Friday, 24 June 2022

On Mid-late 90s Sincerity and Role Playing Games

I was a bit of an unusual teenager, looking back, in that I had my feet in two quite distinctive camps. On the one hand, I was part of the extreme lower middle class RPG/wargame/metal scene. We played D&D, we played Warhammer, we played Shadowrun, we got stoned, we listened to loud music, we got into tussles with 'hippies' and 'scallies'. 

Yet I was also really into Counting Crows, Dawson's Creek and Changeling: The Dreaming

When I try to explain to my kids what the dominant aesthetic of the mid-late 90s was like, I will call it 'sincere'. This was before the internet set off an irony bomb under everything (circa 2003), before a pornographic style and attitude began to pervade the popular culture (beginning from I think the noughties), and before social media started to make everyone really angry and depressed (from, say, 2014). It was a time during which we were encouraged to see the best in one another and to look to the future with optimism. The teen films of this era are distinguished by being positive about the relations between men and women in particular: think of American Pie, Clueless and Ten Things I Hate About You. They are all about boys and girls learning to get along - especially about boys figuring out how to be sensitive and emotionally aware. These films don't undercut this message with meanness or archness. The message was sincerely meant. Back then, we valued the idea that everybody could learn to rub along.  

Dawson's Creek was the apogee of this turn towards sincerity. As much as it had elements of humour, the series was unrelentingly intense and serious about teenage travails. Sex was not pornographic or transactional, but imbued with almost metaphysical meaning; divorce was treated as weighty and agonising; homophobia, snobbery, mental breakdowns and the like were considered sensitively; above everything else, the storylines revolved around finding love, which seems almost passe to our irony-infused, post-internet gaze.  

And the look of the series - let's just go balls to the wall and call it its mise-en-scene - buttressed this mood. In Capeside, it always seems to be late summer or early autumn. The music is earnest, romantic, singer-songwritery, po-faced. The visuals are elegaic, somehow evoking nostalgia in its teen audience for an era which has not yet passed - the era of their own youth, passing before their eyes. Phenomenologically, watching Dawson's Creek was a bit like being transported into the future to inhabit one's own middle-aged self, and looking back at one's own teenage years through the rose-tinted spectacles of time and distance; it somehow felt simultaneously set now (1998), but also set then, as 1998 imagined as the semi-distant past. 

The music of Counting Crows also seems to encapsulate this era. Adam Duritz's lyrics are expressionistic, romantic; his heart is worn on his sleeve; he never tries to be funny or sexy, but always earnest about emotional affairs. The relationships he depicts are imbued with drama and pathos. They all seem to matter, not just to him, but somehow to the very universe itself - as though part of some grand narrative in which matters of the heart are all engaged. It is all so very sensitive (a word which women used to useall the time, it seemed, in those days: "If only I could find somebody sensitive.") 

Watch Duritz go - this, whatever else you might say, is a very sensitive man:

It could just be timing, but I can't help but feel that something of this aesthetic filtered into role playing games, perhaps in Vampire: The Masquerade, but most notably in my experience in Changeling: The Dreaming. I never really played Changeling, not much, because the way it was presented by White Wolf made it essentially unplayable; but what I did do was look through it lovingly and wallow in the waves of bittersweetness and nostalgia for lost youth that seemed to wash out of its pages. It struck exactly the same kind of notes as Dawson's Creek did: it felt elegaic, sorrowful about the passing of time, veiled by late-summer sunlight, and above all obsessed with the importance of feelings sincerely felt.

If you're not sure what I mean when I refer to this aesthetic, then looking at some internal art from Changeling communicates it, I think, perfectly. I mean:

(You probably have to 'embiggen' that one to get just how Dawson's Creek it is.)

There is a bit of mid-late 90s sincerity to the D&D of that era, as well, to my eye - indeed, it wouldn't surprise me at all to learn that Monte Cook had also been into Counting Crows, Dawson's Creek and Changeling: The Dreaming. This was the period during which TSR, and WotC after it, really began to get serious about PCs having an emotional life of their own rather than being mere ciphers for the players. Gradually, it began to seem as though it mattered for PCs to have personalities, feelings, and relationships. Dungeoneering and gaining treasure was passe; what began to matter was story and "role playing rather than roll-playing". The whole enterprise came to be very sincere as a consequence.

Sincerity is entirely defensible in TV, film, literature and music, but not, I think, in the context of games, where it easily becomes very cloying and awkward. With that said, a little goes a long way: the OSR often seems to pride itself on having a lack of sincerity, and a sprinkling of a little po-faced sentimentality may be what is needed to freshen things up a bit. 


  1. I'm around your age (41 at the moment) and a lot of what you're writing about sounds VERY familiar.

    I really like your description of a mood of fading summer, of being nostalgic for something that isn't gone yet, all of that seems very 90's. And there was certainly a very well-developed sense of po-faced depressive earnestness.

