Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Abandoned Territory

DRAGON magazine #154 was published in February of 1990. It’s largely a forgotten issue (the theme was war, but wargaming was out of vogue in the RPG world at the time, so it mostly talked about historic examples of military conquerors, feudalism, and heraldry) except for an editorial by James Ward entitled “Angry Mothers From Heck (and What We do About Them).” This was the infamous article in which Ward explained that the 2nd edition of D&D (published in ‘89) lacked half-orcs and assassins and renamed demons and devils in order to avoid the negative publicity that had dogged the game through the ‘80s. The article loudly trumpeted the fact that D&D was about good, heroic characters and teamwork, and would feature “wholesome” content that would be beyond objection.

The result? Well, causality isn’t an easy thing to trace, but in ‘91 we got Vampire: the Masquerade, the game where you played a blood-sucking undead slowly losing their humanity. V:tM was wildly popular (though we don’t have numbers to know if it was Pathfinder-levels of popular) and brought lots of new faces (especially female ones) into RPGs and LARPing.

When a successful RPG publisher states, “This we will not publish,” what they’re doing is abandoning territory to their competition. They’re making it easy for you to find customers they’re not servicing (or to peel off customers they’re servicing poorly). WotC did something similar at the dawn of 4e, basically stating that they were no longer going to publish material in compliance with 3e’s OGL and abandoning those customers to Paizo. (You could say a similar thing happened at the dawn of 5e, but licensing issues and a perceived lack of popularity have prevented much of anyone from capturing the old 4e audience, to the best of my knowledge.)

Of course, everyone has their limits, and it’s interesting to note how Paizo has quite purposefully positioned themselves just a smidgen outside what WotC considers acceptable. While what is considered acceptable isn’t always easy to pin down philosophically, most of us can recognize where something falls on the spectrum when we see it. D&D looks like this, Pathfinder looks like that, and the thing over here with the penis-slugs has got to be LotFP.

This is what makes an article like Kotaku’s “Dungeons & Dragons’ Gradual Shift Away From Monster Boobs” interesting. While it’s not an official pronouncement from WotC about what will and won’t appear in D&D, it’s pretty close, including lots of quotes from Senior Manager Mearls and Lead Rules Developer Jeremy Crawford.

While at first blush it appears to make enough genuflections to political correctness to warm the cockles of any HR manager’s heart, that’s almost entirely from the author of the piece, D’Anastasio. If you read the words of Mearls and Crawford, you get a very different message. Here’s a list of quotes plucked from the article and out-of-order to make it clearer what I’m getting at:

“We’re equal opportunity cheesecake merchants,” Mearls added. “We don’t assume heterosexual male players.”

In an e-mail, Mearls said that nymphs were simply unpopular monsters among Dungeon Masters. 5th edition was designed after crowdsourced playtesting, and over 175,000 responses from early testers confirmed that gamers prefer elder brains and beholders, apparently, to monster boobs.

“When we considered the audience, we tried to think of how men and women would react, and make sure the reaction we elicited was in keeping with the monster’s character and the design intent,” Mearls said.

Bare breasts are absent from Volo’s Guide, the latest supplement to the Monster Manual out in October of this year, in what Mearls says was a conscious effort to “make sure that the art we presented was as appealing to as wide an audience as possible.”

“I think there was a feedback cycle where the inner circle of fandom was mostly male, that group gave feedback on what they liked, and you had art that delivered what they wanted,” Mearls said.

The Mearls quotes almost seem to backpeddle on the promise of the article’s title: “No-no-no-no-no! We’re not removing the cheesecake, we’re just recalibrating it to appeal to a wider audience. Calm down, owners of Hasbro stock. We know sex sells; we’re just making sure we use as broad a scatter of titillation as possible.”

It’s an interesting dance, one in which WotC attempts to both cater to current corp-world pieties while still promising to satisfy the entertainment-hungry customers. Of course, it’s mostly for show; as the article makes clear, D&D’s days as part of a counter-culture are over. Nobody turns to D&D manuals for titillation anymore. The idea is laughable, like someone saying they get turned on by perusing O’Reilly programming manuals.

Which means there’s lots of abandoned territory there. And I mean LOTS! Venger Satanis has staked out his claim to part of it, with his focus on campy, ‘70s comedy mashup of Benny Hill and Star Crash. Raggi’s planted a few flags on the hill of sex-as-body-horror, but he’s hardly saturating that market.

And that, to the best of my knowledge, is all there is, really. Both Numenera and the new Blue Rose give a wink-and-nod to sex-as-empowerment, but their love-as-thou-wilt (pun intended) ethos is rather lacking in friction or heat.

Compare that to where popular fiction has taken the subject. The obvious point of reference is Game of Thrones. You can probably get there from the new Blue Rose (there are some intriguing relationship mechanics in the game I haven’t had the time to deeply explore yet), but it’s not the direction Blue Rose is pointed. You can probably tack that on top of D&D, but WotC has no interest in helping you out. Pathfinder would love to point you in that direction, but they won’t go there with you.

And that’s not even touching the real 500 lbs gorilla in the marketplace: romance. Monsterhearts is a (small) step in the right direction, but also an understandably timid one that’s a bit mechanically complicated in all the wrong places. (The fact that it started out as a lampoon of Twilight that morphed to embrace Gingersnaps and Jennifer’s Body says a lot about why the game stumbles. When we get a game that openly embraces Twilight without a hint of irony, then we’ll know we’re on the right path.)

I should add, I say this not having played Monsterhearts, so if someone’s got a more experienced opinion on this, please speak up. Also, if there are games out there that I’m missing, please say something. The market’s so broad now, it’s easy to completely miss huge swaths of it.

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