Increasing Diversity in Pen-and-Paper Roleplaying

At the time of writing, Andy Kitkowski at Kotodama Heavy Industries is running a Kickstarter for the English translation of Shinobgami, a Japanese role-playing game about ninja battles. (You still have time to back it!) In the description, he emphasises that he has recruited a very diverse array of authors, including many from outside the USA, to work on expanding the game. Given that I have previously complained about the interpretation of “diversity” as “multi-colored Americans”, you would think that I’d be over-joyed about this. However, it still made me a bit uncomfortable, and that led me to think about why.

When it comes to writing in the pen-and-paper RPG industry, I am in a privileged position. I have written for just about all of the major companies, been Line Editor for an important RPG (Ars Magica) for 14 years, and won both an ENnie and Origins Award. Nevertheless, I think my concern is based on my experience.

The reason given for increasing the diversity of writers in TRPGs (table-top, as opposed to computers) is that it is good to increase the range of voices in the industry. Nobody is foolish enough to suggest that it will directly improve the overall social position of minorities; indeed, given that TRPG writing is socially and economically marginal, you could argue that minorities should be actively discouraged from getting involved, because it would only reinforce their marginality. However, being hired by a company run by white dudes does not, in fact, let you speak with your own voice in the industry.

This is true even if you are (like me) a white dude. Ten years ago, Green Ronin hired me to work on Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. It was something I’d wanted to do since I was a teenager, so I was very happy to get the job. However, as I worked on it, and read Blue Rose, which Green Ronin released around the same time, I realised that I would much rather have been working on the latter game. The darkness and cynical violence of WFRP was not really the sort of thing I wanted to write, and the much more optimistic and hopeful tone of Blue Rose suited me much better. Nevertheless, I had signed on to write WFRP, so that’s what I did, and it was a very good experience, as well as the realisation of a teenage dream.

Further, a little earlier I became Ars Magica Line Editor, something else I had dreamed of as a teenager. (I have a good record of my teenage dreams coming true; dream medium size!) You might think that, as Line Editor, I would be able to do exactly what I wanted with the game. That was certainly true to a much greater extent than with WFRP. Ars Magica is now a lot closer to the sort of game I really want to write than it was when I started, and it started pretty close. Even so, there is still a gap, and that is one reason why I am retiring as Ars Magica Line Editor, and working on Kannagara. The existence of the game’s history, and the requirements (minimal though they were) imposed by Atlas Games, meant that I couldn’t fully express what I wanted to say.

If this is true for me, someone who is almost as privileged as it is possible to be within the business (I’m only missing “American” to have the full set), then how much more true is it going to be of members of a group that has not had a significant presence in the past? They are presumably going to feel even less able than I was to challenge instructions from editors and publishers and take things in the direction they want.

In other words, if we really want to hear the voices of minorities in the TRPG industry, they need to be running their own companies.

Fortunately, this is a realistic approach. There does seem to be a tendency to assimilate the TRPG and CRPG worlds, but they are completely different. A member of a minority cannot simply found their own development house to produce the next Witcher. It is not practical. In TRPGs, however, anyone can found a publishing house, and put their work on DriveThru. That is enough to become what passes for a success in this business, if your work is good enough.

Thus, we should really be encouraging members of underrepresented groups to start their own companies, and helping them to do so. Hiring them to write our games doesn’t really solve the problem, and that’s what made me uncomfortable about Shinobigami.

However, that doesn’t mean my discomfort was justified. Writing TRPGs is not easy, and publishing them is even harder. Doing it successfully without any experience, or contacts, in the industry might actually be as hard as founding your own triple-A CRPG studio. As an initial stage, we should be helping people from outside the mainstream to get that experience, by hiring them to write our games. The experience of writing things that are not really what they want to say will no doubt help them to work out what they do want to say, just like it helped me. Thus, the conclusion of thinking things through is that Kotodama Heavy Industries is doing exactly the right thing. Translating foreign works is itself a very important way to increase the diversity of voices, and giving a wider range of people that first step up onto the ladder will work the same way in the long term.

Nevertheless, it is only a first step. If we start to think that this solves the problem, then I think we are making a serious mistake. What else should we do?

The first thing is that the industry should be supportive of new publishers. Fortunately, it is. I also see very little evidence of prejudice in the people who are supported, beyond the in-group tendency to support people who have contacts and a track record in the business. That, of course, is why it is important to increase the diversity of the people we are hiring. Furthermore, even if there are people in the industry with prejudices (which, statistically, is very likely), they are not in a position to deny access. A new publisher needs someone to help them, but does not need everyone to help them. Unless a campaign could be mounted to exclude them on the basis of their race, gender, or national origin, the existence of a handful of prejudiced people is unlikely to be an important, practical problem. And I cannot see such a campaign gaining any traction.

