Monday, August 6, 2018

The Depth of Zero Charisma

I AM Scott Wiedemeyer!!

I've talked about Zero Charisma before, and if you want my short review of this movie: Zero Charisma is an amazingly insightful piece of cinema with a powerful message about how the popular media has co-opted the nerd culture and D&D in particular.

People have mixed feelings about ZC and its message but I think that is a part of the problem that ZC itself addresses, or else is the opinion of those that miss the larger message of the film. Watching the film again last night (it can still be rented on Amazon and with a 73% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and 6.3 stars overall it is likely to be available for awhile at least) gave me pause to consider not just the overt message of the film: "what is a real nerd?"; but the deeper issue of my growing dissatisfaction with the roleplaying industry, culture and the current state of D&D.

In a WIRED article shortly after the film was released the idea that ZC didn't do nerds any favors was addressed. This idea was fronted by an io9 writer but very adequately addressed by the film's writer Andrew Matthews who said,

“Despite many good examples, it can still be hard to convince people that a untraditional main character will resonate with audiences. Just because someone is nether heroic nor a typical everyman doesn’t mean you can’t sympathize with his struggles.” (source)

The "untraditional main character" that Matthews is talking about here is Scott Wiedermeyer. And yes, despite Scott's many faults, I do identify with him and deeply sympathize with his troubles. I recall first telling people about ZC and highly recommending it, only to receive somewhat cold and distant responses to the film and its message. I also began to realize the the reason was rooted in today's modern game and geek culture as opposed to what the movie itself represents. In short, the way you react to this film has a lot to do with what kind of "nerd" or "geek" you are. ZC pretty quickly separates the hipster nerd stylist from those of us like Sam Eidson's character, feel shut out from the new wave herd.

"A Dungeons & Dragons player since junior high, Matthews wanted Zero Charisma to depict how gamer life has changed as geek culture has become more mainstream. “These hobbies that used to require so much commitment and sacrifices to pursue are now so much easier. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The more people that are playing, the more players you can find. But for people like Scott – and myself on some level – it just kind of seems unfair. This is our world, our refuge that kind of belonged only to us. Once it goes mainstream it’s not special anymore.” (source)

Anyone who watched the movie cannot mistake that it is not Scott that is the ass, it is Miles. Miles, the charismatic hipster that not only takes over Scott's nerddom but monopolizes it for his own commercial purposes. The dichotomy here of course, is that all the people hanging out at Miles party where Scott makes his last stand, all love geek culture. The new geek culture, that is. They love comics, spec fic movies, literature, video games, and the shiny new D&D that's on the market today. They are the geek chic of today.

In fact that is the name of Miles' website: GeekChic.Com. A not so subtle play on the way old school nerd culture has been coopted today to become the new chic, the new cool. Andrews couldn't be much more clear in the statement his film seems to be making; he is clearly pointing to what is what in the nerd experience today.

This disparity is even played out when Scott goes to meet the creator of fantasy gaming himself: Gary Goran, the film's stand in for Gary Gygax. Nerds of old revered Gygax, and it is no surprise in Scott's gradual unhinging that he runs to his icon to find the respite and affirmation he knows in his heart to be true. Dakin Matthews does a marvelous job looking and acting the part of Gary for a bit part, especially because the scene is so important. That Gygax himself could be irascible and ornery is no secret and we see this played out by Dakin. The dialogue is great here, and when our anti-hero Scott gets the chance to talk with Gary directly the film delivers another poignant truth. Even Gary sold us out. Many of us felt cheated when Gary Gygax so frequently pointed out that D&D "was just a game", as Goran says to Scott in the film. Scott knows it is more than that, as do we all who loved and lived the game. Sometimes we consoled ourselves that Gygax "had to say that" because of the Satanic Panic and the public outcry that it was teaching occultism, and a threat to the moral Christian foundation of society. He was delivering a canned PR statement, that had to be it. But in our hearts we felt and feel just like Scott does in this scene.

