Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Why Write Reviews?

I've not made a great habit of writing reviews on the blog. In fact it was sort of a policy of mine initially that I wasn't going to do them. I've let that slip from time to time because a great product or other has caught my attention, and also because, let's face it, Yoon-Suin benefited hugely from very kind reviewers who gave their time to write about it in detail; it would therefore be pretty churlish of me to object to reviews in principle - not to mention bad karma.

That said, my friend Patrick (I think I have known Patrick and been playing games with him since at least 2010, which is kind of terrifying) recently posted an interview with Bryce Lynch, the man behind Ten Foot Pole - one of the best and most rigorous RPG review sites on the internet. And this gives me the opportunity to think and write about reviews in general.

When the subject of reviews of "OSR" type products comes up, one of the first things that will pop out of somebody's mouth is that there is almost no proper critical engagement with the work, and everything is just unthinking and uninformative enthusiasm. I've never had a huge problem with this. In fact, I think of it as an evolutionary process of a kind. The products that people buy and like, get eulogised to the heavens. The products that people buy and dislike just don't really get talked about. Thus by a process of natural selection you tend to end up hearing about the signal and not hearing about the noise.

The natural response to this is that without critique you will tend to get work that doesn't push boundaries, innovate, or satisfy needs. To which the quick answer is: Have you read Fire on the Velvet Horizon? Castle Gargantua? A Red and Pleasant Land? And the long answer is: Seriously, you think boundaries get pushed by having lots of critics? Have you seen any film at the cinema lately? We now have more film critics than ever before, with more access to bigger audiences (in fact everybody is a film critic these days, spewing opinions onto the internet in volumes inconceivable 20 years ago). Does it strike you that this has been a boon for innovation and quality in Hollywood?

I also think there is something about creator-owned art which ought to insulate itself from harsh or rigorous critique. There is nothing to be gained by giving a kicking to something produced as a labour of love by somebody in the evenings and weekends. In fact, since the creation of labour of love products is so uncynical and fundamentally good-hearted in 99.9% of cases, I see no problem at all in the adage that if you can't say anything nice, you shouldn't say anything. I would rather review the things I like and hold them up as examples of best practice, and simply not mention the rest.

None of this holds true for "professional" products produced by the big companies, of course. But I don't buy any of those. My review for all of them is: don't waste your money. There's a rebuttable presumption that they are shite.


  1. @ Noisms:

    RE: "I also think there is something about creator-owned art which ought to insulate itself from harsh or rigorous critique. There is nothing to be gained by giving a kicking to something produced as a labour of love by somebody in the evenings and weekends."

    While a lot of times I DO abstain from talking about products that I don't like (usually because I believe NO publicity is better than giving ANY publicity to a bad product), I have been known to be critical of these "labors of love." It's not just that I'm mean-spirited (I don't THINK I am...). I have an assumption that most people doing this kind of stuff...even indie hobbyists...would like to make something of quality, and criticism helps folks to get better.

    I've had more than a couple people send me their products, specifically so I could review it. I have had other people send me stuff NOT for review, but for critique and comment BEFORE they publish it. I guess I feel that a little negativity can be helpful (I've tried to incorporate the negative criticism I've received in the past into my future designs). If all we do is blow sunshine up each other's orifices, can we really hope to improve?

    Well sure, okay, probably (practice making perfect and all that). But honest criticism can help improvement occur at a quicker rate. In my opinion.

    1. Well, there has to be a distinction drawn here between criticism before and after publication. Constructive criticism is of course vital before anything gets released. I'm not saying that critique is never, ever useful. I'm just questioning the value of negative reviews in the context of DIY D&D products.

    2. @ Noisms:

      Um...toughening someone's skin?
      ; )

      I don't know, maybe there isn't a value to being negative. And being positive is encouragement and positive reinforcement and all that. I just try to be honest with how I feel (when I bother to review stuff at all)...and maybe I'm just a Negative Nelly.

  2. ==no proper critical engagement with the work

    It is not 'critical engagement' that is lacking but honesty and standards. Contempt is a natural reaction to much of what has been produced and contempt hardly needs one line of expression. Contempt is healthy where it has been well earned. Malice whether sportive or hurtful comes much later and is a reaction to vanity and delusion.

    ==I think of it as an evolutionary process

    Well yes people get what they deserve; the OSR developed the environment it deserved. I saw the writing on the wall very early 2010? when I noticed that self-admiring bloggers could not endure the democratic level footing they experienced on forums, where people were discussing exactly the same kinds of things.