I do still have a reason for concern, though. People from historically excluded groups might be worried that they will face a campaign to exclude them because of what they want to say. Consider Tenra Bansho Zero, another Japanese game translated by Kotodama Heavy Industries. The portrayal of Shinto in TBZ is, of course, exaggerated and fictionalised, like everything else in the game. It is, however, an exaggerated and fictionalised version of a widespread misunderstanding of Shinto that its practitioners find deeply irritating, at best, and actively offensive, at worst. (I’m at the “deeply irritated” end of the scale.) This is an accurate translation of the portrayal in Japanese (actually, I’ve just checked the English translation to make sure it is the same, because I’ve only read the Japanese), and thus an accurate portrayal of the voice of the author, but there is a tendency in role-playing to criticise inaccurate and negative portrayals of religions that have not been historically dominant in Anglo-American culture, in quite vociferous terms.

Now imagine a Japanese author who wants to publish a TRPG set in African-American culture. (This is not, in fact, wildly implausible, as I understand it.) Those of us who read both English and Japanese, and are familiar with both Japanese and US culture, know that there is a pleasing symmetry between US portrayals of Japan and Japanese portrayals of the US. The chances that a Japanese TRPG portraying African-American culture would strike African-Americans as a nuanced and accurate depiction are slim to none.

We can consider an even more extreme case. Suppose that a Somalian author writes a game that reinforces traditional gender roles, portrays homosexuality as wrong, and gives mechanical penalties to female characters who have not been subjected to FGM.

In these cases, I think that a campaign could, and probably would, be mounted to exclude these voices on the grounds that “we” (members of the dominant culture) do not like or agree with what they are saying. This campaign would include calls for boycotts, and for the permanent ostracism of the authors, as well as personal attacks on the authors.

Now, people might object that, of course, it’s only when WhiCH (white, cis, heterosexual) men say that sort of thing that we need to get angry, but I don’t think they will. Even so, that is beside the point. Anyone who knows enough about the TRPG industry to have a realistic chance of being a successful publisher also knows about this tendency. They know that its targets are a little hard to predict, but that there are particular groups whom it is very risky to portray in a way that they do not like, and that writing about anything other than what this public regards as “your” culture is dangerous. These people, whom we want to bring new and different voices to our industry, do not have the backing and confidence to take on such a backlash, by definition. If someone has enough confidence to take on a large scale internet backlash, they have enough confidence to break into TRPGs without any help from anyone, with trial and error and sheer dogged persistence. The people whom we ought to be supporting will be intimidated by the possibility of such a reaction to their work.

Right now, I think this is the biggest obstacle to increasing the diversity of voices in TRPGs. A diversity of voices will, naturally, want to say a diversity of things and take diverse positions, but there is a strong movement to only accept new voices if they say what “we” think they should be saying. There are other obstacles, but a wide range of people are working hard to reduce them. On the other hand, it seems to me that many people are actively working to make this obstacle bigger.

There is room for a debate here. Maybe diversity is less important than ensuring ideological correctness. As you might guess from the way I chose to phrase that, I don’t think so. I think that we should be working to make the hobby more tolerant of a diversity of opinions, including opinions that we, personally, find unpleasant and offensive, because people from other cultures are extremely unlikely to share all of our opinions on anything. I do not think that it is obvious how we should respond when we strongly disagree, but I do think it is obvious that we should not respond by threatening boycotts and attempting to exclude people from the market.

My conclusion, then, is that I was wrong to feel uncomfortable about what Kotodama Heavy Industries is doing. It is an essential step in opening up the TRPG hobby and industry to genuinely diverse voices, and when that step has been taken, I think that we already see a lot of the support necessary to make that diversity a reality. However, if we want the hobby to be genuinely inclusive, we need to find a better way to deal with people with whom we strongly disagree.

The Freedom to Publish and Safe Spaces

A month or so ago, I wrote an article saying that I disagreed with OneBookShelf’s decision to start refusing to sell “offensive content”. In the discussion of that on my Facebook page, a number of people expressed incredulity at the idea that anyone might have a right to be sold. That comment thread was not a good place to discuss the issue, and I promised to come back to it. It’s taken some time, but this article will address that question, and related issues, in more detail. Three thousand words of more detail, it turns out.