"My players say I'm taking the game too seriously...I mean is it really possible for a game master to take the game too seriously?" (Scott to Gary at Wizard's Tower) See, it wasn't really a case of Scott's players who brought this up. Though they did say it, they were parroting Miles who pointed out, just like Gary, that it's "supposed to be fun". "It's just a game." Well, **** you Mr. Goran and **** you Miles! The game is more than that, and in the moment we need you to back us up you abandon us.

You see, this is the central message of the movie, seemingly confirmed by Andrew Matthews himself, that the game has become "not special" anymore. It has become the cool in thing everybody does, and they only do it for fun, as an idle pastime, which means nothing more to them than the next Avengers movie, the next release of HALO, or the next version of the iPhone. Scott is not lamenting the loss of his gaming group (though there certainly is that aspect, others do a better job of addressing that gaming woe). Scott is lamenting the loss of his life, his meaning, his world.

Could Scott become less self centered? Sure a bit; and could he become more forgiving, absolutely. And he does by movie's end. In fact some have decried the ending of the movie, as not really showing the resolution they wanted--Scott's gaming group back together. I personally find the ending entirely appropriate to the movie's purpose. Scott grew, but he also stayed true to who he was and what gaming meant to him. There he is working in a rest home, still supporting and spending time with his Nana, and playing his games with those who really need them-the lost and the the forgotten. I personally like to think Scott probably does still game with his old friends. But that is not the point, the point is deeper and truer to what gaming was back in the day than what it has become today.

Without getting too personal, I find the movie very true to life. And I also find that it sheds some light on my increasing dissatisfaction with and the lack of connection to the current gaming industry. I find the culture at Wizbro and Paizo largely made up of Miles-like hipster groups and not representative of me, my gaming, or my experience. They do not seem to embrace gaming like I do, nor does it mean the same things to them. I may be wrong. It may very well mean the exact same things, but it is not at all apparent on the surface.

Gaming meant something to me rooted in a need for meaning and purpose and personal identity that nothing else quite seemed to provide. I was entranced from the first moment I encountered it. Something deep and profound opened within me, something that led me along paths I would not have taken otherwise and which in large part define me today. I felt like Scott felt, and though I might not have been as big a jerk about it as Scott sometimes was, I totally get why he did what he did.

What I guess I'm trying to say is that if you don't "get" this movie, you don't get me.

Gaming Confusion

An unfinished thought I still find relevant today.

So, I've been struggling a bit lately. I've been in a fairly deep creation process and it has turned into a sort of soul searching journey through what I really want in gaming. Funny that, as I really thought I knew. That was the whole idea of creating the game in the first place. I suppose some might wonder why I would even try in the current climate when there are so many games already, and so many clones which recreate the old school ethos, and the old games themselves are so readily available. Why undertake something that just crowds the field? Others might understand completely. Isn't this this the real purpose of the OSR after all? To not only allow the old games a place, but to allow each of us to assemble the kind of game we wanted to play--the way we played back in the good old days. much of the energy and impetus of the OSR kept up its head of steam as old school aficionados deconstructed every aspect of the systems we loved  in order to build up the kinds of mods we wanted to see on the old school chassis we preferred. Then we could do what we never could in the old days--publish our own stuff for those very games. Now that we are all "satisfied" with the games we play and our freedom to do with them what we will. Even if we had the freedom to play the way we wanted back in the day, as we argued here recently, we certainly couldn't sell our own products for them freely. So thus the OSR has and to some degree continues to offer us gaming satisfaction.

Why then am I unable to feel at peace with my gaming? Why is 5e so unsatisfying? Why can't I just embrace the OSR and play the games everyone else is? And if the game or community doesn't quite exist the way I wish, then why can't I quite bring myself to create the game I want to find?

Letter to Mike Mearls

A letter to Mike Mearls I never sent. Funny how so much of what I mentioned is now a part of 5e...

Hi Mr. Mearls,

Thanks for taking the time to read my note. ; I know you're very busy. I'm a long time gamer that started with 1e back in 1981. Though I've played 3.5 and 4e they are not really my style of play. I'm an old school gamer mostly playing C&C, but have played OSRIC when unable to get a 1e game together.

