I've steered clear of the controversy surrounding the OGL, which I'm sure, if you're reading this blog, you will have heard of.
This is mainly because I haven't made up my mind about it. I feel sorry for publishers who have relied on the continued existence of the OGL for their business model, but on the other hand, evil faceless megacorporations are going to evil faceless megacorporation, and CEOs and Presidents owe a duty to the board to maximise shareholder value. Wizards of the Coast didn't create the OGL in the first place in the interests of 'the hobby' or because they were nice guys. They did it in the interests of being more profitable. They evidently think that there are other ways of being yet more profitable (though I understand there may be a bit of a tactical retreat taking place). Complaining about their behaviour now is a bit like the proverbial frog complaining about stung by the scorpion.
In summary - Wizards have behaved very badly, but nobody should let corporate PR and a commitment to CSR lull them into a false sense of security about what companies are. As a rule, Wizards - in common with lots of modern consumer-facing businesses - works hard to make itself appear fluffy, caring, and welcoming. It does this not because it actually is, but purely because it sees an advantage in doing so. It seems incredible to me that people don't get this, but then again suspicion of capital has largely disappeared from left discourse in recent decades, and hasn't existed on the right really sine the 1960s, so perhaps I shouldn't be all that surprised.
The thing that should send you running shrieking for your life from WotC-D&D is not really its OGL-related shenanigans but the way it talks about its customers. What worried me about Cynthia Williams' statement about D&D's 'undermonetarization' was not that she wants to monetize it (that's her job) but that she dressed up her ambitions for WotC as being to 'serve [customers] by giving them more ways to express their fandom'.
Not giving them more ways to express themselves, you'll note, or to express their creativity - or even, which would be perfectly laudable ambitions, giving them more ways to play, more worlds to explore, more options - and certainly not giving them better value for money (how quaint). No: better ways to express their fandom. The implication is clear; WotC does not want customers who merely buy D&D and then play it. It, like many companies, wants fans who identify with the brand in the same way that fans identify with a sports team - uncritically, irrationally, and loyally. It wants people who see 'being a D&D fan' as part of their identity. And, by extension, it wants as its customers people who see spending money on WotC products itself as an expression of who they are. It doesn't want to serve you by making products you'll enjoy. It wants to 'serve you' by convincing you that spending money on its products is a way of being who you are.
This, I submit, ought to be intolerable to human adults who value their agency, and in its own way, writ large across the consumer sphere as it nowadays is, it poses almost as significant a threat to our collective humanity as do developments in AI. Your identity is not a commodity, and should not be expressed through the commodities you buy. If Marxist critique ever had any overriding point of value to make, and it surely did, then it was surely that. Yet many, many people seem to have arrived at the position that there is absolutely nothing wrong with idea that it is so.
Once again I find myself lamenting the strange death of the 1990s nerd - the counter-cultural nerd, the unruly nerd, the nerd holding out what I once called 'the possibility and promise of non-conformity with consumer capitalism'. What happened to that nerd? I find them very difficult to find.
*[I am currently running a Kickstarter for the 2nd edition of Yoon-Suin, the renowned campaign toolbox for fantasy games. You can back it here.]
The executives around when the OGL was created were 90's counter culture nerds. They based the OGL on the GPL and it was explicitly meant to avoid a single corporation from controlling the hobby. Here's an interview with one of the architects of the license who is a former VP at WotC.ReplyDelete
Well, at least one person who worked at Wizards and helped create the original OGL, Ryan Dancey, has come out publicly against the changes and says they're against the spirit of what he intended: https://rsdancey.medium.com/22-years-ago-i-saved-d-d-today-i-want-to-save-the-open-gaming-license-77e79eaddfb2 . Also, Dancey pushed back against Wizards when they initially added a "we get to review your D&D3e books for offensive content" clause way back in 2003 due to "The Book of Erotic Fantasy"... another plus for him in my book.Delete
We’re still here, but unlike so many tribes, we don’t require constant attention, so the discourse passes us by. It’s also possible that we’re just old and uncool.ReplyDelete
Being old and uncool is so uncool that it's cool.Delete
I went back and read your NERDDEATH post. I think a lot of the comments fill in the grey that I was going to try my hand at sketching.
