Critical Role, Character Death, and Inclusivity — Further Oncological Discourses in Dungeons & Dragons

I originally wasn’t going to weigh in on the whole Critical Role thing in a blog post, because it was easier to just make fun of it on Twitter, but some conversations yesterday have me thinking this is worth a post.

First of all, if you’re not familiar with Critical Role, it is essentially people LARPing as tabletop gamers.

Don’t watch too long, it’ll make you want to tear your hair out.

What they’re doing is basically Soap Opera with D&D trappings, and they have a following of both gamers and people who are just tuning in for their stories. The questions of whether or not people who don’t actually play D&D but listen to shows like Critical Role are “part of the community” ruffled a lot of feathers recently.

The current debacle stems from a “beloved” Critical Role PC dying in the game. The DM/Showrunner claimed he had been getting tons of hate from fans about how awful it was that this character died. While I didn’t see any of these threats on twitter, where there was mostly an outpouring of “we lurve u”, someone did link me to a now deleted Tumblr post [gone before I could even archive it], so I suspect that a lot of it coming from the D&D Tumblr crowd.

Black Leaf died

D&D is a game. It is a game where characters CAN and DO die. People who are unable to accept that fact, or worse, blurf about “muh favorite LGBT fictional character was murdered by a cis het DM!” are garbage.

But there’s more at play than just Critical Role having a character die.

There are two major reasons why character death has become taboo in D&D.

The first is something that’s always an issue for new DMs and people that are new to the game: people are scared of letting characters die because they worry how it will reflect on them as a person and as a friend because they can’t gauge the seriousness of the emotional reaction it may elicit.

The second stems from mechanics that make character creation a tedious and laborious process; if it takes over an hour to create a new character, any PC death means that the game either stops for the group or for the player for an extended period of time while they create a new character. It becomes easier to go along to get along, fudging to keep characters alive, especially since D&D has shifted away from “game” and towards “story”. Characters dying derails or delays the “story”, and many people have a hard time accepting that (and expectations set by D&D-grotesque online soap operas don’t help).

Black Leaf

These are both things that can be fixed, however.

The first PC death for a DM and a group is the hardest, but once it’s out of the way, everyone can breathe a sigh of relief after realizing that life, and the game, goes on. It’s cathartic. While I don’t advocate going out of your way to kill a PC as soon as possible, I do advocate letting the dice do their job. The sooner a new DM and their players realize “we’re playing a game, we’re not making a soap opera, and Marcie isn’t really going to hang herself because Black Leaf died”, and the sooner the new DM is no longer worrying about what their friends will think when the inevitable happens, the sooner the group can actually start enjoying D&D for what it is—a game of daring adventure.

Unfortunately, this is apparently a VERY controversial piece of advice.

It even got me attacked on grounds of “inclusivity”.

twitter spergout

Popularity and Inclusivity are two things, and I’ll address both. Popularity quickly, because I think it’s less important.

In the 80s, D&D:

  • Was selling over 750k copies a year
  • Was publishing multiple NYT Best Selling books
  • Had a cartoon show
  • Had two official magazines and countless fanzines creating community content around the globe
  • Was culturally relevant enough to scare reactionaries absolutely shitless
  • Was sold in toy stores

D&D today is still popular, and the internet allows for fan content to be created and shared more easily, but it’s hardly the culturally significant phenomenon that it was. Cameos in TV shows written by and for Gen-Xers may inflate the significance a bit, but the number of people playing D&D is harder to figure. Sales for the 5e PHB only reached 800K in total in 2017, according to what sources I could find. And that’s not a complete game the way that TSR’s Basic line (which sold better than AD&D because it was in the toy sections at retailers) was, so it’s kind of an apples to oranges comparison.

Inclusivity is the more serious issue that I think needs to be addressed. (The notion that B/X is racist, however, is so ludicrous that it merits no response.)

I believe that inclusivity is more than just “muh representation”. It’s about accessibility. A game that is inclusive is a game that almost anyone can pick up and learn to play and can teach to others.

why bx

Is 5e accessible? To run a game of 5e, you need to buy about $90 worth of books. If you want to just be a player, you could get away with the Player handbook, which costs $30ish (apparently you can “rent” a copy for $20?!?), though everyone who knows the game knows that the best way to play and find people to play with is to be able to run the game yourself. But three thick-ass books that you’ve sunk nearly $100 into is a lot to digest. The size and cost alone may be daunting enough to discourage new players from entering the hobby.

Compare that to Holmes or Moldvay or Mentzer. You went to a toy store and for ~$5 you could get a box that had a short booklet with an easy to learn and well-presented set of rules for both players and DMs, an adventure that was written to teach players how to run a game and ultimately create their own campaign, and even the dice you needed to play.

So, which is more “inclusive”? The game that any kid could pick up with his allowance, that only cost a bit more than a couple of comic books, that he could read cover to cover in an hour and teach to his friends, or the game that costs as much as your utility bill with books so thick you could kill a man with them?

 

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Holmes D&D: An Interesting Conundrum

Next month at a local RPG con, I plan on running the Holmes Basic sample dungeon, Tower of Zenopus, and I intend to run it using Holmes Basic/Blueholme rules. I’ve run it in the past before using B/X, and one of the reasons why I want to run this at the con is that I’ve run it before for a library program and know I can run it in a 6 hour timeslot.