I'll be honest I've been a bit dismayed by the current directions of D&D, but I'm not really here to write about all that. I, like many others, are wondering about the rumors that Wizards is contemplating a 5e release. This is, as always, exciting. Especially since I hope against hope that maybe this edition will be closer to the way I like to play.

So I thought I would take advantage of the opportunity to express my hopes for a 5th edition. I copy to you here my most recent blog post regarding these hopes and recommendations. I know I'm but one voice in the wilderness, but I do know that there are others who think similarly to me. So without further ado, my post:

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What Wizards of the Coast Could do to Win me Back With 5e

Well, not win me back, but win me over. They never really won me. They seduced me for a time, but I have always abandoned their editions after short stints of trying them out. But I can't help but wonder what would 5e have to look and play like for me to become a devoted 5e player and WoTC Customer? This is what I came up with:

Go Rules Light: The core of the system needs to be light and flexible. It would have to resemble 0e and B/X more than 1e and certainly lots more than 3.5 or 4e. This includes several things,

Stick with iconic classes: Fighter, Cleric, Thief, Magic User. Make PC creation about character development, not adding lists of skills, proficiencies, powers, feats, prestige classes and blah blah, blah. Other games have already done that. But about _real_ character development. About history, background, parentage, personality etc. etc. Lead the way into letting people know that D&D is about telling stories not building the perfect program of a character. Skills are linked with class, you don't need to list them. If a fighter should be able to do it he can do it. Have it roleplayed or maybe linked to an ability check.

Simple, but elegant and flexible, Vancian Magic. There's some room for play here imo. Magic could be more dangerous and wierd ala Swords & Sorcery. In most Swords and Sorcery literature magical items are powerful and dangerous, not useful little trinkets. And spellwork can cost you your sanity, your life or your soul. You could incorporate some optional rules to make magic more complex, and perhaps more flexible, especially in magical combat.

Fast, streamlined combat as a base, with options for making it more complex. GURPS is sort of the icon for complex combat. But GURPS gives a basic combat option. I'm not saying to make the combat like GURPS, but maybe build two combat rule sets. Basic combat and advanced or full combat rules. So people who like all the crunch can add it in, but don't have to. And I'm NOT talking about PC options or power builds. I'm talking about combat rules like crits, movement, dodging, parrying, grappling, etc. etc.

Stick With The Core Rules!

PHB, DMG, MM only!

New supplements should be adventures, worlds, novels, magazines (please bring back Dragon in print!), articles, comics, minis, myth & legends, homages to Appendix N style literature, art, posters, T-Shirts, retrospectives on past supplements, etc. etc. But NOT a freakin new core rulebook addition every blasted 15 minutes!!!!!

Take Submissions! What a novel idea!! Instead of paying 60k/yr + bennies to five or six writers, pay 60k/yr + bennies to a good editor or two and take submissions for material. You save tons of money, involve your fanbase, and still maintain control over content. Nothing gets out without your approval, at least not officially. And heck, look at all the overnight sensations that have cropped up in the OSR. You've got tons of gamers dying to write stuff for games. Pay them $1000 or so a pop and I bet you get all sorts of stuff pouring in.

Keep The Community Alive. Don't ditch Wednesday Night Encounters. Just shift to the new edition. And beef up the RPGA and sponsor more RPGA events. Let some fans run living campaigns sanctioned by the RPGA. They can even be at minimal cost. Allow it on a volunteer basis. Instead of your massively flopping DDO attempt, set up a website that caters to pbp and skype gaming where DMs can run blog-like worlds that gamers can participate in. Don't go MMO--stick with what D&D does best: in-person RPG play, even if people are coming together digitally. It would work like this: A DM volunteers, registers with the RPGA/WoTC and gets set up with a framework site that includes a blog feature, a pbp feature (like a forum), and a skype feature. The skype like feature is a virtual tabletop where all the players log on and can see each other and the interface allows everyone to be seen, maybe has a pc view feature, digital dice roller, mapping tool, etc etc. You could charge monthly fees, and could even offset costs by selling advertising on these sites to third party publishers. These games could be RPGA sanctioned or they could be purely private. Then a group of skype players scattered from all over could actually get together at conventions and the like and played sanctioned games. One of the hardest things for some people is to find people and time to play with. Wednesday Night Encounters has gone a long way to eliminating this and I'll admit that I prefer physically present play; but I am really considering skype play simply because of lack of local players.

