We’ve all rolled our eyes at it, of course, and chuckled at how blatant a ploy the whole premise is. Is some of the popularity of the site (his followers count officially stands as of this writing at 319) due to the premise? Undoubtedly.
But if that’s all it was, there’d be no there there. And between his kit-bash house-ruling, his actual-play reports, his off-kilter but fascinating art, his original monsters and his thoughts on repurposing traditional monsters, there’s quite a bit there for actual RPGers to enjoy.
So I’d like to take a moment to compare (a bit more than contrast) Playing D&D with Porn Stars with a blog that might at first appear to be its polar opposite. This site, however, also plays on the readers’ baser urges, but this time it’s our desire for comfort, for the warm fuzzy blanket of tradition with a hint of nostalgia and just a pinch of novelty and righteous indignation. It’s a heady brew that plays the Norman Rockwell to Zak’s Alberto Vargas, and has landed a cozy 409 followers.
I speak, of course, of James Maliszewski’s Grognardia.
Again, the title is genius, taking a term of mild approbation and wearing it like a badge of honor. It flies in the face of pop culture, of conventional wisdom, and is playfully deviant. It’s also perfectly descriptive; just as Rush Limbaugh and Markos Moulitsas do for their respective ends of the political spectrum, Maliszewski’s primary message is “you are not alone; here’s someone else who knows that something is wrong with RPGs and hasn’t been right in nearly two decades, someone who takes these matters at least as seriously as you do.” Grognardia has established itself as a (if not the) tentpole blog of the OSR.
I think, however, that both have a lot in common, especially when it comes to explaining their popularity. First, both take their subjects seriously and treat them with respect, but they come at it from opposite directions. The trick with Playing D&D with Porn Stars is to prove that it’s not just a gimmick; actual D&D is being played with actual porn stars, and it’s not just kicking down doors and thumping orcs for pie. (That last part is probably easier than it looks, since new players are often more interested in exploring all the possibilities of the medium than old hands.) Zak manages this primarily by speaking intelligently about the details of the game and offering concrete, common-sense advice for the issues he faces while DMing.
The trick for Grognardia ought to be proving it’s more than just a camping ground for cranky ramblings about those darn kids these days and how they play the game wrong. James, however, blew past that hurdle long ago, primarily by treating the subject as an intellectual and academic exercise. His delving into the history of the hobby, it’s roots and paths-not-taken and personalities and inspirations, has given the OSR the bedrock material its needed to understand what it is they’re doing and where they came from. (Mr. Maliszewski claims the OSR is really a Counter-Reformation, but in truth it seems to follow the patterns of a classic Reformation movement: a return to basic principles and a “purer” vision of the past from which to launch a new beginning, in response to the perception that the current caretakers of the old tradition have gone too far astray. If there is a Counter-Reformation going on, it’s probably Paizo’s Kingmaker, as it attempts to wed the best of the Reformation ideas with the practices of more modern systems. Or possibly Cook’s Dungeon-a-Day project, but I couldn’t really say since I’ve not heard much about it in a while.)
The challenge for James has actually been avoiding becoming (or, more accurately, being perceived as being) too dogmatic, dry, and stuffy. He does this by poking fun at himself a lot, and by showing that he’s actually playing and having fun with this stuff. (That, actually, is vital to understanding the success of the OSR as a whole, but that’s a topic for another post.)
It’s interesting to see how this informs the small details on their blogs. For example, let’s take a look at the icons they use as their personal images. James has taken to using playful pictures of himself in Halloween costume or, as currently, peeking through a King Tut cut-out. I think it’s likely that both of these pics were taken during outings with his own children. He follows it up with the following tongue-in-cheek bio:
Eternal Pharaoh of the Old (School) Kingdom, he prolongs his adolescence by playing in the woods with his legions of fawning sycophants, from whom he will brook no dissent.
Zak, on the other hand, has his crowned skeleton, an image in black and white and grey with only a splash of color in his own personal style that highlights his being a professional artist. The scratchy penwork flies in the face of the clean and graceful artwork found in 4e and other more mainstream publications, so while it may not exactly be metal it’s absolutely in fitting with the DIY and the crazier-the-better stylings of the OSR.
And then there’s his very interesting (in its very mundanity) bio-blurb:
I'm Zak, I live in Hollywood. Most of the people I know in LA I know from work--so they're porn stars and strippers. So that's who I play D&D with.
Very low-key, very down to earth. And almost apologetic, as if he were saying, “Hey, it’s not like I set out to attract a bunch of porn stars to play D&D with me. These are just the folks I hang out with. It’s not my fault they’re more interesting than another crew of balding, slightly overweight middle-managers, Python programmers, and frustrated novelists.” ;)
But again, we’re talking trappings here. If you want to get to the core of their popularity, you need to step back and look at the basics. Both post daily, nearly every day. Zak's blog is rather young, but he seems to be consistently hitting more than 25 posts per month. James is a monster when it comes to posting: 675 posts in 2009 alone, nearly two a day. He started the blog in late March of ’08 and still cranked out an impressive 449 posts that year. And he’s not let up the pace much at all. This month, he’s logged 55 posts, better than two a day.
And it’s not just blogging. You’ll find Zak’s writing in the latest issue of Fight On! just as you’ll find James’ work in a number of other issues. They link to the work of others. And they both just plain write well about interesting topics.
Finally, they leap at (or make their own, and I suspect it’s a bit of both) opportunities. Zak’s I Hit it with My Axe! may be a bit more flashy than James’ articles in The Escapist, but both are actively working outside our little echo chamber here to spread the word.
And that, ladies and gents, is how it’s done.