First, I should sketch out my basic position. I start from the foundations of classical liberalism: freedom and equality. That is, everyone should have as much freedom as possible, and everyone’s freedom is equally important. I believe that the state’s role is to ensure that everyone has as wide a range of opportunities for action as possible. This means that people need to be healthy, educated, financially secure, and living in a peaceful, orderly state with a functioning infrastructure, so the state ends up being quite substantial. In addition, I do not think that freedom is purely the concern of the state. I think that ensuring the freedom of others must be an important part of anyone’s personal ethics, and that someone acting in a way that excessively limits the freedom of others is behaving unethically.

On the other hand, material property is not that significant to me. People only have a right to private property because, on the whole, that maximises their freedom and ability to plan their lives, so there is no problem with taxation to ensure that other people also have that freedom. Conversely, there is no reason to seek material equality, although particularly gross inequality may well limit the freedom of many people, particularly the poor. Thus, I am neither a libertarian nor a socialist, although in practice I think I tend to end up closer to the socialists on economic policy, and closer to the libertarians on social policy.

I don’t claim that this position is obviously right and indisputable, and there are many difficult problems to be solved if it is to be put into practice. However, in this article I’m not going to defend it, and I will do my best not to respond to comments querying it. As I mentioned, this is already 3,000 words long, and it would be far longer if I tried to deal with those issues. What I do plan to do is engage, in detail, with one of the difficult problems: should DriveThruRPG sell products like Tournament of Rapists?

The Right to be Sold

Let me start from the point that raised the most incredulity: the claim that there is something like a right to be sold for publishers of RPG material. No-one commenting on my article thought that the authors of Tournament of Rapists should be legally prevented from writing and publishing it. Some people do, but my commenters were mostly authors and publishers, so they can see the clear threat to freedom of speech involved in going that way. What they could not see was why those considerations obliged DriveThruRPG to sell it.

The discussion did allow me to clarify my own position in my own mind. It is not purely about freedom of expression; it is also about freedom of employment.

First, freedom of expression. Recall that I do not think that freedom is purely the concern of the state. If a certain private entity has an effective monopoly, or even a near-monopoly, on important means of expression, then that private entity acquires obligations to protect freedom of expression, even if it strongly disagrees with some of the content. The same applies to an oligopoly, except in that case the obligation is that they collectively protect freedom of expression. For example, if there are only five major newspapers, but they all have similar circulations, and all can easily be purchased, then as long as any opinion can find a publisher in at least one newspaper, the individual newspapers are free to exclude people with whom they disagree. If, however, all of the publishers disagree with, say, Islam, they do have an obligation to publish Muslim pieces, despite their disagreement. If they do not, Muslims are effectively deprived of freedom of expression.

This is, essentially, the idea that society can silence minorities by depriving them of a platform, and the claim that media outlets have a moral obligation to provide such a platform. I would also say that the state is permitted to force the media outlets to provide a platform.

On this basis, DTRPG probably does not need to sell Tournament of Rapists if Paizo or e23 is happy to do so. Paizo and e23 are not as big as DTRPG, by a large margin, but they are probably still big enough to count as providing a reasonable platform for expression. “Selling from your own website”, however, probably does not. (On the other hand, in table-top roleplaying, publishers have no obligation to publish anything they dislike, because “start your own publisher” is a perfectly reasonable thing to do.)

This raises an important point about these rights. The obligations of private entities depend on the scale of their influence. An independent bookshop has no individual obligation to support freedom of speech, because it is clearly possible to sell a book elsewhere. If that independent bookshop develops into a national chain that is the only way to acquire books in most cities, then it acquires obligations to sell anything (through special order, if necessary; they are not obliged to stock everything). Obviously, then, there is an empirical question about just how big and influential an entity is, and this will not always be easy to answer. However, the fact that some moral questions are difficult is not a reason to abandon morality.

Next, freedom of employment. The freedom to choose your own career is guaranteed by the Japanese constitution (Article 22), and it is a fundamental part of any meaningful freedom. It is, however, a difficult freedom to pin down. We cannot sensibly say that I have the right to be a world-famous film star. On the other hand, it does seem reasonable to say that I have the right to try to be a film star, to audition for roles at least. It also seems reasonable to criticise the film industry if it simply never hires, say, black people or women to play leading roles. Black people and women also have the right to aim at being film stars. Saying what this means in detail is very hard, so I’m not going to even try to address the general question here. Instead, I want to consider what it means for table-top roleplaying.