I don't know what time period in your life you felt you had access to this counter-culture. When was it and when do you feel it was lost? Because two things present as possibilities: (1) a community and ethos evaporated or (2) you lost touch with it.
I don't want to write either off, though I think one is much easier to imagine than the other.
I certainly have found, trending upwards in age, that people have become rounder characters to me. I've shaken hands with my high-school bullies and sat with them at the bar and discussed their pursuits, and they mine. I've found that those I'd assumed vapid, dull, commercial, popular, 'not worth my time', were in fact riddled with disease or had family issues that they kept in reserve in school.
This has led to my 'conformity' in some regard. It doesn't answer any question about commercialization of our passions which I suspect is a mixture of (1) fun to win at, (2) a desperate effort to survive in a capitalist system that has put a price on the grass and mud you stand on, and (3) an unconscious shifting into the greater herd for the sake of comfort; but even if it doesn't get at the point of commercialization, it does answer my own version of your question, which is: I don't have someone to antagonize anymore because I've either in part, become those I antagonized in small ways, or found as often that those I antagonized with my queerness & peculiar ways to be undeserving of antagonism. The 'surety' of my nerdiness no longer matches my internal sense of how the world works. It's a very wobbly place and the best method I've found of being at its court is to be flexible with its demands, to listen, to act less and, when I find something I enjoy doing, to do it to the fullest extent I can.
But I think many people, young people, ARE pressing against the commercial mass. There are people gluing themselves to oil paintings. And I know you're lamenting a particular kind of rebel or outcast or 'nerd', and I don't know if that's specifically someone that associates with the games that you or I play, but it would be a little mothy to imagine that a kid seeking to be new and do something different is going to follow a path that hundreds and hundreds of us have now walked.
Which, shortly, is to say: we've dug the furrow with our feet deep enough to make it 'the easy way' to be a nerd, and being a nerd was never about exploring the topics, games, objects, or interests that many others do.
The question of whether this is just me losing touch with that ocunter-culture is interesting. I'm perfectly open to that being the case.Delete
What I suppose I was writing about in these posts is that nerd culture specifically seems to have become co-opted, and become symbiotic with, a certain 'brandification' of consumer capitalism, such that a large percentage of nerds now seem to see what they buy as being an expression of their 'geek' identity in a way which was nothing like as pronounced 20-30 years ago. I don't think this is a good thing.
It's great if young people are pushing back against it but I have to say I personally don't see a huge amount of evidence of that. But, as you rightly point out, it could just be that I've got old.
I remember 1994 as the first time I found an entire bookcase dedicated to TSR products at the home of someone I visited to play D&D2E. No fantasy novels other than tie-ins, and to pass time before the game he brought out a D&D trivia game which assumed the players would find it fun to compete on the basis of their knowledge of their licensed characters. He struck me as an outlier then, but I could tell he was the wave of the future.Delete
The post you linked to about the death of the nerd was great. This is something I have thought about a great deal but have had a difficult time articulating. At one point I said something to someone much younger than myself about missing when music was potentially actually a little dangerous and she absolutely didn't understand. At the heart of it (in my muddled little rat's nest of a mind at least) is corporations co-opting counterculture which seems to me to have started somewhere in the late 1990’s alongside society’s embrace of the ironic over the earnest.ReplyDelete
I don’t know exactly why, but this also brings to mind a David Foster Wallace bit about how the attempts of corporations to seem like your friends creates despair. I’ll leave it here I guess and then shut up, because I doubt I could say it much better, and I think it goes to the heart of how and why people buy into corporate bullshit and why they should not, but before I do I will also say that I’m not trying to indicate someone who has bought in to these ideas is stupid, because that’s not necessarily the case at all – because the folks that are trying to create this effect of corporations being your friend are very smart, and very good at what they do, and have a lot of resources to do it.
