shifting the argument, because I have not met a single person who when they speak about being more tolerant they are actually arguing for limitless universal tolerance. That’s never been the argument. When they try and twist those words, bring the hammer down and say, “No! No one has been arguing for universal tolerance.” If they keep going, respond with, “Oh, blow it out your ass, Howard.”

Because this is not up for debate. When you debate, you cede control of your position. When you engage in debate, you accept your position is debatable. Do not step into their court. They have a script that they follow, and if you force them off script they will yell and howl and claim you somehow cheated. You never win in those debates.

The only position to take regarding bullying/harassment in your community is to take a firm position that it will not be allowed.

Now, for Critical Role, you may be asking, “But what can they actually do other than make what the critics will just say are performative statements?” In reality, they hold very little power beyond their words, which is why using their words is using their power. Personally, I gained a lot of respect for Games Workshop with their PR statement. It was clear and concise and told the toxic element of their fandom to basically fuck right off.

We need more of that. We need more concise statements that really can’t be cut apart. We need statements like:

“Bullies will not be tolerated. You don’t yell at people, threaten, harass, raise your hand in anger here. You will not brigade or dog-pile someone who has said something in criticism that you do not like. It does not matter if the criticism is good or not. You WILL NOT engage in that behavior. If you want to be an asshole, leave. You have a choice.”

We need the people with influence to use their platforms to actually rise up when they see an injustice being done. We need them not to remain silent. I get it. No one wants to have someone claim they are the bully. But there is a difference in standing up for yourself and others and being a bully. I think many of us are very aware of what that line is, even if we aren’t overly fond of admitting it.

Change Doesn’t Happen from Within

Content Warning: this post contains references to racism and abuse in the workplace.

Things have been not so great with Wizards of the Coast in recent days. There’s a lot occurring in that space that is leading some of the player base to call for a boycott of all WotC properties (D&D and M:tG in particular). I’m not going to rehash a lot of that here, because it is a lot to take in, but know that there are plenty of threads about it over on Twitter if you have the time and inclination to look into. I do believe that we have an ethical responsibility to see how our corporate overlords are actually behaving before we give them more money. While humans rely upon food, water, oxygen, and some other necessities to survive, the Corporation is fueled by money.

Before getting overly concerned about what happens to D&D if WotC collapses and Hasbro inevitably drops them and sells off the properties piece-by-piece, just know that D&D will more than likely outlive WotC, just like it outlived TSR. Some of you may not realize for the first half of its existence, D&D was owned by a company named TSR, which was founded by Gary Gygax and Don Kaye back in 1973. Although D&D was TSR’s first game, it wouldn’t be their last. TSR would produce role-playing games for various genres: westerns, sci-fi, super-heroes, and mobsters. After Don Kaye’s death in 1975, the company was reorganized into TSR Hobbies, Inc. Then in 1983 it was reorganized again, this time with the flagship being simplified down to just TSR, Inc. All was not well with the owners of TSR, Inc., and the privately held company wound up with a majority of the shares going to Lorraine Williams in the mid 1980s. Gygax would follow suit and sell his shares to Williams as well. Under Williams’ leadership, TSR would appear to prosper. 2nd Edition AD&D would produce a wide array of new settings, and for fans, the future looked bright. Things weren’t actually so peachy behind the scenes. Williams mismanaged TSR to the point that it was on the verge of bankruptcy by 1997, when the company sold out to WotC for $25 million (reportedly enough to cover the remaining debt that TSR owed to Random House publishing).

The point of all that history is that D&D effectively died in 1997. The idea of a mid-sized “family” company effectively vanished when Williams took the helm, attempting to turn TSR into something huge. She failed. Although some of the TSR staff would make the change to WotC, there was a massive cultural shift about to occur. When you are working for a privately owned company like TSR, you know who your boss is. At first, it was Gary Gygax, and then Lorraine Williams. There is still a degree of accountability when you are operating a business on that level. When you work for a large corporation, things get muddied.

This is where changing the system from the inside gets impossible. Ultimately, corporations operate with one motive, and one motive only: to maximize the profits of the shareholders.

You may be saying, “But doing things the morally/ethically correct way will increase profit!”

The Board of Directors over at Hasbro doesn’t care. They are not paying attention to the corner of Twitter that is calling for boycotts. Right now, D&D has had its most profitable year ever, and WotC continues to be a good investment for Hasbro. To the Board, everything is going great. That means they are not going to call for a personnel change or a change in HR. The only way they are going to think about changing things within WotC (and D&D in particular) is if another company is impacting their own profits by doing things ethically; or if there are lawsuits.

To make a corporation change, you have to hit them in the only place it will hurt, and that is their profit margin.

“So what can I do?”

You can stop giving that corporation your money. I know, your $500 a year towards their products is just a drop in the bucket, but it doesn’t stop there. Stop playing their games on your streams. Stop producing podcasts centered around their product. All of that is free advertising. Want to know how WotC has turned D&D from a niche hobby into the massive profit machine it is? Look no further than all the free advertising that people are giving them, and not giving other games. I guarantee that if certain big name streamers had been playing another game instead, that game would be having a massive influx of players. So, stop playing their game to an audience.

Stop producing content for their game.

This is the most difficult. Because this means money to you. And when ethics starts to impact your own earnings, suddenly your ethics become a bit fuzzy.

“They say they are going to do better! They are better than they used to be, right?”

What content producers need to realize is that Hasbro could decide to pull the plug on the current iteration of the game whenever they choose. A new edition makes all of that content you’ve been creating and your income relying on basically vanish (at least the revenue stream from it). Because the corporation doesn’t care about you. All of that hard work and effort you have put into all of that content that you effectively then handed to WotC? Gone. Because they know that a new crop of content creators will come along with the next iteration, and they will use them up as well. I’m not talking about content made by employees of WotC (that’s literally your job), or even freelancers (you are under contract to produce, so once again, your job). I’m talking about all the independents producing content on their own for DM’s Guild.

TSR didn’t crumble because of change from within. Back in the 1990s there were plenty of people already complaining about issues with D&D. The bioessentialism issue was well known. The fact that the writers and design staff were almost all white dudes was also not an unknown factor. None of the people raising these complaints had a seat at the table when it was a privately owned company, at a time when those concerns from within might have produced change.

Now the only “change” that will occur will be performative window-dressing.

If you are a marginalized creator whose on fire, maybe they will offer you a position, where you will immediately be tokenized in the way that corporations do. You will be told to talk less and to smile more (yes, I just watched Hamilton with about half of the rest of the U.S. population). Don’t complain. Don’t raise issues at the big table. Come in, punch the clock, let them wheel you out when the sabers start rattling about issues of representation in the game.

Or, don’t give them another ounce of your time, talent, and money.

Walk away. Support other game companies that don’t have the same issues. Better yet, make your own.

Make a space where people are welcome. Not just at the gaming table, but in the studio.

WotC is not going to change. Are you okay with that?

[Edit: I sent a letter to Hasbro asking that they investigate their subsidiary and address the current issues in leadership at WotC, and that until such time I will not be spending more money on their product or associated products. It is unlikely that anything will come of that letter, but if others were to start sending letters, it may result in some kind of action. The older generation of corporate execs and board members don’t really keep an eye on Twitter or other social media. To be honest, the younger ones probably don’t either.]

Contracts and You!

In my humdrum day-to-day life, I am an attorney. Full disclosure: “The choice of a lawyer is an important decision and should not be based solely upon advertisements.”

While this post is not meant as an advertisement, some may consider it to be one.

I want to talk about an interesting intersection between my profession (lawyer) and my passion (TTRPGs): freelance contracting! Yes, I am the odd duck that finds this type of stuff fascination.

The basics: are you an employee or a contractor? Most of the time, this is very obvious. An employee will be paid either a fixed salary or an hourly wage, with the employer taking out taxes, social security, and all the other things to make the amount you thought you were making drop a decent amount. In exchange you get that regular paycheck, health insurance (maybe), the equipment/tools to do your job, and your employer has to worry about most of the liability issues.