    I'm just not sure how "sincere" a lot of that was.

    I remember in the time of Beavis and Butthead, American Beauty, Fight Club, The Matrix and all the rest being enthusiastic about things was seen as fake. If reality was washed out and bittersweet then NOT being mopey, detached, and bittersweet was like the Italian leather sofa in American beauty, the Ikea furniture in Fight Club and the, well, Matrix in The Matrix just a bunch of fake shit that had to get peeled away to get at the heartfelt sorrowful core of reality.

    This mean caring about a lot of stuff got seen as suspect (at least in my high school) and you had a lot of well-developed juvenile performative apathy.

    I think this is where all of the ironic crap of the next decade came from. If caring about stuff was suspect then the best way to care about things was to care about it ironically and that's where we got hipsters and all the rest from.

    1. American Beauty seems very much in the "sincere" vein, to me. Think about the plastic bag scene. The message of the film seemed to me to be about exploding suburban superficialism to find the real emotions underneath.

    2. Yes, exactly. It's just that a lot of this sincerity brings to mind the famous Groucho Marx quote "The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you've got it made." I'm not saying that it was ALL fake, but in a lot of places (like my old high school) the sort of cultural milieu that you're talking about here was strong enough that all kinds of honest enthusiasm got dismissed as superficial to the point that just honestly really liking shit got looked down on as phony. Remember Catcher in the Rye making a big comeback at that time, and that kind of juvenile try-hard falling everything "phony" was pretty popular at the time.

      Not saying there wasn't good things to this time or that we haven't replaced it with stuff that's a lot worse in a lot of ways (will happily take performative apathy over modern frothing rage) just that I don't think a lot of that sincerity was all that sincere...

  2. It's odd: the culture of that entire period between the "end of history" and history's reunion tour on 9/11 is a complete mystery to me. I only see a sea of meh, and can't distinguish between any of it (except for a bit of stuff from 1996, when I worked at a "digital lifestyle" magazine and so got to learn who Oasis and the Spice Girls were). That's partly, no doubt, down to my age, but also because I spent the first half of the decade immersing myself in the most wilfully obscure culture I could find, and the second half as the parent of a small child, barely engaged in any culture other than Thursday night comedies on BBC2. Even now, there's little from that period that I can get a purchase on (and *no* American TV series to date that I can sit comfortably and watch). I seem to have a blindspot which makes it all recede to grey. And the sincerity of it feels to me so... insincere; pure sheen.

    I haven't really encountered any RPG stuff from that era previously (my playing petered out pretty much exactly as the 90s started, and as the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay that I loved got sidelined in favour of what felt like a bunch of shark-jumping stuff about space orcs). I wasn't at all aware of the more wistful "sincere" side of RPGs that emerged during that period, but looking at the stuff here - again, my vision slides off the veneer every time I try to look at it.

    I'm half aggressively fond of the spikier 80s aesthetic I grew up with, and half jealous that I'm unable to appreciate the sincerity which I'm sure you're correct in saying is there, but which to me feels shallow.

    (And I do think the "end of history" had a lot to do with this aesthetic: once folks grew up no longer expecting to die in a nuclear war, the only thing that was left to care about was our emotions, and the floodgates opened to a new soft-airbrushed culture that was perhaps too subtle and nuanced for me to pick up on).

    And there, it seems, is the border between Gen X and the Millennials.

    1. You are terribly old and clapped out!

    2. Can I be one but not the other?

    3. "I am old, but alive. Perhaps as you age, you will find the two are not mutually exclusive."

  3. "Late 90s aesthetic?" I missed that there even was one.

    Sadly (perhaps), I stopped listening to new music circa 1996...and skipped out watching television from 1992 till 2000 or thereabouts. I've never seen Dawson's Creek and know nothing about it. Had to look up Counting Crows to remember that song "Mr. Jones" my memory, that all just melts into the stupid Blues Traveller, Dave Matthews, crap summer music. I tended to listed to darker stuff...things I don't listen to now because I'm in a happier, more well-adjusted headspace (ahh...the silly angst of youth!). All the stuff from that decade NOW, regardless of genre, seems It wasn't *earnest*...but it was all (lyrically) about sad, real life shit. Whether the sound was upbeat or heavy. Where once only thrash metal was doing negative themes (if they weren't singing about their favorite horror or scifi novel) suddenly everyone was expressing their childhood traumas and broken relationships and chemical addictions and issues regarding money and religion, etc.

    The excess 80s glam rock, "good time" party stuff shuffled over to the hip-hop scene. Rock became a variety of ways to be introspective about their shitty personal beefs. Just a different way to be immature (whining, bitching and moaning)...but whatever, that's fine. Musicians have to eat, too, and the genre was "different." At least we could understand 80% of Sublime's lyrics (as opposed to 10% of Nirvanna's and 50% of Soundgarden's). Give 'em some money.