First, it is obvious that no-one has anything approaching a right to make a living wage in table-top roleplaying. In our industry, that dizzy height is reserved for the people who achieve major break-out success. Equally, there is no right to a proper job, with medical insurance and a pension. However, no-one should be excluded from being a freelancer, and for historically excluded groups that means that it is a good thing if publishers actively encourage them. One feature of our industry is that most publishers are micro-companies run in their owners’ spare time, and such publishers can compete with the largest companies we have. This is, I think, a very good thing. If a group of conservative Muslims decide that nothing available in roleplaying reflects their experience or the games they want to play, they can start a publishing company and publish the game.

However, they must be able to offer it for sale to the public. We are talking about the right to employment, not the right to a hobby, so new publishers must be able to offer their product to the market. That is the equivalent, in our industry, of applying for a job. Further, you must be able to offer it to most of the market, because otherwise there is no chance at all of making any money. The market is tiny to start with; restricting access to a small fraction of it is effectively a bar.

For electronic products, I believe this means that you must be able to sell on DTRPG. I don’t think Paizo or e23 is large enough (and the numbers I have heard from people who sell on two or more of those sites backs this up). If someone is to have a genuine chance to apply for the job of RPG publisher, they must be able to sell on DTRPG. This only applies to DTRPG, because of its size and dominance. Paizo can refuse anyone it likes, because it is small and largely irrelevant if you aren’t selling Pathfinder products, and not critical even if you are.

An analogous situation to DTRPG refusing to offer something for sale because of its content would be 1950s Hollywood refusing to hire people because they were, say, Communists. It would, effectively, deprive people of the freedom to even attempt a career in a particular field.

To summarise, then, freedom of expression suggests that DTRPG probably, for ethical reasons, offer Tournament of Rapists for sale, while freedom of employment provides an much stronger argument that it is obliged to.

Safe Spaces

“But what sort of signal does that send to women?” I hear you ask. The signal it ought to send is “Even if you want to write an RPG inspired by 50 Shades of Grey, you will be able to offer it for sale on DTRPG. We respect your freedom to try to work in this industry, not matter what you want to write”. The argument that group A can only be welcomed if group B is excluded is one that is frequently used by powerful groups to exclude and oppress minorities, and it is a bad argument. In a free society, you have to accept that you are living with people with whom you strongly disagree, and that you will see evidence of them doing things you disagree with. This is why conservative Christians have to put up with same-sex marriage, and why feminists have to put up with rape fetishists (but not rapists).

The problem that must be taken seriously here is that of “triggering”. For some people, certain themes or images provoke extremely strong negative reactions, and cause significant distress. The correct response to this is not “Free Speech! Get Over It!”. However, the correct response is not easy to determine.

Let us take food allergies as an analogy. I am very aware of the risk of trivialisation here. Food allergies can kill their sufferers, painfully, in a matter of minutes, and interfere significantly with eating, an activity necessary for life. Psychological distress caused by a hobby game product is not even close to being the same level of problem. However, this does mean that a response that is appropriate to food allergies cannot be an inadequate response to triggering, although it could be an over-reaction. If it turns out that food-allergy-like policies could be implemented without imposing excessive burdens, then that’s fine; when we are talking about the risk of harming people, some degree of over-reaction is good, as long as it does not cause other problems.

These days, I suppose most people know how food allergies are dealt with. Food products are clearly labelled with the common allergens that they contain; in Japan, there appears to be a standard set. This does lead to slightly daft situations, such as packets of mixed nuts with “Warning: Contains Nuts” printed on, but “slightly daft” is much better than “accidentally killed someone”. Further, these steps are taken even in cases where there is some doubt about the existence or prevalence of the allergy. For example, it is somewhat controversial as to whether gluten intolerance is actually a thing (although I think the consensus is that it is), and its prevalence is very controversial. Even so, “gluten” is listed, and gluten-free products are available. Even if it is not really a problem, gluten-containing products are still available for the people who want to consume them, so it is reasonable to issue a warning for people who may, genuinely, need to avoid it.

Moreover, I believe that in many cases it is possible to overcome food allergies, and, obviously, a good idea to do so. Nevertheless, this cannot be done instantly, and we have no right to force people to do so. Thus, the information should be made available, and people with allergies should be able to avoid those foods. Obviously, people with very unusual allergies cannot expect everything to be labelled, so they have to ask about ingredients individually.

Note that labelling a product as containing nuts is in no way a judgement of the culinary worth of the product. It is simply a warning so that people who are allergic to nuts can avoid it.