If you are a contractor, you have been contracted or retained to perform a certain fixed task in exchange for the agreed upon compensation. The entity that contracted you does not remove taxes and other such things from your compensation package. You will not be provided insurance. Odds are, you will not be provided with the equipment/tools to do your job. Also, liability is likely to be affected.

You may also hear the term “independent contractor” or “freelancer” tossed around. So, you, as a person, may be employed by Company X, but Company X contracts your work out to Company Y. You are an employee in this scenario, but the crew over at Company Y will refer to you as a contractor, because they contracted you from Company X. You are not a freelancer in this scenario. A freelancer is independent of an employer, sometimes referred to as “self-employed”. Congratulations! You are your own boss…sort of.

Once upon a time, there were definite advantages to being a freelancer, especially in certain creative fields. You got to set the terms of your contract, including how much you were going to get paid.

Unfortunately, times changed. Now a lot of the work done in several commercial creative industries has significantly shifted to freelancers over a steady set of in-house employees. Not only is writing work contracted out, but so is system design, artwork, and editing. Basically, the only full-time staff are a cluster of “team leads” who act as the public face of the company, and generally get their names as first billing on whatever the finished project is. Hooray!

But you’re getting compensated for all that work, right? And you get to call your own shots, right?

Probably not, because the other party is probably bending you over the barrel on your contract terms. As an adult of reasonably sound mind and intelligence, the U.S. legal system expects you to be able to make informed decisions regarding the contracts you sign.

Say Company X wants to hire you to do layout editing on their new book “Balefire and Cruise Missiles: a Guide to Arcane Modern Warfare”. Now Company X does most of their product development with freelancers. Company X is also a BIG DEAL in the industry, and you’ve been told that doing good work for them will result in doors being opened later. This all sounds great! But you also need to pay rent and, ya know, eat. Slinging cappuccinos at the local coffee hut isn’t exactly paying off your student loans, either, and here you are with a bachelor’s degree. Company X has you come in to sign the contract. They want you to sign it NOW. I mean, why wouldn’t you? They say it is a standard contract, you will get paid what everyone else starts out/is getting paid (they are usually vague about this). No need to read it. Just sign it. Go ahead. It is the standard contract.

NEVER sign a contract that they are not giving you ample to time to read, review, and have an attorney look over. This is a power-imbalance maneuver. Company X will make you, as the freelancer, believe you are expendable, even if they do nothing but smile and slide that copy over to you for your signature. They really don’t have to do anything. The competitive nature of the market almost assures that you will sign that contract without going over the terms.

Here is the most valuable lesson regarding contracts: you have power. You can walk away. Company X does not want you to know that.

Say you do not like the non-disclosure agreement in the contract? Before you sign, you can say, “This is too restrictive,” then pop out your red pen and start crossing out lines.

ALWAYS bring a red pen with you when you go to review a contract, especially if you are an editor.

If you can, TALK TO A LAWYER. Have an attorney you trust review the contract before you sign off on it. That should not be a lawyer for Company X. In fact, if Company X’s lawyer starts trying to advise you, stop them and say, “I do not believe you are supposed to be giving me legal advice on this matter, as you already represent the other party.” That shuts them down hard. Not only that, it makes you feel like a real power player.

One of the absolute best things you can do is walk into contract negotiations with your own work contract. Company X isn’t the only one who gets to bring a contract to the table. When it comes to your contact it needs to be clear and concise:

A) I am only under contract to do specific task XX;

B) I will be compensated for performing task XX with $1,000,000,000 USD. 50% in advance, 50% upon completion of task XX;

C) Task XX will completed by Smarch 13th, 20XX.

That’s pretty much it. Simple is better when it comes to contracts. That is why when they throw a 50 page Ikea instruction manual at you, you should be able to counter with your nice, crisp, 3 page contract.

Here is a little checklist of things you should be including in your contract:

  1. Description of the work to be done;
  2. Time-frame to complete work;
  3. How much $$$;
  4. When do you get your $$$;
  5. Non-exclusivity;
  6. Limited non-disclosure; and
  7. Who retains the copyright to anything created.

What do I mean by non-exclusivity? Non-exclusivity means that you get to take other jobs while doing Company X’s job. Sometimes companies get real sketchy about the freelancers they hire working other gigs. They basically want your undivided dedication and loyalty, but they don’t want to actually go to the extent of employing you as an actual employee. Don’t fall for this trap, because it usually also includes a “we own anything you created while under contract with Company X” clause.

Example: Company X hires you to be writing staff for their “Mirthsters and Mayhemites”. Specifically, they want you to write out some description entries for their monster blocks. As part of your contract, it stipulates that during this project development run from April to September, you will only be writing for Company X. In July, while on vacation, you create Tipton Tornado, a madcap superhero. You complete your contract with Company X, are paid, and everything seems cool. Then, a year later, when you are making money off of Tipton Tornado (with a Hollywood studio looking to buy the movie rights) Company X has their legion of lawyers descend on you claiming they own Tipton Tornado because you created that character while under exclusive contract with Company X. Depending on the terms of that contract, you could be screwed out of your own creation. Company X is going to also make the argument that Tipton Tornado is similar in theme to monsters found in that M&M book you worked on.

What do I mean by limited non-disclosure? So, companies like Company X are going to use non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) to silence you, and not just during your time under contract. They want to silence you in perpetuity. Forever. “Can’t I just fight it in court later?” You got that kind of money? Because that costs a lot of money, and if you don’t win, you are hosed. The better approach is to have a non-disclosure clause built into the contract you bring to the table. A good, and properly limited, NDA will basically say you keep your mouth shut about the project until the project has been completed and made public, or until X amount of time has passed. That NDA should specifically be limited to details about the project itself, and does not bar you from making known any genuine complaints regarding workplace treatment, working conditions, or other matters.

What is amazing, is that actions which would not be allowed under a standard employer/employee relationship become enforceable under a freelancer contract with a strict NDA.

I personally hate NDAs and believe that they chill our speech and ability to communicate to others about the bad actors in our midst. These NDAs have been weaponized not only to protect matters specifically related to the work-environment, but also from people being able to speak up about abusive situations that occurred involving employees of Company X.

Example: After your work on “Not for the Squeemish: a Player’s Guide to Squeem and other Goblin Deities”, Company X decides you need to make the rounds at this year’s gaming con circuit on the company dime. That sounds great, right? But they make you sign another NDA before that, which is weird, because you already signed one. Whatever, you’re sure it is just standard stuff. So, while out at Burba-Con, in lovely downtown Burbank, California, after hours you go with some of the other Company X crew to the Booze-In, a “Laugh-In” themed local hot-spot popular with the con crowd. While there, you witness Joey Designer at Company X get really drunk and start groping people. You want to talk about this, so you call up HR at Company X who says, “We are aware of the situation, and we will handle it.” But Joey never has a reckoning, and actually gets a promotion to Joey Lead Designer at Company X. You decide to go public with it. *BUZZER NOISE* Now Company X claims you violated your NDA and is seeking damages against you for that violation of the NDA.

“So all of this sounds good, but it just sounds like they will give the job to other people.”

Yes, there is a good chance Company X will pass on you, because you are “difficult” (in that you actually understand your worth and will not agree to unethical business practices). Trust me. You don’t want to work for Company X if any of these issues are going to bother you. Also, if you are really good at what you do, and build a name working for Companies A, B, C, and D while using your own contract, maybe Company X will agree to your terms someday. (This is unlikely, as Company X holds no value in regards to quality.)

Also, don’t be afraid to team up with some other creatives and start your own co-op. As a group you will have a greater deal of bargaining power over the traditional freelancers. Once creative freelancers start grouping together in co-ops for increased bargaining power, the companies will start hiring full-time employees to fill those positions again. The shift to using freelancers is after all because it is cheaper for the companies involved.