    I played Vampire the Masquerade from 1990 till 1994. Thought the whole line of WoD was interesting and acquired as much of it as I could, right up till Wraith the Oblivion. Then I took a stopped being about gaming and started being about fiction and exploration of fiction. And I'd already found (through the earlier iterations) that it was immensely difficult to find/make a meaningful GAME with such stuff. Lord knows I tried. Found"girlfriends" through those games (I'll use a charitable term) than satisfactory escapism. Eventually chucked it all and simply pursued the girls and recreational pharmaceuticals solo withOUT all the "gaming."

    Till I started dabbling with D&D again (in the 2000s).

    The early 90s were a continuation of the late-80s which (in my little world) was a reaction to the bullshit brought about by Reagan and his cronies. The end of the Cold War suddenly gave folks...what? opportunity to contemplate the shallowness of their lives and/or their society's values after living for a decade like It-Can-End-At-Any-Time-So-Let's-Get-Our-Rocks-Off.

    Earnestness? No. Directionless-ness.

    Much of what's come down since has, unfortunately, been worse. In most every regard. However, I've found that children (and even young adults born since the late 90s) are generally KINDER to each other than any generation ever before. All the polarized assholes out there, spoiling for a fight, are geezers my age (or older). The kids are nice, even if they're a bit soft and their music is all auto-tuned and shit. Hopefully they'll make a decent future.

    1. I don't know if kinder is the right word. They seem very milquetoast to me. Is that the same thing as being kind?

    2. If you can't have kind, then milquetoast will do. I don't think the polarisation belongs to any one generation, though. Boomers aren't swatting ASMR streamers, doxxing TERFs, or denouncing their own professors for the crime of heterodoxy. I doubt boomers know what those first two examples even mean.

    3. Yeah, young people deploy their aggression online. This might be why they appear so nice in person. They've got no bile left for their daily interactions.

    4. Young people absolutely are kinder, to their in-group at least, though they have little or no forgiveness or tolerance of transgression.

      The best thing by far I have read about Gen Z is John Higgs' book The Future Starts Here - it takes a very optimistic view (as does all of his writing - he is, after all, the person who coined the phrase "pessimism is for lightweights") but one that I find hard to fault. One of his main theses is that Gen Z marks the human race's return to collectivism and groupthink - individualism has only been the norm for a little over half-a-century of our species' existence, and it could be argued that it's individualism which is driving the species to extinction. Lynch mobs are no fun, but they're what humans have always done to keep the species in line.

      The book opens with a section on how Gen Z look at the film The Breakfast Club, a view which is both a bit mind-blowing and also so fucking obvious that it's a wonder we Gen Xers and Millennials got the story so completely wrong all of this time. You can read it here:

  4. I could say many bad things about media from the 90s, but sincerity is definitely in there too. There were lots of stupid and perhaps overly dramatic things, but you always felt that they really meant it.

    Thinking back, I think even AD&D 2nd edition had that sincerity. In hindsight, I find Forgotten Realms material from the time excessively quaint and pastoral, to the point that I wonder how you are supposed to play a monster slaying game in it. But it came definitely across as sincere.

    1. Yes, I agree, and it's a good observation about Forgotten Realms. Like the platonic D&D session would involve no combat at all.

    2. I feel like Ed Greenwood was channelling that Tolkien tension when creating the Realms. Like Tolkien would have preferred LotR to be just hobbits bimbling about the Shire, but I guess there has to be an epic, continent-wide clash between good and evil, fine. Anyway, about Bombadil's boots...

    3. Terrifyingly, I think Tolkien would have preferred LotR to mostly be about elves singing and reciting poetry.

  5. About the replacement of sincerity with sarcasm in mass-marketed media since the '90s, I agree to a point, but my comment is to help readers understand that the '90s was not the time that "it began to seem as though it mattered for PCs to have personalities, feelings, and relationships. Dungeoneering and gaining treasure was passe; what began to matter was story and 'role-playing rather than roll-playing.'" Already in the '70s, RPGs that featured relationships as part of character generation existed. Debates about the nature of role-playing were fervent already then, when dungeoneering had become passe for many indeed before 1980. D&D's mass-market success eclipsed that. If memory serves, I first saw the expression "role-playing not roll-playing" in an ad for Chaosium games in the early '80s. One need look no further than games like Pendragon (1985) and Ars Magica (1987) for systems in which characters' emotions and relationships are part of the individuals' stats or generation, or earlier to the systems in games like Champions (1979), The Fantasy Trip: Into the Labyrinth (1980), and GURPS (1986) in which relationships or emotional tendencies can be character traits. It is not correct to link the origin of this kind of role-playing sincerity with the aesthetics of the 1990s, although they coexisted. Already by 1978, there were macho detractors of namby-pamby or awkward feelings in immersive role-playing and such unmanly decadence as chivalric romance in RPGs. And never mind the old discussions about sincere loyalty to "alignment"!