Can a similar approach be taken to roleplaying products? It seems so. DTRPG already has an “adult” filter, although it is applied very inconsistently. (I find it astounding that the Worlds of Darkness are not behind the filter, for example, given that every book includes an explicit “this is mature content” warning, and most books include nudity.) With a bit of thought and research, themes that seem likely to cause serious distress to a large number of people could be filtered out.

The immediately obvious theme is sexual violence. This is distressing to a large number of people, and should clearly be flagged, and people should be able to hide it from themselves. I think this is a very good idea.

Another theme is “nipples”. Sorry, nudity. This is largely a US hang-up, but it is quite an important one there, so people should be able to exclude such products from their searches.

However, there is another important class that seems to get overlooked: phobias. Arachnophobia is not a rare condition, and such people can be triggered by pictures of spiders. It might not be obvious to someone new to the hobby that “City of the Drow” is likely to contain lots of giant spider pictures, so it should be possible to hide spiders. Snakes and blood are also common problems, as I understand it.

More generally, it should be possible to filter out horror games in general. The whole point of horror games is to take disturbing images and work them into the game, because some people enjoy that. However, it is not always obvious from the title that something is horror, and the blurbs themselves are sometimes disturbing, so filtering them from searches should be an easily available option.

It is also an undeniable fact that a large number of people in the US and the rest of the world claim to be deeply offended and upset by portrayals of same-sex sexual relationships. Now, I think that it would be better for them to get over it, but, as with food allergies, that is unlikely to be instant, and we do not get to tell them that they must change. I think it would be wise to include a “LGBT” filter. It could even be made bivalent, so that you could set DTRPG to only show you LGBT products, something that the LGBT community might find useful. In fact, all the filters could be set up like that, to make it clear that this is not a moral judgement.

The filter topics are not obvious, and would require some research. If we use “internet outrage” as our standard (and this is not a bad standard; avoiding internet outrage is a sensible strategy for a company), then sexual violence, nudity, explicit sexual content, and LGBT content are the current leading issues. If we use “clinical prevalence of people who are triggered”, then I have no idea what the list will be, but it could be very different. Research would be necessary. Indeed, it might be a good idea to cover both: internet hot-button issues mainly for PR reasons, and clinically prevalent reasons primarily to protect vulnerable people.

The elephant in the room, as far as RPGs are concerned, is violence. I am sure some people are triggered by violence, but a filter to hide all violent RPGs would leave you with nothing but Golden Sky Stories. (The “spiders” filter would get it, however.) It is true that violence is ubiquitous in US entertainment, but in most fields it is not quite as all-consuming as it is in tabletop RPGs. Even computer games seem to do better in this respect. Still, this is not DTRPG’s problem, and I am exaggerating (very slightly) for rhetorical effect.

It does, however, bring home the point that, if everything that contains a fairly common trigger were placed behind a filter that was on by default, DTRPG would display no products to the casual browser, and that would almost certainly be very bad for business. As this was another objection that was raised to my position, I’d like to conclude by considering it.

The Duty to Go Bankrupt

It was suggested that, if DTRPG were to sell Tournament of Rapists, the backlash would drive them out of business. Can we really require them to do something that will drive them out of business?

In general, the answer is “yes”. If you can only sell cars by adding software to cheat the emissions tests, then you should be driven out of the business of selling cars. Going back to my fundamental position, no-one has the right to a job that requires excessive restrictions on the freedoms of others. However, the answer in this specific case is not obvious. The fact that, sometimes, going out of business is the only ethical option does not mean that it always is.

The filter problem is a good example of this. DTRPG probably would go out of business if the filters were on by default. That means that it is permissible to have them off by default, as long as casual browsers can easily turn them on, and the user interface for doing so is very easy to find. Requiring someone who is triggered by violence to click on a “trigger filters” link and then select “hide violence” is not an unreasonable restriction of freedom, particularly if the alternative is going out of business.

What about the original question? What if the backlash against a product would drive the company out of business?

The first thing to note is that, if this would actually happen, the group threatening the boycott is not a marginalised group; it is the dominant group in the industry. Furthermore, it is a dominant group trying to drive a marginalised group out completely. (If you think the Black Tokyo line is mainstream, you need to learn a bit more about our hobby.) So, the question is, is it ethically permitted to cave in to a dominant group in its attempts to exclude a minority, if the alternative is going out of business?