But this is all about contracts, so how does forming a co-op play into that? Let us say that you and some other people you have come to know are all editors. You have copy editors, layout editors, developmental editors, proofreaders, etc. All together, in a different era, you could have opened your own editing firm with bit of start-up money. But who has anything except oppressive debt anymore, right? Sure, you could maybe get an entry level position with a publishing firm if you lived in New York or London or…wherever else big publishing firms still exist, but the cost of living in those cities is huge. Once again, oppressive debt. Besides, with the technology available there is really little need for an editor of any kind to be on-site anymore. So instead, you’ve got a loose group of editors that you’ve made friends with over social media. Sometimes you will even share what your rates are between each other, and realize you are all under-charging for your services. Now, let’s say you are all in the U.S. (all of my examples are U.S. oriented, as that is where all my experience is. I’m absolutely out of my element when it comes to international contract law.) It is a business organization, but it is owned and controlled by its members for their benefit rather than to maximize profit. As a co-op, you wind up with collective resources to do things like hire a lawyer to draft contracts, establish health insurance plans, or even retirement/pension plans. You can also work together to establish a solid rate structure. And the more freelancers you bring into the fold, the more your bargaining power grows. The more bargaining power you have, the more you are able to get what you want out of a contract without any of the nonsense that shouldn’t be in there to begin with. Also, another advantage of the co-op is that if you do wind up in a position where you have too many personal assignments, you have back-up, because Company X isn’t just contracting with YOU personally, but with the co-op as a whole. There’s strength in numbers.

Anyway, get you a lawyer. There’s a lot of young freshly minted lawyers who just passed the Bar Exam looking for a meal (most of them are also in oppressive debt). Contracts don’t have to be brilliantly crafted documents with numerous exclusions and codicils and indices. In fact, it is better if they are solid, hard, hammers that make clear 1, 2, 3 statements of terms, that then nod in favor at the sturdy hard-wood chair they just created.

Selling Your Game On-Line

Digital media is the current big trend with tabletop role-playing games. What are your options, and what sort of cut is the platform taking?

DM’s Guild (DMG), managed by OneBookShelf, has a very opaque and difficult to read breakdown of how much of a cut from the product you have created that you will receive in royalties. Because when you post a D&D adventure/supplement on DMG, you are actually signing away ownership to Wizards of the Coast. How much should you expect: most sources say the creator will get around 50% of the overall sales, but exactly how much you pull in depends upon how many units are being sold. Sell more, get more, seems to be the structure.
https://support.dmsguild.com/hc/en-us/articles/360024677993-Getting-Started-on-Dungeon-Masters-Guild
Pros: if you are making D&D 5e content, DMG will hit your target audience.
Cons: community standards guidelines are not transparent (you may lose rights to your product even if DMG decides not to post it); royalty schedule is not transparent; you lose ownership of your product.

Drive Thru RPG (DTRPG), which is also managed by OneBookShelf, offers digital and print services for you to sell your product. Depending on exclusivity or non-exclusivity, the creator is getting 65% to 70% of the sales. Additionally, DTRPG doesn’t claim ownership of your work (although if you do the exclusive contact for bigger %, you may not ever be able to distribute your work elsewhere).
https://www.drivethrurpg.com/joininfo1.php
Pros: reasonable exposure level; option to retain full ownership of creation.
Cons: they still will take about 30% of your profits; community standards guidelines are also extremely subjective.

Itch.io (Itch), is a gaming marketplace platform for indie creators that has video games, board games, card games, TTRPGs, and basically anything that you can label as a game. Itch lets you keep ownership of your creation. They host an Open Revenue Sharing model where you can choose what percentage of your sales go to support Itch. Suggested percentage is 10%.
https://itch.io/docs/creators/payments
Pros: you get to keep the bulk of your sales; retain full ownership of creation.
Cons: the site is not very streamlined; may be difficult to locate your product.

Do It Yourself (DIY). Literally just build your own website. You will have to pay for the domain, as well as a fee to the hosting company. Basically, you pay rent. The hosting company doesn’t take any of your sales (although PayPal or other payment processing services will take their cut).
Pros: full sales into your pocket; retain absolute ownership of creation.
Cons: will cost you more up front to secure domain name and host fees; marketing is up to you; also will need to build the web-site.

You have options, and depending on whether this is a little labor of love you want to just put out there on a pay-what-you-want option, or if it is a massive endeavor involving multiple writers, artists, and editors, there is an option out there that is right for you.

D&D: My Very Personal Take on the Game

This post is part analysis/part history/part scathing indictment of Dungeons & Dragons. Despite all of the golden idols I seek to melt down into slag, D&D has been a massively important part of my life. I met my wife at a D&D game. I’ve had some friends for over half of my life that first bonded with me over D&D. And nothing can take that away. I also believe that we have an obligation to try and make the things we love better, so that those who follow in out steps do not have to deal with the same garbage we did. So, enjoy the ride.

Back in the late 1960s there were some white guys in the area of Minnesconsin who played tabletop miniature war-games. These had been around for a while, with recreations of battles like Waterloo being extremely popular. These were unit scale battles. The person controlling an army didn’t really take a “role”, although some groups would craft missives to the Baron of Whatever, or the Duke of That-one-place-upon-Avon, whilst wearing silly hats. Ultimately, this side “role playing” would not affect the rules of the battle such as when reinforcements from the 15th Fusiliers would arrive at the table. Everything was very formalized, not unlike history depicts those battles, with their neat rectangular battle groups, and how all members of a unit would just rout at the same time. The rules to these games would be printed in little folios, and distributed to members of the groups. Miniatures were expected to be painted in strict adherence to historical accuracy. Any sort of magical creatures were strictly forbidden, as that was just frivolity not to be engaged in by grown men playing with painted lead soldiers. Also, no watery tarts distributing scimitars.

Some of the younger crew of white men playing with miniatures decided that they didn’t like the stodgy historical recreation camp. They liked Tolkien, Leiber, and that newcomer to the scene Moorcock. Another little cluster just wanted to play single unit miniature games, where if your unit, or “character”, survived, they got certain benefits in future games. There were also those who really enjoyed sitting around a table wearing silly hats. This was a relatively small community in a fairly close geographic area, and they started exchanging ideas by mail and the occasional gathering. Eventually these ideas would result in the original Dungeons & Dragons produced in 1974 by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson (who would later get the ole Jack Kirby treatment) for the label Tactical Studies Rules, Inc. (TSR for short). D&D itself originally referenced another creation that predated it by Gygax called Chainmail, that was designed to be a tabletop fantasy combat simulator.

Here’s where we get to combat systems in what is widely considered the 1st TTRPG. That original D&D was basically ALL combat rules. There were plenty of charts and tables describing what you could and could not do in combat (and there were plenty of contradictory rules). But because of the growing interest in fantasy and tabletop gaming, combined with Gygax’s own willingness to market the product, it became the standard.

That was what early D&D was: Combat. Bulky, clanging, fireball tossing combat. And once you learned to navigate the charts (and make your own house-rules when the charts were practically opaque on an issue), those combat systems could actually flow fairly easily. Combat was how you earned Experience Points necessary to improve your character. There really was no other means given. The enemies were simply evil or chaotic because they were enemies. You didn’t need a backstory for why the enemies were a certain alignment, they simply were. The only reason to interact with them was to avoid combat with them or engage in combat with them. Alignment in these earlier versions did not really indicate much in the way of morality, but was more useful as an indicator in how enemies would act during battle.

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According to some, this was because Arneson was fond of the Good versus Evil concept, while Gygax was a fan of Moorcock’s Law versus Chaos dichotomy. So they just used both. In the context of a combat game, this made sense. While Player Characters (PCs) were under direct control, the referee (the original preferred term for what would later be known as Dungeon Master or DM) was responsible for hordes of enemies. Assigning them rather basic tactical guidelines sped up decision making for the referee. For instance, Chaotic enemies would basically just mob their enemies, not picking any particular target, while Lawful enemies were more interested in precision and following set patterns. A group of Lawful enemies could target spell-casters and other “soft” targets. Good enemies would be willing to parley and would act to protect their fallen allies. Evil enemies would think nothing of sacrificing their own and using tactics like stealth assassins and poisons.