"An ad that pretends to be art is – at absolute best – like somebody who smiles warmly at you only because he wants something from you. This is dishonest, but what's sinister is the cumulative effect that such dishonesty has on us: since it offers a perfect facsimile or simulacrum of goodwill without goodwill's real spirit, it messes with our heads and eventually starts upping our defenses even in cases of genuine smiles and real art and true goodwill. It makes us feel confused and lonely and impotent and angry and scared. It causes despair."
Great comment and great quote. He was on the money.Delete
Reminds me of Peter Handke, being a bit more pithy: "An advertisement informs me that life is beautiful - a personal insult." Expressing perfectly the distaste that one feels when an advertiser tries to give you kitschy warm fuzzies.
Even pithier is the title of a book from Dog Section Press (which I own but haven't read): Advertising Shits in Your Head.Delete
Great post. I don't see quite enough of these ideas in OSR spaces, and right now is certainly the time to bring them forward.ReplyDelete
What happened to that nerd?ReplyDelete
They reached 40 and now rich and jaded enought that selling them back a sanitised version of their youthful weirdness works both for them and the likes of Hasbro or Marvel.
Ha! Well, there is certainly an element of that, but I think outside of OSR circles the D&D buying demographic is actually very young?Delete
Well said. I was just thinking to mash how absurd it is that Wizards is apparently doing this to protect their “IP”, which they seem to think is owl bears beholders and Mordenkainen. As if that’s where the value of the game lies. Of course I am a 90s nerd who still enjoys how a dnd session is a place where a person can exist apart from capital and commodification.ReplyDelete
Yes, that's the whole point to me. It's a world outside of that.Delete
The 1990s nerd is the 2023 shitlord Hitler admirer. He’s also the only one left who is suspicious of capital.ReplyDelete
Shake hands with him and see what he has to say.
You're not hanging out in wide enough circles if you've never met a modern communist, and they have effectively zero overlap with Hitler shitlords.Delete
I genuinely don't understand this comment. Who are the Hitler admirers and why are they the only ones left suspicious of capital? And is being suspicious of capital good or bad in your view?Delete
Noisms, perhaps I'm being entirely too charitable to the other anonymous fellow here, but I read him as saying that "Hitler admirer" is what the guy gets called now who used to get called "nerd". Nerd used to be a pejorative, now it isn't anymore, but we still need a pejorative to express our contempt of that gross outcast, so we determine that he is in fact a Nazi. This familiar outcast happens by coincidence to also be the only class of person retaining a substantial skepticism of market logic, all others having been captured by corporate branding and fake, consumption-based subcultures.Delete
OGL existed because it maintained this fluffy reputation. Matt Colville (I know, I know) had a good commentary on that. It goes like: "One faction in Wizard of the Coast believes D&D needs a rich 3rd party ecosystem to thrive. The other faction hates all their competitors with a burning rage.". Most 3rd parties didn't trust WotC wholesale. They just believed that WotC objectives were aligned with the community best interests. Matt's comment was made after the OneDnD reveal. The 1.1 OGL announcement confirmed this new direction.ReplyDelete
Concerning D&D as a brand identity I fully agree on what you said.
As for the nerds, I feel that all the smaller RPG communities are full of them. One thing that I find fascinating with this hobby is how anti consumerist it is. Grab a few blank sheets, pencils and dices and here you go! Those people exist and they are great. Sure they are not the majority but they never were and they never will be.