This is a hard problem. I think you should err on the side of not caving in, because boycotts are almost never as effective as threatened, and we know from history how easy it is to get caught up in persecuting people. In this case, I do not think that the backlash would drive DTRPG out of business, particularly if they were introducing more consistent trigger filters at the same time.

Three thousand words later, where am I? (I would say “where are we?”, but I doubt anyone has read this far.) I still think that DTRPG is making the wrong decision, and that it should be selling offensive content. I also think that it should be working on better filtering for triggering content, so that people can make the site into a safe browsing environment for themselves, without restricting the freedom of others to aim at a career in table-top roleplaying games.

OneBookShelf’s Offensive Content Policy

On September 1st, OneBookShelf, the company that runs DriveThruRPG, announced an offensive content policy in reaction to the outrage over a product entitled “Tournament of Rapists”. Steve Wieck, the CEO, published a blog post explaining his decision. It is a thoughtful and serious attempt to wrestle with a difficult issue, and one that recognises the complexity of the situation, particularly the fact that OneBookShelf’s marketplace dominance means that its decision to not sell a product is de facto censorship. Nevertheless, I think he came to the wrong decision. There are several reasons, and I will start from the least serious. (If you haven’t read his blog post, it would be a good idea, because the rest of this post will make little sense without it.)

First, I think it will be very hard to implement the reporting policy. It will have to be limited to genuine accounts, so “genuine accounts” will have to be defined, and there will have to be a way to block people who use it frivolously, so there will need to be a definition of “frivolous reporting”. Neither of these will be easy to determine, let alone code. It will almost certainly have to be limited to people who have bought the product in question, but I doubt that OBS will be in a legal or financial situation to offer refunds. A product that has been challenged and passed will have to be removed from the flagging system, which means that OBS will put a badge of approval on fairly offensive books and high profile books that attracted protest flags, but not on uncontroversial books from small publishers. It’s going to be messy.

Second, the new policy is a PR disaster waiting to happen. If Mr Wieck is serious in his intention to err in the side of permitting books, and I believe him, then at some point he is going to refuse to drop a product that someone in the SJW community has challenged. Now, you and I know that there is a big difference between “This is bad, but not bad enough to justify banning it” and “I am a wholehearted supporter of the ideology expressed in this product”, but do you seriously think that the internet mob is going to respect that distinction? Similarly, it is very likely that he is going to have to exclude someone in the SJW community from the flagging system, because they are flagging too many books that don’t merit censorship. At this point, he is not only Steve Wieck, rape advocate, he is also an agent of white male oppression, silencing the voices of queer women of colour.

If the disaster waits for a month after the implementation of the policy, I will be pleasantly surprised.

Third, this was a major change to fundamental policy made as a snap response to a single crisis. By a roleplayer! All GMs know that it is a really bad idea to make general changes to house rules at the table in response to a problem that has just come up in play. You make a spot ruling to fix that problem, then think about a suitable general response, discuss it with the players, and come back in a week or two with the longterm solution. This principle becomes more important as the decision becomes more important. I realise that the internet feels that taking an hour to respond is a clear sign that you are ignoring their concerns, but the internet is wrong. A couple of days is the right timeframe to make a decision about this case; a month, at least, is an appropriate time frame to make decisions about the longterm policy. These snap decisions are almost always bad, and very often illiberal.

Now, those three reasons are quite important for OBS, but not good enough reasons for me to stick my head above the parapet. That’s reserved for the final reason.

I think it is an unethical decision.

No-one will be surprised to learn that this is a free speech issue. I find it a little difficult to make this point, because I actually agree with the SJWs that this particular product was almost certainly harmful and unethical. I haven’t read it, as it has been censored, but it is in the tentacle porn genre, and what I have seen of that genre convinces me that, in general, it valorises hurtful and harmful attitudes to women, sex, and female sexuality, and I am concerned that it might actually promote them as well. I think it is unethical to make and publish such things.

However, freedom of speech applies to unethical, harmful, and hurtful speech. Indeed, this is exactly the speech it has to apply to. No-one tries to ban speech they think is harmless. The people trying to ban RPGs for being Satanic in the 1980s didn’t sit there thinking “What harmless hobby should we try to ban? My DM killed my thief, so let’s try to ban D&D!”. They (at least most of them) genuinely believed that RPGs were harmful. Yes, there were some bandwagon-riders, I’m sure, but I’m equally sure that that’s true of the SJWs. Freedom of speech means protecting people’s right to say things that you believe are wrong, harmful, and pernicious. It also means defending your right to criticise them for being unethical, but you must not silence them, and you must not try to exclude them from the general marketplace, whether of ideas or of products.