But then something weird happened…at least as far as Gygax was concerned, based upon all of his articles and newsletters where he openly opined on this subject:

People started using the game to tell stories. The combat of the game would become connective tissue between the more important elements to those gamers. Gygax, while not understanding these gamers, was also a shrewd business person, and would on-board some new blood to help develop his system beyond just a combat engine. The different iterations of D&D after that original set would see more and more elements involved with non-combat situations added in. The first edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition (AD&D 1e) released in 1977 would not only be Gygax’s attempt to oust Arneson from the profit-margin (Arneson was not involved in the development of AD&D, even though it used a lot of rules and concepts he pioneered), but would also broaden the approach to the game outside of combat.

Towards the end of the run of AD&D 1e, Gygax would release Unearthed Arcana (UA, 1985) and OA (1985). (I use the short-hand term “OA” as the full title is inherently offensive to people of Asian origin/descent. I also believe the bulk of the content is offensive as well, based upon what many people from the Asian community have stated, repeatedly, since 1985. It is not my place to declare whether it is offensive or not, but to listen to those whose lives it directly impacts.) UA and OA would concurrently introduce “Nonweapon Proficiencies” (how they were labeled in the books, so I am not responsible for grammatical errors). Additional supplements to follow, The Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide (DSG, Douglas Niles, 1986) and The Wilderness Survival Guide (WSG, Kim Mohan, 1986) would expand out exploration methods and provide a whole new set of challenges for adventuring parties to face. Up until this point, most of the environmental hazards were in the form of enemy combatants and the occasional trap (better have a thief in your party, otherwise you were getting vaporized). More importantly, these two books would introduce groups to an expanded set of “Nonweapon Proficiencies”.

What we were seeing at the end of AD&D 1e was a significant shift away from what Gygax and Arneson had created around a decade earlier, and was in response to other TTRPGs entering the market not singularly focused on combat. The Palladium Role-Playing Game (Kevin Siembieda, et.al., 1983), Rolemaster (Charlton, Curtis, Fenlon, Marvin, 1980), Traveller (Marc Miller, et.al., 1977), and others had non-combat skills built in from the start.

Even with the additions, at its heart, D&D remained a combat engine designed for Gygaxian hack and slash play. And it shows.

Every edition of D&D whether “basic” or “advanced” while in the hands of TSR would maintain a very familiar combat system, relying on THAC0 tables to determine if you hit, Saving Throw tables to determine if certain things affect you/partially affect you/do not affect you, and a variety of other familiar tables to those who played those iterations under TSR. What you don’t see in D&D during that era is any real development on non-combat skills and proficiencies until Gygax is on his way out at TSR, when the company went corporate at the tail end of the run of AD&D 1e. AD&D 2nd Edition (AD&D 2e, David “Zeb” Cook, et.al., 1989) would pick up where 1st Edition’s last printed books left off, including weapon and non-weapon proficiencies. The problem was, the core books of 2nd Edition never really clearly explained how they worked. You just had them. Or maybe you didn’t. Like I said, they were never clearly defined other than you got to start with some…except when you didn’t. Later rules supplements would introduce new proficiencies and expand upon how you used them, but it was never good. It was an optional set of rules just bolted on as an afterthought to what was still predominantly a combat game. To be perfectly honest, I just now learned how the 2e non-weapon proficiency system was supposed to work, thanks to a wiki page. Only took 31 years for someone to compile the rules with the associated tables in a way that actually made sense.

And while my friends and I played AD&D 2E more than the other earlier versions, the stories we were able to tell were almost in spite of the system itself. When necessary, we would create new rules and features to handle out of combat scenarios. Quite honestly, we even found a lot of the combat system to be too bogged down, and would just scrap or rewrite significant portions of the rules. We weren’t alone in this. Outside of tournament games operating under the Role Playing Game Association (RPGA) at conventions, hardly anyone was trying to play the game with rules as written (RAW). For instance, fighters having to keep track of things like 3 attacks every 2 rounds; or spell casting times, with some spells taking multiple combat rounds to cast, and if the caster got hit, the spell would fizzle. We just house-ruled all that stuff.

On top of all this was 1980s renaissance of other TTRPGs. Some of them got way more specific when it came to combat mechanics, while others went more “realistic”. R. Talsorian Games Cyberpunk 2013 (Mike Pondsmith, 1988) and its Friday Night Firefight rules made gunfights quick and deadly. It was an era when new systems were popping up every time you went to your local gaming outlet (I had to rely upon what my local Waldenbooks was keeping in stock), and there were a lot of alternatives to choose from besides D&D. TSR would even have a host of other TTRPGs, some good, some bad, like Top Secret (Merle M. Rasmussen, 1980), Star Frontiers (Steve Winter, ed., 1982), Gamma World (Ward and Jaquet, 1978), and Boot Hill (Blume and Gygax 1975). Even TSR’s flagship magazine Dragon would feature ads, reviews, and articles about other TTRPGs. If you were in the U.K. (and a few select stores in the U.S.) you may have also been able to pick up White Dwarf magazine, which although it would later be dedicated to Games Workshop’s Warhammer setting, from 1977 to the mid-80s it would focus on AD&D, Runequest, and Traveller.

Despite all my talk playing up this era as a kind of “golden age” of TTRPGs, it wasn’t. During this period, there were hardly any writers, artists, editors, or designers who were not white men. For instance, OA, released in 1985 had zero writers or designers of Asian origin/descent. A book based upon Asian cultures had NO actual human Asian presence in its development. Based upon looking at its cursed contents again, probably one of the guys owned a “katana” and a “kimono” and had read James Clavell’s Shōgun (1975, also made into a TV miniseries released on NBC in 1980). And it shows. OA is not alone in this, nor was Dungeons & Dragons (although TSR draws the most ire, because it was the big dog) the only offender. Plenty of other games from the 80s and 90s just casually wrote about other cultures, almost as if their only exposure was from Hollywood, travel brochures, and Encyclopædia Britannica entries last updated in 1957. A lot of people like to hand wave that away today because, “they didn’t have the Internet back then,” or, “they just didn’t know any people from [insert “exotic” foreign land X].” I grew up in small, predominantly white, Missouri towns, and you could still find people of various ethnic and national origins if you wanted to, especially if you were willing to drive up to St. Louis, Kansas City, or *gasp* Chicago.

For white kids like me, these sourcebooks would be my first reference about cultures other than my own. Keep in mind, growing up as a kid in the 80s and early 90s, I wouldn’t even have a world history class until the 10th grade. Even then, most of it was, “Here is what was going on in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. Then here is the Roman Empire. Then the Southern European Renaissance. Then World War I. Also, there were people in other places, but we neither have the time nor inclination to talk about them.” Did I mention I was the kid who would actually try and find books about these other cultures and civilizations in my local library, but would frequently turn up short? I can’t remember what grade I was in (was probably in junior high), but I remember doing a paper about Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro González, and how both were brutal murderers for a “social studies” class. This was before the release of the Maztica Campaign Set (Douglas Niles, 1991), because I had learned enough on my own to realize how terribly awful that set was when I picked it up. Seriously, it depicted the Helm worshiping conquistadors as the “good” guys. How is it, that a 12 year-old kid in Southern Missouri appeared to know more about the atrocities committed by conquistadors than an adult man did? (For the record, the first Maztica novel by Douglas Niles would come out in 1989.)

To a degree, all of this makes sense. We aren’t talking about a massive world-wide phenomenon at this point. Lake Geneva, Wisconsin (HQ location of TSR) back in the 1980s had a population of around 7,000. Basically, if you were like Douglas Niles, a high school teacher from about half-an-hour away from Lake Geneva, you didn’t really need talent to get hired. You just needed to know someone and be persistent enough with trying to get a job there, and eventually you would get to write a Central/South American inspired setting expansion for Forgotten Realms where the conquistadors were the good guys.