I'm telling you, WoTC could be at the cusp of a revolution. Such a change would not only win me over it could win back the gaming world and rise to the top once again. By creating a "Universal D&D" model that is compatible with all the big names of the gaming field: 0e, Basic/Expert, OSRIC, 1e, 2e, Labyrinth Lord, Basic Fantasy, Castles & Crusades, Lamentations of the Flam Princess, BECMI, Dark Dungeons, Delving Deeper, Swords & Wizardry, etc. etc. etc. You open up a new era of gaming. An era where the biggest and most powerful publisher is bringing back in the fan base and returning to its roots. The new game can be a key that unlocks the worlds to all these games and much much more. WoTC owns the D&D name. They might as well use it to reassert itself. Become the D&D that will serve as the true Archon of the hobby it deserves to be. What Wizards does not own is the rules. Only the content. Don't create a new game with new rules, you don't own those either. You own content. Presentation. Play with those factors. Using all of its proprietary material and trademarks D&D can stand apart as the unique and original source from whence all fantasy gaming springs. But at the same time embracing the grassroots passion it has ignited in the hearts of so many.

Imagine a world where the name everyone thinks of when they think of fantasy worlds is Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, Dark Sun. Use the content you already have! Make the worlds even bigger and better than before. Don't wrench them from their foundations and slap a new rule set on them. What you've done to Forgotten Realms is heinous. You haven't just changed it, you've erased it. Shame on you. And you've completely dropped the second gaming world of all time: Greyhawk. A game IS its world. Yes, we all create our own worlds. But games are often linked thematically and spiritually to the worlds against which they are painted. And yes there can be more than one if they are done in high enough quality. D&D had several. Think of Runquest. RQ did not get played because of its rules but more so because of Glorantha. Glorantha served as a shining beacon to what RQ could be. We need more of that and less rules tinkering. No one else can do this because you own every whit of Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, Dark Sun, Mystara, Gamma World, Boot Hill, etc. etc. Reclaim them!! Reclaim them and take us on new journeys within them. You do this and hordes of gamers will flock to the stores to buy your products. Discussions will begin to be again about worlds, races, political intrigues, mysteries, murders, adventures, treasures, heroes and gods. Not rules and playstyles. Please! I beg of you. I long for a world like this once again. A world where magination is the reason we play, not some sort of gaming activism.

It really wouldn't be that hard to do. But that is what it would likely take to win me over to supporting a 5th edition. Anything else won't do. I'm not sure what they have in mind, but it has to get back to its roots. D&D should focus on the content that made it famous, not the rules. Sure implement the new and great stuff in game design that we use today. Fine. But reclaim the game's spirit.

GenCon is August 4th to the 6th. On the 6th at noon WoTC is holding its product announcement sessions. There it will announce what new products players can expect for the coming year. I, like other more respectable names in the gaming industry, fully expect an announcement that 5e is in the making. I guess we'll see. You just might have the chance to bring the gaming community back together again Wizards. You've failed my twice already. Please make the third time a very powerful charm. Please.

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Thanks again for taking the time to listen to my suggestions. I apologize if in any way I have offended. That was not my intention. My blog posts are a bit acerbic at times. But what I truly desire is to help the game be the best it can be.

Sincerely,

Chris Jones aka Sizzaxe

http://classicrpgrealms.blogspot.com

And Now For The Real Story

A long ago post originally written in 2009. Though it was the time of 4e, and me still running the Jr. High gaming club, I think it has a new relevance today in the chic and hipster world of 5e.

So my last entry was meant to be humorous, but may have left a bad taste in some people's mouths. That too was intentional. You see I think we in the gaming world suffer from a few dysfunctionalities. Yes we laud our creativity, our intelligence and even at times revel in our weirdness. The truth however, is that we also carry our share of bestial characteristics that put us down there not much better than barnyard chickens.

I can say this, not only because I have gamed for nigh on 30 years now, but also because I have committed these sins myself, and have to be constantly on guard against them even now.