Now, that does not mean that you cannot try to create a marketplace or environment where they are not present, but that must be, in an important sense, a marginal environment. Safe spaces are important, but you must not create them by excluding groups from the main space. You can limit certain sorts of behaviour, such as harassment, but speech has to be free. (And yes, I have thought about the distinction, but this is going to be too long anyway, so I’m not going to go into it here.)

I think that preserving this sort of freedom, the freedom to say unethical things, and make hurtful and harmful statements, is an essential part of social justice. That is why I have abbreviated the standard name to “SJW”. The people strongly advocating this censorship are, in this case, fighting against social justice.

Now, there are a lot of points on which I agree with the SJWs, from the judgement that “Tournament of Rapists” is almost certainly harmful and unethical to the need to create societies that are more inclusive of people who are not members of the dominant group. I’m generally in favour of quotas to drive the participation of historically excluded groups, such as women, because waiting for it to happen naturally seems to be far too slow. I would like to work with them on those issues, which is why I have avoided criticising them on the points I don’t agree with in the past. But freedom of speech is too important. If we got everything else and lost freedom of speech, even for rape fetishists, we would not have created a just society. I fear that this will mean I won’t be able to cooperate with them in the future, although I hope I am wrong about that.

I should say that, as ad hominem arguments appear to be de rigueur in this field, that although I am a white, cis, heterosexual man, I live in Japan, so I am not a member of the socially dominant group. I have chaired a meeting attended by several Japanese men (that is, members of the locally dominant group) who had expressed their hostility and intent to confront us online, in advance. The local police thought that their comments made it wise to send a squad of riot police (out of sight) and a couple of plain clothes officers (in the audience) to ensure my safety and that of my colleagues. And I still called on the hostile group to speak, several times, as long as they confined themselves to speaking, even though they were arguing that we, as non-Japanese, should not be allowed to speak out about social issues. When they got a bit too vehement, the police encouraged them to quietly leave the room, and they did. I am fully aware, from personal experience, of what it is like to be a member of a minority and to face hostility from members of the majority, to have members of the majority try to silence you, to face a real risk of violence from them, and to live in a culture in which you are not the norm and do not blend in. I do not take that to be a reason to restrict freedom of speech, no matter how hurtful and harmful the speech, as long as it is restricted to speech.

So, what do I think OBS should do? I think they should rescind the decision. They should say something like “On reflection, we over-reacted to an internet campaign. While we are glad that the publisher chose to withdraw the product in question, and hope that it does not reappear, free speech is an extremely important part of social justice. We will not be implementing any censorship on our sites.”. Yes, this will cause a massive explosion of outrage. As I mentioned earlier, however, I don’t think they can avoid that at this point, and if they take a stand in favour of free speech they can, at least, expect to have allies, and the confidence that comes from knowing you are doing the right thing.

But I know that reasonable people sometimes disagree with me, even about ethical issues, and even about important ethical issues. As I said to start with, I think Mr Wieck has thought seriously about the right problems here, and while I think I should publicly disagree with his decision, I don’t think he is a bad person for making it, nor do I plan to boycott OBS over it. I hope he changes his mind, but I hope he changes his mind because he is convinced, not because he has been threatened.

Edit: I have posted a follow-up going into more detail about my ethical position on this, and the reasons for it.

“Diversity” and American Dominance in RPGs

The US dominance of both the pen-and-paper RPG industry and the diversity debate is a real problem, one that, I think, is actively hindering attempts to address the problems created by a lack of diversity.

Let’s take an example I’m intimately familiar with: Japan. (For people who don’t know, I’ve lived here for 12 years, my wife is Japanese, and I’m in the process of naturalising.)

The important “racial” minority groups are the Koreans, the Chinese, the Okinawans, the Filipinas, and the Burakumin. All of these groups are “East Asian”. They disappear when “racial diversity” is being considered for an RPG. “Racial diversity” is used to mean “people from lots of different categories that are important in the USA, completely ignoring distinctions that are important elsewhere”. To expand, when was the last time you saw a game being careful to represent both Hutu and Tutsi accurately, or Serb and Croat, or Ukrainian and Russian? Or even Sunni and Shia? These are all groups that have had wars over the distinction in the recent past, or are fighting them right now, so large numbers of people thought the distinction was worth killing for. But all of those distinctions are invisible to “diversity”.