And no, I’m not going to stop harping on that one anytime soon.

Fortunately for me, I had a voracious appetite for knowledge. While D&D settings were a gateway for me to first start even thinking about cultures not my own, my supplemental reading showed me how totally off base the writing staff at TSR (and some other TTRPG publishers) really were. And the treatment of real world cultures in Forgotten Realms in particular was all over the board. Some were REALLY bad (Kara-Tur and Maztica) while others are still generally well received (Al-Qadim/Zakhara).

While other TTRPG companies evolved to have combat systems light, complex, deadly, realistic, or non-existent, D&D languished. The system was laughable at how clunky it was. Fighting a mob of goblins with your party of 10th level PCs could still wind up taking hours, even though the outcome was apparent. Design teams at TSR were more focused on coming up with new boxed set setting content than on making the rules make any real sense. Instead of focusing on their core game mechanics, TSR took the position of just bolting on more rules to an already bogged down framework. Which would have been fine had the system been modular and designed for that. The Generic Universal RolePlaying System, aka GURPS, by Steve Jackson of the eponymous Steve Jackson Games is an example of “universal” setting agnostic rules system, that then had modular components that could be added to adapt it to any setting or genre. While GURPS may have its critics, the system was designed to be modular. That was a design feature. D&D, not so much. The expanded AD&D 2e optional rules never quite clicked without significant retooling of the core mechanic. They never were balanced, and thanks to poor writing, often caused disputes rather than resolving them. This is important to point out: these early editions of D&D did not have the design philosophy of “make the game your own”. You were supposed to play with the RAW, unless that rule was clearly labeled “optional”.

Eventually, AD&D 2e would become so bogged down with optional/alternate rule books (also known as splat books), that it became practically impossible to play. At the start of any new campaign, multiple sessions would be spent determining which optional rules would be incorporated from which books. Discussions would be had on who had what books, and who could borrow those books. I mean, clearly we were allowing character class kits, but any of the kits? Do we allow the Elven Bladesinger, because Alex might not agree to play if we don’t allow that, even though we know it is horribly overpowered (OP)?

And then we would just stop playing AD&D 2e. We would move on to the White Wolf Storyteller system. At one point, we even ran a Dragonlance chronicles game using the Storyteller system rather than go back to the mess that was AD&D 2e. The combat system existed, but held equal status with non-combat actions, and we wanted to be able to tell a story!

Then in 1997 Wizards of the Coast (WotC) would buy out the crumbling TSR, that had spread itself too thin over the years on failed side projects and a bloated AD&D 2e. WotC was a relative newcomer to the gaming world, created in 1990. The Seattle based TTRPG company would initially start out just publishing a few games, and even got into a legal battle with Palladium Books early on. Three years down the road in 1993 everything would change with the release of the collectible card game (CCG) called Magic: the Gathering. The gaming world would never be the same, and WotC would go from being another obscure little publisher to an industry powerhouse. Upon the acquisition of TSR, WotC would immediately announce plans to create AD&D 3rd Edition (later renamed Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition or D&D 3e for short). WotC would quickly be acquired by Hasbro in 1998, the purchase of TSR having made it a much more attractive investment with the stable D&D line. You have to realize, in 1998 there were still many people who were waiting for the Magic bubble to burst. How long could it keep up that kind of momentum? In 2000, 3e would be released to much fanfare, and to grumblings of reluctant groups of gamers who were either still dedicated to AD&D 2e or earlier versions, or with groups like mine that had been burned out by the game that was a barely functional combat engine at its core.

What we got was an amazing new system that introduced a huge amount of non-combat rules (that were at times difficult to understand, especially when it came to knowing the difference between some of the skills, that may have been a bit too hyper-specialized at times). It kept the core concept of classes and leveling, and unfortunately also kept concepts like alignment and race. However, it ditched a lot of the bioessentialism found in earlier editions. None of the core classes were restricted by race, so you could finally have a dwarven wizard, for example (there were some Prestige Classes that were restricted, but the DM always had the option to waive those restrictions). Combat was still a big part of the game, but it flowed fast, with a very basic mechanic. I once dedicated a session to a large scale battle between armies, with the PCs acting as free roaming units. It went surprisingly quickly, and we wound up having plenty of time for some solid after battle role-play that session.

In 2003, WotC would release D&D 3.5e, updating and streamlining the rules from 3e, and my group made the transition with little issue.

For me, 3/3.5 was the pinnacle of the history of D&D for what I wanted from a game: a solid rules set designed for both non-combat skill rolls, and a quick and easy to grasp combat mechanic. The number of books was daunting to most newcomers, but I could usually calm those concerns by sitting down and helping build a starting character, and asking the player what concept they had in mind, and suggesting Prestige Classes for them to work towards. And I allowed players to rebuild characters or reallocate skill points if they realized that where they started wanting to go didn’t fit with where their character wound up going in their story.

Then, just five years into the 3rd Edition of the game, WotC announced development of a new edition, which would be released three years later in 2008. The 4th Edition of D&D (D&D 4e) would almost end my connection to a game I had been playing since childhood. Completely gone were the customization options of the previous two editions (by the time 2e went out of print, there was a huge amount of customization options, alternate class builds, etc.). Non-combat rules were non-existent. WotC claimed that this was based upon player feedback of 3e, which led a lot of the community of players to ask, “Who was asking for a streamlined miniature combat system?” The answer seemed to be no one except the higher ups at Hasbro wanting to make the game more accessible to younger entry-level players more familiar with fast-paced easy to pick-up video games. To an extent, it worked. I still meet younger gamers whose first experience with D&D was 4e, and they still love it.

For me, the difference between 3e and 4e could be compared to certain automobile enthusiasts. There are those who will take apart and reassemble engines and transmissions, making tweaks and alterations here and there. They can recite occult lore regarding parts IDs and what type of motor oil works best for exact temperatures. Then there are the people who just want to have to make the decision between what color Camaro they want. The first group tends to make fun of the second group, but that’s not fair. Not everyone wants to get under the hood. Some just want to drive the car and make some cosmetic choices.

3e was “crunch” (consisting of a lot of complex rules and details for customization that could make mechanical differences). 4e was a game you could just pick up and go.

While 4e pulled in some new players, it alienated some of the older players. Many of my old crew tried picking up 4e to give it a shot. Some of us only played a handful of sessions, while others played a few campaigns. I heard some initial praise as it was really easy to make a character and get going at 1st level. By 10th level, all I heard were grumbles. Every new set of powers was basically a reskin of everyone else’s powers, just with slightly different flavor-text.

Ultimately, 4e would be the shortest lived iteration of what could be known as the AD&D line of editions, running six years from 2008 until 2014. A lot of people point to the dramatic shift in game play as the downfall of 4e. I’m not so sure that was the case. I do think a lesson was learned: Don’t try and reinvent the wheel.

[Edit: I have actually gained a lot of respect for 4e as a system over the years. From a design perspective, it was a very solid and fast-paced system, in part because it did not shy away from what it was, which was a miniature tactical combat system. I really think it would have flourished as a system were it not tied to the D&D franchise.]

For reference on editions/versions of Dungeons & Dragons:

  • 1974 Gygax Original Dungeons & Dragons – OD&D
  • 1977 “Holmes” Edition Basic D&D – Holmes D&D
  • 1977 Advanced Dungeons & Dragons – AD&D 1e
  • 1981 “Moldvay” Edition Basic and Expert D&D – D&D B/X
  • 1983 Dungeons & Dragons – D&D BECMI
  • 1989 Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition – AD&D 2e
  • 1991 Rules Cyclopedia – This was a compilation of D&D BECMI (w/o the I)
  • 2000 Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition – D&D 3e
  • 2003 Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 – D&D 3.5e
  • 2008 Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition – D&D 4e
  • 2014 Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition – D&D 5e

And what we have seen under WotC/Hasbro ownership is new editions at shorter intervals. AD&D 1e would run twelve years. AD&D 2e would run eleven years. D&D BECMI would be on the market in one iteration or another for around fifteen years. None of the post TSR versions have crossed the decade threshold, and all indicators are that the current edition is probably heading to the bin within the next couple of years considering the current community backlash.