Now, because I am a very busy person with a day job, a weekly column, a gig moonlighting as a retro-game reviewer, and will be shipping out a book I’ve published this month, I was hoping to find some reliable char-gen out of the OSR community so I wouldn’t need to roll up 20 characters by hand. I mean, it wouldn’t take me more than a couple of hours, but still, I wouldn’t mind saving the time.

What I found in the character generators I came across was interesting… While they had some really good features, particularly equipment generation, they either made the mistake of assuming Holmes used B/X’s magic system or they paid lipservice to the INT % modifier but did not calculate a list of known spells. Typically, they would just list one random level one spell that the MU/Elf knew.

I think part of it boils down to early D&D weirdness; the early games don’t actually work the way that most of us assume they work. Whether it’s giving all Magic Users “Read Magic” “because you need it to learn spells” or having B/X characters learn new spells from scrolls and having a spellbook containing more spells than the character has levels, DMs do a lot of stuff that’s not in the book. I’ve done it, too, sometimes from ignorance, sometimes for convenience. But we tend to make a lot of assumptions on how things works and cobble something together from memory and experience of multiple different systems rather than go by the rules.

I’ve never run pure Holmes before. In fact, this summer’s Ultralich mini-campaign is the first time I’ve tried running pure B/X [usually I’ve done weird alternate magic rules that are slightly more AD&D-esque, because those have a more Vancian feel].

I want to get that weird “this is not like D&D you’ve ever played” experience from the game I’ll be running, so I’ll be adhering to the following:

-No STR bonuses. Yes, that’s right, OD&D and Holmes did not have Strength bonuses. STR was purely a “roll under” stat.

-Magic Users will have their spellbooks with all 1st level spells, some of which they’ll know, others they will not.

-Dex-based paired initiatives.

-No Variable Weapon Damage

-Variable Weapon Speed

We’ll see how it goes! I’ll be brushing up on Holmes the next few weeks and see just how little I actually know about this edition!

D&D, Wild Stars, and Cirsova

I’ve been wanting to wait until I run it for my players before posting the final level of the Ultralich dungeon, but we keep having delays. I may go ahead and post the keyed map later this week regardless of whether I’ve finished running it or not. I think that generally only one of my players follows the blog, and I don’t know how religiously they do so.

The Wild Stars books have shipped to Little Rock, so Michael and I will be stuffing boxes around the end of the month. This may be some of the hardest money I’ve ever earned as a publisher, but it’s been a lot of fun. Tara Grimravn, who’d written a review of our last Cirsova for Tangent, posted a review of an advanced copy of Wild Stars: Time Warmageddon here. Delays in publishing the review meant that it didn’t go live in time to help the Kickstarter, but it’s good to know that we put out quality work.

If you missed out on Wild Stars, you’re not completely SOL. Though the print run is confined to orders for the Kickstarter, Michael will have copies for sale at his Little Rock and North Little Rock stores, and I’ll have a very small supply of my own for sale. This could be a “must-have” item for Tim Lim fans, because the print-run on copies with the Tim Lim cover is ~120.

Cirsova Issues 9 & 10 are available for pre-order here. If you want more Cirsova in 2019, we need to raise another $3600 in 25 days.

Pre-orders for Issues 9 & 10 are live!

We’re taking pre-orders for issues 9 & 10.

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1161542777/cirsova-vol-1-final-issues-9-and-10

Q: Why is S&H so high?

A: It’s not. We split out S&H cost as a separate item for once. HC tiers are actually cheaper than they have been in the past.

Q: So you mean you were selling the magazine for $6 a copy the whole time?

A: Yes, I’m bad at business.

Q: Wait, so you’re kickstarting for $5k?

A: Yes, that’s actually what it would cost to publish 2 issues of Cirsova.

Q: Usually it’s been way less!

A: We’ve never broken even, and I’m out of fun money. All my resources are now sunk into Illustrated Stark.

Q: What happens if you don’t raise $5k?

A: 9 & 10 are in the can, fully paid for. This $ is being raised for 2019. If we don’t raise it, 9 & 10 will go up on Amazon when they would’ve anyway, and I don’t spend a hectic week entering fulfillment data.

Q: Are these really the “Final Issues of Cirsova Heroic Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine?”

A: Yes. If we get enough money to launch vol 2, the subtitle will be different. If not, there’ll be a break in 2019 while I scrounge $ for a vol 2.

Q: So, when are you taking submissions again?

A: When I have at least $2000 cash-on-hand necessary to make acquisitions, pay Anton Oxenuk for his marvelous cover art, and Xavier and Mark for their copy-editing.

Wild Stars and Cirsova Updates

Man, I can’t wait to have time to write content that’s not just an update on some project…

We’ve put in orders for the Wild Stars hardcovers. Once the softcovers are approved, we’ll put in the order for those.

Very soon, we will be taking pre-orders for Cirsovas 9 & 10.

Please do not be too exhausted spending money on crowdfunding stuff.

Issue 9 Cover no ad v2 low res coverIssue 10 cover 1 low res.png