    The web facilitates discrete spiraling into comfort zones in which a personality may be soothed by pale reflections of his own thought. In the real world I argue with my friends and friendship survives. The intellectual huddling on the web is unhealthy and distresses the imagination.

    ==I would rather review the things I like and hold them up as examples of best practice

    I hold the same stance in the vast, mind boggling space of achievement in art, music and literature. One lifetime is not enough etc...

    RPGs do not overwhelm the mind with galleries or libraries of masterpieces. They remain an underexposed field with potential but as yet so little merit that it is perpetually in danger of being inundated with mediocre fever dreams of cliche, drowned forever in hogwash. I think the brightest critics, not me, are excluded from the sort of swift surgical condemnation which might open up a new era of slightly higher standards.

    1. Contempt is a natural reaction when WotC or Paizo produce yet another bland, production-line style adventure that any DM could dream up in given 10 minutes and a pencil and paper. It isn't a natural reaction when some harmless hobbyist puts together a PDF and puts it out for a nugatory price - those things are completely different.

      People keep saying that "critics" could "open up a new era of higher standards", or words to that effect, but I'd love to hear a persuasive argument that has happened in the worlds of art, literature, or film. I just don't buy it.

    2. We're kind of in a unique situation where a good number of the critics are creators themselves. That's a very different situation from the outsider looking at material from the distance and claiming to be able to accurately judge it. Out reviews can also be feedback to the creators, based on our own experience of the craft.
      Few things that are released are outright bad with no redeeming qualities. When a review goes into detail about what elements are seen as shortcomings and what the reviewer thinks might have been a better choice, not only can the creator ponder these arguments and perhaps do better the next time, but all the other readers could learn something as well, many of which are creators themselves. In an environment where reviewers and readers are also creators, I think well argued critiques could actually do a good deal to increase overall quality. But that's something that really only works when reviews mention the flaws and shortcomings and are more than just collectively patting each other on the shoulder.

    3. Contempt is a wholesome reaction to material put out by forty year olds that could have been produced by ten year olds. Harmless? yes, but so is picking one's nose in public.

      We are not using the word 'critic' in the same way. I don't mean the formal dedicated reviewer, I mean anyone at all who voices his reaction to a work. It is a good question what purpose this serves in the end.

  3. Yesterday I bought Lusus Naturae because of the great reviews and about an hour later I regreted this waste of 6€. There isn't anything in this book that's of any use to me. If some of the reviews had provided some information on what's actually inside the book instead of limiting it to how good that stuff is, I might probably not have bought it.
    Now would be a good opportunity for me to write a review for it, but I don't want to just say that I didn't like anything in it. That wouldn't really help people either and I am not even sure if it's actually bad at what it does. I just don't like what it does.

    I think part of the problem is that these things are made and reviewed by such a small group of people. How many of us are there? Maybe a hundred? There probably is a big hesitation to say bad things about each other's work. Those creators are not some unknown entities in some remote part of the world, but you probably talked to them and they are probably going to read what you write about their work, and they are likely to be the people who will review your own. (Though admittedly, the two most infamous confrontational creators are doing exceptionally well business wise, but we probably don't want to take that as our regular form of exchange.)
    I think maybe a good way to approach reviews is not to say whether it's good or bad, but to focus on what things we found useful for ourselves and where we think the authors could improve in their future works. That would be information that's actually useful for people.

    1. Good points. Even good reviews have to be "good" themselves, though, don't they? I'm not saying that a good review has to be just "This is excellent, buy it!!" I think providing information on the contents of the product is sort of a bare minimum, and is very useful and important.

  4. I know as a creator I held back. As of late I plan to not do this, even though garnering the ire of the popular creators could be damaging. Ah well. I just have to suck it up and plow forward. Additionally, I think creators give reviews that are different than an unbiased source. Notice "different" not "better". A person reading the review should know this upfront. For example: When I review D&D based stuff (because I have my own game) my review is going to reflect this. I am not a fan of D&D. I have my own thing. Just because I don't like D&D doesn't mean those products have to be bad. You also mention that professional stuff from the big guys is all shite- this I do not agree with. Numenera and Burning Wheel are both excellent systems, just as there are Indy things out there that are not good. I believe as creators it is impossible to separate our egos from the process.