But why the massive change between editions? When 3e was released, WotC also released a detailed guide on how to transfer 2e characters to 3e. It wasn’t complete by any means (some kits in 2e didn’t have 3e equivalents, for instance), but the versatility of 3e with skills, prestige classes, and feats, allowed many players to transfer their PCs without significant issue. 3.5e was just an updated version of 3e, so you basically just had to restat your PC, which while it required some math, was not horribly difficult if you had a notepad and a calculator. 3.5e to 4e just didn’t work. You effectively had to rebuild your character from the ground up with a completely different tool set than you had before. Other than the core 6 stats, the game was radically different. And then the hop from 4e to 5e was equally as impractical. It is actually easier to transfer a 3.5e character to 5e than to transfer a 4e to 5e.

Which leads to the current iteration. Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition would hit shelves in August of 2014 with the Player’s Handbook, the Monster Manual releasing in September of 2014, and the Dungeon Master’s Guide releasing in December of 2014, mirroring the pattern of release of the “Core 3” books starting with AD&D 1e.

5e would feel like a welcome return to the game that those prior to 4e were familiar with. Like 4e, it would remain centered on combat, but would bring back non-combat skill proficiencies similar to 3e, but without as many options or math required for point expenditure. It would retain the d20 skill check system, with rolls either being opposed or the player needing to hit a target difficulty challenge (DC). For long-time players like me, it was a return to what was good about prior editions.

Oddly enough, though, some of the steps forward in prior editions regarding intelligent “monster” races would be ditched, and 5e would slide back to some of the old Gygaxian bioessentialist issues. Alignment would be back as a core element, but no classes would have alignment restrictions. Many “monsters” would have a default alignment, even though that raised a lot of questions for intelligent sapient entities. The issue of racial stat modifiers would become an even more nasty bit in the game, that now limited ability scores for Player Characters (PCs) to max at 20. It pushed players to min/max when running written adventures, or run the risk of an early and grisly death if the entire party was not optimized. Where 3e and 4e had introduced online character build programs at a free or fairly low cost for players, WotC would license out the online presence of 5e to Dungeons & Dragons Beyond, where in order to access full character creation tools you or your Dungeon Master (DM) would need to setup an account and purchase digital copies of books for around the same price as the print editions, resulting in groups repurchasing effectively the same content in different format. While the rest of the industry was starting to offer free online apps for character creation and GM tools, and even free PDF codes with purchase of a hard-copy of a book, WotC was hiding all that functionality behind a pay-wall.

Quite possibly the most brilliant (and insidious) marketing move by WotC with 5e was the return of a variant of the 3e Open Gaming License (OGL). The 3e OGL let anyone develop, print, and sell 3rd party adventures and supplements for D&D, royalty free to WotC. You kept the full rights to what you wrote, along with the money. The only real provision is that you were not allowed to reprint any of the core rules, or use certain copyrighted and trademarked monsters (the Beholder and the Mind Flayer are two examples of creatures wholly owned by WotC). WotC actually tried to lay the blame of the “failure” of 3e on the 3rd party publishers, complaining that they diluted the property too much. By 5e, the legal and marketing teams had figured out how to bring back a version of the OGL that would equal massive profits for WotC. Enter the DM’s Guild. An online virtual bookstore, and the suggested selling spot for any and all 3rd party supplements for 5e. The problem is, the fine-print of the new OGL allows WotC to take any content printed under that license and reprint it as their own without even crediting the 3rd party that created it. WotC and the host of the DM’s Guild, OneBookShelf, also take a cut of every digital sale. How much of a cut? Good luck finding out, because the explanation of how much creators get in royalties on sales is not at all transparent.

The DM’s Guild not only feeds money into the WotC coffers without them paying anything out, it also creates a source of concept material that they can reap without additional royalties to those designers. Basically, anyone who writes material and posts it up on the DM’s Guild has acted as very much the part of the “free” in “freelancer”.

From a business stand-point, it is genius. Just let your fans and those trying to get noticed in the industry do the work for you. Not only do you get to take a big chunk of whatever they are earning for their work, but you also get to pillage whatever you like because you now effectively own what they’ve posted on DM’s Guild.

I’ve looked at the term’s and conditions, and they are NOT creator friendly.

[Edit: further research on this issue has revealed that releasing 5e product on other hosting sites other than DM’s Guild mean that you get to keep copyright on your product without automatically surrendering it to WotC. I will keep researching that, and reviewing the current OGL.]

Not only that, but now the central model for developing new products produced “in-house” by WotC is largely reliant on book-by-book contract “freelancers”, who part of their contract is a strict Non-Disclosure Agreement, basically saying while working on a project they can’t say anything about that project or even that they are working for WotC until they are explicitly allowed to do so. Even then, stories that have come out from freelancers who have worked say that the pay winds up being extremely low, they receive no royalties, no creative claim to the work, are told what to post on social media to promote the materials, and are basically treated horribly while the full-time team at WotC reaps the rewards.

This is not even delving into increasing evidence that various “top dogs” at WotC have been enabling and covering up abusive behavior by certain associates.

And now, the cherry on top of the miasma that is WotC D&D, the design team is claiming that the flaws in the game are in fact somehow strengths, because a gaming group can always just change what they don’t like!

The difference now is that I never had any illusions that TSR “cared” about me. They made a product. A game. That game was broken as all get-out. But my friends and I were on epic quests. We didn’t need anyone at TSR to tell us, “Hey, you can change what you don’t like!” Of course we could change it. We weren’t bound by their rules. But that wasn’t a feature of the game. It was a flaw. It is still a flaw! If they wanted to create a modular game where the group could use system 1, 4, 6, and 10, but drop the rest, that would be a feature of the game.

For instance, in 5e feats are listed very clearly as “optional”. You know what isn’t listed as “optional”? Alignment. The entire section on alignment is packed with some problematic issues that players have been talking about for decades. The response from key design team members? “Don’t like alignment? Don’t use it! Your DM can get rid of it.” This is a bad take. It is a relic of older editions where the magic user could simply cast Detect Evil to identify which NPCs could be killed without issue. It is like playing a video game where “enemies” have a red indicator and “non-enemies” have a green indicator. Alignment should have been stripped from the game years ago, or at least flagged as “optional”. It still lingers, even though it no longer has any mechanical relevance.

Another response to the fan base (in a now deleted tweet) is that the people who are the “loudest” about the issues with the game clearly have not read the PHB and the DMG. *slow clap* “BUT WE PROVIDED YOU WITH A TOOL KIT! IT’S A TOOL KIT! WITH TOOLS!” Yes, it is a tool kit, in the same way that the old work-bench in my old garage was a tool kit. I couldn’t find anything, because nothing was ever clearly labeled or sorted. It is how I wound up with multiple pairs of vice grips, because I could never find that set I had purchased, so I went out and purchased another. Unless you are doing some serious wood-working, no one needs that many vice grips! And I’m just going to come right out and say it: the 5e Dungeon Masters Guide is a mess. None of them have been top-notch. I’ve been using the 3.5e DMG for fifteen or so years now, and I still have problems locating all the treasure tables (which should literally have been one after the other in the book, but they aren’t). Keep in mind that the 5e DMG dedicates a third of its content to treasure. At least this time around, they put it all in roughly the same spot, even if the entries lack the breadth of prior DMGs. So, that’s great. At least I know which drawer all my nails, screws, and bolts are, but why they are sorted by size, and not type, I couldn’t tell you.