Yes, there is even a way to envisage RPG playing as Marxian 'praxis' on those terms....Delete
It's ironic that some folks who complain about lack of player agency in RPGs, will not think twice about giving up their agency to identify with an RPG brand.ReplyDelete
Non-conformity became an identity, a badge of righteous identification. Thus it became something to be pandered to and cultivated. As soon as there was the perception of a shared nonconformity, it was merely another identity, and obsession with identity across all political ideologies leaves the door continuously open for companies to affirm those identities. "Counter culture" and "nonconformity" rarely remain such for long; they're merely new identities to be bought and sold and serviced. So long as another facet of society is held up as the supposed singular dominant force or perspective, the people welded to the nonconformist or anti-establishment perspective will happily worship the establishment in another of its hydra-headed guises.ReplyDelete
Yes, a very important point, this.Delete
You've pointed at some interesting distinctions in re fandom. Whereas AI now feels like a technological inevitability, the "fandom" structure of the relationship between fans, IP and corporations feels like a cultural choice, i.e. it doesn't have to be this way (and wasn't always). I blame social media.ReplyDelete
Several elements of the woke belief system were born in internet fandoms, so the overlap between identity politics and fandoms shouldn't be surprising. I don't get the impression that most people "value their agency" as you say.
Also "Marxism–Leninism was the first 20th Century fandom. Discuss."
Social media is always to blame!Delete
I think the roots go deeper. I am not a fan of Naomi Klein in general but her No Logo was very important on this point - this confluence between capital and identity goes back a long way.
I'm not convinced. The identity politics that drives this ('I identify as a D&D player!') derives directly from Marxism and post-Modernism and it's all about being put in a box/putting yourself in a box. And it really took off with the millennial generation, so us Gen-X'ers missed it.Delete
Th nerds are just fine, thank you. We have still no obligation to buy anything we don't like and already got content and stuff enough for the rest of our earthly days, more than likely. Also I'dont think that anyone ever made the decision to be an outcast for the sake of "rebellion", some people are just born in a curious way so that they have little interest in the banal digressions the mainstream has to offer.ReplyDelete
I had an epiphany when the OSR was blossoming and realized you don't have to follow the newest products, in particular at the time Warhammer Fantasy. Fuck corporate.ReplyDelete
I had a Pot Noodle yesterday for lunch and I noted that even a basically kind of shite snack food tried this - on the packet was all this existentialist drivel about showing your identity via choice of Pot Noodle, and how it showed I was a fearless free-thinking bla bla bla. Are there 'fans' of Pot Noodle? Does whoever makes Pot Noodle really think they can cultivate the Pot Noodle superfan who identifies with the brand? It seems like deluded wishful thinking on the part of the purveyors of Pot Noodle, and I think WOTC will run into the same rocks if they pursue this strategy.ReplyDelete
Ultimately, this is a game of imagination. If they launch their highly monetised brand-conscious subscription D&D, people will simply move on to buying a product that gives them the space to be imaginative and strange, and, frankly. where I don't need to convince every player to pay a fee just to try it. But I will miss the shared language that the "D&D renaissance" has given up when we all fracture into a million systems and IPs and games. I'll miss just dropping "5e wizard spell list" into Google rather than fucking about with a physical book, too.
Yeah, that kind of thing is everywhere and I wonder if it's just because marketing people all did courses which tell them to do this kind of thing? The local buses in my area all have posters on the sides with something similar, encouraging you to think of yourself as one of five or six different archetypes of bus passenger. Weird.Delete
Keep in mind that marketing people aren't marketing only to the consumer, they're marketing to their bosses as well. It doesn't really matter if the ad works to sell more Pot Noodles to consumer, as long as it works to sell the ad to the boss.Delete
Is it just nerd culture or youth counter culture as whole which has gone? Teenagers split into tribes by their taste in music seems to be a thing of the past. Rebellion seems to be more individualistic and personality ethics defined in this era.ReplyDelete
Nah, mate, we're just old.Delete
By definition it's really hard to know if it's because we're old and out of touch or because things are genuinely different. It could actually be both!Delete