When I first started gaming I died. Alot. I don't really recall the other players or DMs being mean really. I died, they continued gaming. At worst I was ignored post mortem. It was after all my first few months gaming and one can expect to die some as a newbie.

So it may have been those early pc deaths of mine that colored my first few months in the DM chair. I was to say the least a killer DM par excellence. We spent countless hours going through dungeons at the picnic table behind my house, and the bodies piling up around us as my nefariously overpowered npcs and wickedly unbalanced monsters worked their mayhem upon those who were my friends.

It was less than a year later I found out my erstwhile players would go to one players house and play Space Invaders on Atari. Without me of course. The thing that hurt was that they would pretend I was the little alien that slowly passed across the top of the screen.You got extra points if you shot me down. Ouch.

So I made a few friends unhappy. I changed eventually. But there were other more sinster faults pointed out by those who came into my life later. Faults like excessive competition amongst those who were considered weaker in game play, intelligence, creativity or simply likeability. Our group was exclusive, without really planning to be. We were a clique and it wasn't easy to get in.

A female friend of mine from those old days once called us stuck up when a friend of hers was shunned by our group. She said we had prided ourselveson being so open and accepting in comparison with jocks and preps and stoners; but she claimed we were just as bad. Thing is I don't even recall the kid we supposedly excluded. She called us hypocrites.

Hypocrites?

Yeah, well. It hurt at the time, but you know what they say about the guilty. They taketh the truth to be hard. Later I realized why she said what she did. We were so egalitarian--or so we claimed. Give us your tired of the social status quo, give us your hungry for a place for misfits, give your huddled masses yearning to be free from the tyranny of the "in". In truth we were really no better than anybody else. We were teenagers.

Now some of you at this point may be wondering if I am blaming gaming for such social cliquishness. No--that was due to adolescence. What I am exploring is the form it took that is unique to gaming.

You see, whether you like it or not gaming is a social clique. It is a rather rarified acitivty confined usually to the wierd of mind. Now that's fine--I like it that way. But what is not so good is the exclusive pride that can develop among such a social niche. In the jet set it's the clothes you buy, the stores you shop at, the cologne you wear and whether you fly first class. In the gang it's the lingo you speak and the colors you flash, sometimes your race and often the neighborhood you're in. In gaming, it's often the edition you play, your time in gaming, whether you can speak the lingo, how big and classic your collection of gaming books and if you can quote rules by book and page number.

But it's not just that. With any social group there are critera you often have to become familiar with in order to properly fit in. What's worse are the intangibles.

Gamers can be a competitive lot. Not only that they are often very particular about the creative and imaginative ability of those around them. There's got to be a certain cool quality to your geekiness in order to be accepted. That's the thing we have to be aware of--we have to gaurd against this demon if we are to not commit the unpardonable.

Why you ask would such a thing be so bad, and why talk about it on a OS blog? Because we old schoolers are competing against the slick new kid in town. What I have seen of 4e seeks to attract a "cooler" set to gaming. And there is nothing wrong with this inherently. 4e is just seen as being cooler than certain old school games. Old school games are more cerebral and more magical in quality than the very rule bound video game like rpgs that are coming out now.

I've seen this played out with increasing frequency at the adolescent level. There is a startling number of "cool" guys that are playing 4e. These new generation LOTR fans (now that it's cool to like such an awesome movie with great effects and lots of battle) with their shades, low hanging pants and bandannas are presenting a new problem. No geeks allowed.

This simply won't do. And the bad thing is that gaming plays right into their hand. The competetive element of gaming can work as a tool to its own destruction. We all know the game was meant to be a cooperative endeavor between a party of adventurers. But it's all too easy to exclude people with actions, meta and in game jabs, comments and general attitude.

Previously in the ancient days of gaming gone by this was done by those who didn't show enough gaming geekery to fit in. Now, its being used against the very people who kept gaming alive for so long. A war is brewing and its true nature remains to be seen.

Me, I have faith in the magic of gaming. I think it will prevail and sincere narrative,storytelling type deep roleplaying willwin the day. It has already begun to do so amongst the younger gamers I game with. When given a choice most prefer story rich gaming.