The reality is, that as it has always been, the people complaining the loudest are the people who want to see the game be better than it is. The desire to have all things balanced out is the influence of MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, and was really what made 4e the bland mess of a system that it was. While I have no desire to return to the different experience markers of 1e and 2e, there wasn’t a major issue with certain classes being sturdier at lower levels, but others continuing to scale more and more powerful, especially if you are using the game primarily as a combat simulator. In its desire to pander to balanced play, WotC has stripped certain elements out. These are not offered up in “optional” rules, and you wind up with an entire class that no one wants to play. (If you don’t know, that class in Ranger. The Ranger is a largely worthless class in 5e because no one knew how to really make it special. Instead you wind up with a powered down fighter who gets some nature-based spells and an animal companion that you really want to keep away from combat because IT WILL GET KILLED! Effectively, they gave the Fighter a dog and some tangle-foot bags.)

So what you get with 5e is a system more reminiscent of 2e, but without any of the originality and flair. Most of the adventure books are just rehashed old modules (some quite literally using the same maps, with minor modifications) from 1e or 2e. Seriously, how many times do we have to run through the same basic adventure in Barovia? And most of those times if you are not running an optimized party specifically designed for that adventure book, you’re going to get squelched in the first handful of encounters playing RAW. The Sword Coast of the Forgotten Realms has become the default setting, even if the design leads keep shouting that it isn’t. (Seriously, by my count around twelve of the 5e books are set in the Sword Coast or adjacent to that area. That’s roughly half of the books released at this point.) We are finally getting some new setting sourcebooks for Ravnica (about time they used some M:tG settings), Eberron, Wildemount, and Theros within the past couple of years.

All in all, 5e has proven to be…underwhelming. Relying on nostalgia of the broken systems of my youth to convince me that D&D is back to its roots. The problem is, the roots were bad.

What I have come to realize most is that D&D under the ownership of WotC and Hasbro Interactive has become dull. Maybe I would feel differently if I was into Critical Role, but I’ve always preferred playing games over watching other people play them. Not a value judgment, just a statement of fact (this is the same reason I get no pleasure from watching sports).

To end all this mess of a rant, I’m going back to Afion. The setting that was created with the people who welcomed me into their homes…their lives. Some of those people are gone now, but I will always find ways to ensure their memories live on in our shared world. And I’m not ready to throw that away.

Afion

The fantasy world of Afion was developed by myself and a wide array of friends and players over the years. For the last several years, it has been shelved, awaiting a new group to explore what it has to offer.

As of this writing, I feel more like the caretaker rather than creator. The history of the setting started out way back in the long-ago when my crew of 7th Grade misfits discovered Spelljammer.

The Spelljammer campaign setting for AD&D 2nd Edition was released in 1989, and was an immediate hit with my group. My friend Lance and I had come up with extensive backstories for all of our gruff and brooding characters who started in the Forgotten Realms setting for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (2nd Edition by this point). The problem was, we always felt we were playing in someone else’s sandbox. Spelljammer offered our characters a way off the world of Toril, to sail the stars and venture between crystal spheres to new worlds.

The world that my characters would wind up on was dubbed Afion. My guess is that the name was a minor alteration of the name Albion (possibly the oldest recorded name for the Island of Britain). I know it wasn’t a reference to liquid opium. We didn’t have the internet back then to just look up any letters we smashed together to see if they were already words, and I don’t remember it being in my dictionary. So, Afion stuck. All I can remember is that I named it, because it was my world for my characters. Lance’s characters got their own world, and I can’t remember its name (it wasn’t my world after all).

Afion would really start to take shape the summer after 7th grade, when my new friend Rob and I would spend the night or weekend at each other’s homes. Those weekends were pretty much non-stop gaming sessions. I remember we hacked down AD&D 2E down to pretty much the core six stats and a d20 for everything. When we did play D&D, we would play it in Afion. We created cities, and two rival nations: the Drake Empire and the Kingdom of Rolyntyr. We created historic figures, legends, and started to really flesh out Afion. Without Rob, there would not be an Afion. Our friendship and our frenzied weekend gaming sessions would continue through 8th grade, after his family moved about an hour away. Our moms wanted to keep the friendship going, so about once a month one of us would visit the other for the weekend. When Rob would come down to visit, sometimes a few of our other friends would also come over, and we would play whatever new TTRPG we got our hands on.

The summer after 8th grade would see my family moving across the state. Trips to visit Rob became infrequent, but we maintained contact through high school by, get this, writing letters and sending them in the mail. We really wouldn’t get back into regular contact until I moved back my senior year of high school.

My new group of gamer friends in high school weren’t really interested in fantasy role-playing. They were more intrigued by this new (to us) miniature game called “Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader”, and then “Vampire: the Masquerade”.

In my own spare time between computer games, hanging out at the pizza joint, and reading comics, I still worked on Afion. I created a timeline of events, made very detailed maps of cities and countries, and continued to build up a detailed history.

In college, my old gaming group from back home would merge with another group, and we would eventually go back to D&D, with the release of Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition. With the release of 3E, I was able to pick up a 2E compendium on CD-ROM for around $20. That CD-ROM also included a map-making program. Thus began the creation of what would be dubbed the “Big Ass Map” or BAMP. Why not BAM? I guess we just liked the sound of BAMP better. The BAMP went through several color ink cartridges, was then mounted on multiple pieces of poster board, then hung up on the wall of the “gaming room” in my one bedroom apartment. Yes, I turned the bedroom into a gaming room, and just put my bed in the front living room area. My girlfriend at the time was not terribly happy about that decision, but I had lived in a tiny dorm room for a year prior, so this just made sense to me. The BAMP detailed one continent of Afion: Drachenheim. Before the BAMP, Afion had been the name of the world, and the primary continent. When creating the BAMP, I realized that the region that my players would be exploring was just a small fraction of what Afion would have to offer.

History (for Afion at least) was also about to take a dramatic shift. I discarded the Spelljammer “colonization” story, with that old band of adventurers arriving on a world already populated by generic “monsters”. Afion was now something drastically different. Humans had arrived on Afion when their old world was destroyed after the dominant cultures had stripped that world of magic. Using the last reserves of magic stored, refugees boarded arks to be directed through the planes beyond to a new world. The Humans would also bring along a species created by magic that served as their servitors, known as Orcs. The arks would scatter survivors across Afion, with most of the clusters being grouped based on point of origin. Cultures from the “World That Was” were tossed around, arriving next to cultures that had been on the other side of their old world. In the Southeast tundra and ice flow region of Drachenheim, the refugees came from a culture similar to that of Nordic Europe. Shortly after arrival, the majority of the humans would rise up alongside the enslaved Orcs and slaughter the nobles trying to proclaim themselves leaders in this new land. Slavery of any sort would be deemed forever banned in these lands, and by the time of the BAMP, the people of Ardrik were a mixture of Human and Orc ancestry. By the time of the BAMP, Adrikaar abolitionists had spread the movement across Drachenheim, and none of the cultures (Human or otherwise) would continue the brutal practice of slavery.

The problem is that Afion was not unoccupied when Humans arrived. Elves, Dwarves, and other intelligent species had migrated over, brought as faithful servants by Dragon “gods” a thousand or more years prior. Great civilizations had rose and fell by the time Humans arrived. The city of Xaxchil, the jewel of the Drake Empire, known for its unique architecture, had once been the center of a Kobold trade network.

Even the Kobolds got a rewrite for Afion, sharing a common ancestry with Afionese Gnolls. The Dragons who were drawn to Afion discovered they could not leave. The world was a trap for them. It was also a twisted gift, granting Dragons immortality and god-like powers. However, they could not breed true. When their eggs hatched they produced stunted scaly Kobolds, or physically powerful and fur-covered Gnolls. The Gnolls were nomadic hunter-gatherers, while the Kobolds were more interested in building grand structures and engaging in the study of more “philosophical” pursuits.

I could go on and on about Afion, its history, its various eras, the cultures, the continents, etc. And I probably will, just not on this post.

What I’m going to talk about is where I went wrong. Drachenheim was largely based upon European cultures. The Drake Empire was very Germanic, while the nation of Ardrik was Nordic. The Principalities of Taniroth were influenced by Middle-Ages Italy. Even the Dwarven nations were heavily inspired by Gaelic and Celtic cultures. Basically, even though there were non-White people inhabiting Drachenheim, that setting was extremely white. That shouldn’t come as a huge shock. Everyone at my table during the height of my Afion campaigns was White. I came from a White background. Learned very White-coded and White-washed history. Is it any wonder that the setting I would spend so much time creating and infusing with bits of cultural fragments would be predominately White?

Afion did start to change the way some of my players looked at what D&D could be. I ditched alignment. My reasoning was, if a creature is intelligent, it is not inherently good or evil. They were all people to me. Yeah, sure, the Elves of D’Linthineal, or Oberalfen, were xenophobic and racist in particular towards Dwarves, but that was just one Elven nation, and not all of the Oberalfen shared these opinions. The subterranean Elves, or Unteralfen, were not inherently evil. And Orcs were just another group of…people. My players learned fast that entering into every scenario swords swinging was going to end poorly for them. My own ideology permeated the game, that use of force should be withheld as a last resort. D&D 3E with its ridiculous amount of skills and broadened non-combat options provided an exquisite framework for this developing world of political intrigue and high sorcery.

I realized even then, my setting was still extremely Eurocentric. So I expanded things out. I introduced a new continent to the West of Drachenheim. On the Eastern edge of the continent would be the Empire of the Sun, inspired by Japanese feudal culture rinsed through the filter of multiple white writers (“Shogun” by James Clavell, “Legend of the Five Rings” by Alderac Entertainment Group, etc.). Across the mountains to the North were the Three Cities, a nation inspired by the height of the Joseon Dynasty of Korea. Across the mountains to the west was a vast nation that simply referred to itself as the Kingdom, centered around the city of Cheng Shen (we didn’t have Google translate at the time), aka the City of Spirits. The Kingdom was inspired by the latter years of the Chinese Han Dynasty, just prior to the Three Kingdoms Era.

Because of course I went with Asiatic cultures next.

Then I introduced the Khem. The Continent of Khem was to the distant East of Drachenheim. It was a largely desolate land-mass. The Khem were an arcano-tech civilization (complete with fantasy mecha suits) that had their origin based on ancient Khemetic Egyptian cultures. When the Khem were first introduced, they were invading other nations, as they held the belief that Afion was at risk of the same destruction that came to The World That Was, and that only through restricting the usage of magic could that destruction be halted. The Empire of Khem would be confronted by a coalition of nations and people across the world of Afion, but ultimately it would be internal conflict and the rising up of the enslaved people of Khem against their own corrupt system that would end the war. It was a “world war” scenario, and the adventurers weren’t even central to the greater conflict.

There were other nations that the adventurers never explored, inspired by cultures of Southern Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. I even had plans for introducing civilizations inspired by indigenous North, Central, and South American cultures.

I read real world history on various cultures from around the world to bring those elements to my table. I wanted diversity. I wanted to show how amazing and different and wonderful our own world was to a group of White twenty-somethings in Missouri.

And now I come to why Afion has been shelved, indefinitely. Prior to the release of 4E, I began to compile a setting source book, complete with detailed history, new classes, feats, and an overhauled spell-casting system that would ditch “Vancian” magic. I wrote around 200 full-text pages of material. Then I realized something. Not once had I asked someone other than my immediate group of White friends what they thought about what I was creating. Never did I ask someone of non-White background to take a lot at it, see if they could clean up things that I got really wrong, or that were flat-out offensive. Most importantly, never did I attempt to contract a sensitivity reader, and PAY THEM A REASONABLE AMOUNT to go through 200+ pages of setting material.

I know, it was just a game for me and my immediate group of friends. It was, and still is, a labor of love, but before I can release it in any iteration upon the world, I’m waiting to have the funds to be able to pay creators and sensitivity readers from various backgrounds to build upon the world. To make it better. To make it a world that anyone, of any cultural background, can find a place without sacrificing their culture for the comfort of the White players at the table.

I’ll never completely give it up. If nothing else, it will live on in the legend of the BAMP. It will live on in the memory I have of seeing Jeff’s smile vanish while the rest of the table celebrated, as he looked across the table at me, and then saying, “Everyone. Shut up. We fucked up. The worm never actually attacked us. We weren’t supposed to kill it. We just royally fucked up.”

Despite its flaws — Despite MY flaws — I think that for a time, this fictional realm helped make our own world a bit of a better place. And we can do that without embracing the bigotry and coded language of past creators that are systemic in fantasy tabletop role-playing games. We can use these games to help decode and break-down that kind of thinking. And get this:

We can have a lot of fun, a lot of joy, a lot of emotions, while we do it.

Afion is my personal beacon of hope. What’s yours?

Welcome to the Library

So, I just dumped a few bucks into starting this up. This is effectively a place for me to share my thoughts on whatever random thing pops into my head that I feel like writing about at the time. Take much of this as a stream-of-consciousness type thing.

Let me start with an introduction: My name is Clark McVey. I am an attorney by profession, but my passion is tabletop role-playing games, which this blog is primarily dedicated to.

The first time I played I was seven years old. My brother, who was eleven at the time, had a friend coming over to stay the night. That friend brought a backpack containing a game new to my brother and I…Dungeons & Dragons. I played an elf. I had to fight a living statue that looked like a goblin. I don’t recall much else. Over the next year, my brother would get the red box Basic set, and I would sneak looks at it when he was off hanging out with friends. I was already familiar with “The Hobbit” thanks to the Rankin/Bass animated feature. I was obsessive about “Star Wars”, “Transformers”, “G.I. Joe”, and “He-Man”. I was fascinated with the “Robotech” toy line, although it would be another year before I saw a single episode.

When I was nine years old, I would start 4th grade at a new school, in a new town after my parents’ divorce. The first kid I really made friends with was a bit unusual. We bonded over Transformers, but he would introduce me to Marvel Comics (The X-Men in particular), Night Flight, and most importantly to this blog, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

From there, friends moved, became not friends anymore, and new friends were made. I moved my first year of high school to a new town, started over, made more friends who played tabletop role-playing games, and then a few months into my senior year would move back to my prior town after my mother divorced her latest husband, where I was welcomed back with open arms by my old gaming crew. AD&D would become 2nd Edition AD&D. I would discover new games, like MERP, Paranoia, TMNT, Battletech, and the Star Wars RPG!

And other than a few years here and there when I did not have an active group, I have continued to purchase, read, play, and run these games.

My groups frequently ignored setting “canon”, and went our own way. Most of the time, we made our own settings. We didn’t even learn the term “homebrew” until the early 2000s. It was just what we did. If a rule didn’t work well, we threw it out. We weren’t playing in RPGA sanctioned games for points. What did it matter if we followed the rules as written? We used systems for settings they weren’t designed for. We had EPIC story-lines. We had feuds. People got booted from groups (including me, during one particularly odd coup).

I made life-long friends. I lost friends. I’ve had friends die way too young.

Tabletop Role-Playing games brought us together. Those games made the memories I will cherish forever.

But as I’ve gotten a bit older, and a bit grayer, and a bit more experienced in many facets of life, I look back on the things I love with a more critical eye. What I once considered progressive now seems a bit damaged. It will never change the memories I cherish. Memories of our games together are all I have left of Lance, Greg, Chamberlain, and others.

And I want to see that next batch of kids be able to pick up games, and enjoy them within the current framework of society. To not tell the one girl at their table, “Well you can’t play X, because girl characters get a -Y to stat Z.” Or to say to their one Black friend, “You can’t be an Elf, unless you play a Dark Elf, because they’re the only Black Elves.” (Seriously, these are things I remember hearing when I was a kid, and we got this stuff because of the game books and the artwork contained within those books.)

So, this blog is going to contain a lot of that type of criticism, issues that I’m able to recognize now that I wasn’t able to see as a kid, and how the TTRPG community seems split in twain by those trying to make it a better place and opposed by those who will defend that which they loved in the form they fell in love with it, because, “I grew up playing it that way, and I turned out fine!” (No. You did not turn out fine. Far from it.)

Buckle up. Call me out on my shit. I don’t sleep much these days.