On the other hand, in Japan, in Noh theatre and Kabuki theatre, the female parts are played by men, and both of these are revered national art forms, and UNESCO World Heritage traditions. In Takarazuka theatre, the male parts are played by women, and that has 100 years of history and a large contemporary following (overwhelmingly female). This is mainstream. Emoji were designed in Japan, with same-sex couple icons, to absolutely no outrage at all. The government approach to transgender children is to issue guidance to schools on how to deal with it appropriately, including allowing the child to wear the right uniform, and provide counselling and medical treatment as necessary. This is not an issue; I only know about it because NHK did a special on it a few months ago. Aya Ueto, who is a still a pretty big female star, played a transgender boy in her breakthrough role, and that was about 13 years ago. Manga depicting gay romances between young men and between male high school students is a large genre, overwhelmingly read by women. (It is, as far as I can see, much, much larger than the genre of lesbian romances between schoolgirls.) US assumptions about gender/sexuality diversity and context are just wrong in Japan.

The same, incidentally, is true of assumptions about racial relations, as I wrote here last month.

(Also, the Japanese language is gender neutral by default, and a fairly high proportion of names are gender ambiguous, but women’s rights are a considerable distance behind the west. Thus, I am not optimistic about the effect of “more inclusive language”.)

I am sure that there are similar differences between the USA and other countries with which I am less familiar.

So, if you are trying to increase the diversity of your authors, artists, and editors, your first rule should be “no more Americans”. That will help you break out of the assumption that the American way of dividing up the world is the only appropriate way, and help you introduce some real diversity into your game settings and characters.

Inclusivity in Roleplaying Games

Recently (over the last year or so) there has been a lot of talk in gaming of the need to make products more inclusive, to provide options who are not straight white cis-men. This campaign seems to have started in computer gaming, where my limited experience suggests that it is really needed, but it has also spread to tabletop gaming.

Is this really a problem that tabletop gaming needs to address now? To be absolutely clear, I am talking about the inclusion of a variety of characters in products, not the diversity of authors or players. In addition, I think that diversity of characters is a good thing, and important. My question is over whether this is something that tabletop RPGs need to address now.

I’ll readily grant that it was a problem 30 years ago. The only non-white Companion of the Lance is metallic copper. However, even 25 years ago, companies were starting to address it. Early Forgotten Realms novels include a black protagonist in a series of novels in which racism is a recurring theme, and female protagonists. In the early nineties, White Wolf put a black man on the cover of Mage:the Ascension. He was the only character on the cover, and the iconic symbol of the whole game. In 1998, Fading Suns included non-binary-gender characters as an important option for a race that was primarily binary (the Ur-Obun). In 2000, D&D 3.0 had iconic characters who were deliberately designed to be diverse in terms of race and gender. Steve Kenson put an openly gay superhero in Freedom City in 2003, and in 2005 Blue Rose presented a fantasy society in which homosexual and polyamorous marriage were both normal. Games set in Japan go back to the earliest days of the hobby, and Nyambe, in a fantasy version of sub-Saharan Africa, was released in 2002. Disabilities have been standard character options in all games that have an Advantange/Disadvantage system since those systems were invented. Today, D&D 5e explicitly raises race, non-binary-gender, and multiple sexualities as choices you should think about in the free introductory set.

In short, I think the “inclusivity problem” was solved in roleplaying ten years ago. “Inclusivity” is the default position for tabletop gaming, and has been for a long time. Of course tabletop games should continue to be inclusive, but this isn’t something that needs campaigning for. There may turn out to be some groups who have not been included, and people will want to see more inclusion of particular groups, but the battle for inclusivity in general was won years ago.

There is a different problem, which is sometimes confused with the need for inclusivity. This is that the portrayal of some cultures in roleplaying games is not particularly good. To take an example I’m familiar with, Shadowrun 4e illustrated Shinto with a picture of a BDSM prostitute in Street Magic, and the Shinto pantheon in Scion 1e is really, really badly researched. (Although you can, at least, tell that they did a bit of research.)

First, I want to stress that this really is a completely different problem. This problem only arises because tabletop roleplaying games assume that you have to be inclusive. If Scion had only included white European pantheons, they would not have had a badly research Shinto pantheon to get bothered about in the first place.

Second, this is a real problem. It is also a really difficult problem, because researching something well enough to present it sensitively and in a way that is suitable for gaming takes a very long time. To get to that point for Shinto required learning Japanese, living in Japan, and spending about five years studying Shinto, including taking classes at the largest Shinto university (in Japanese). I can do the same for medieval western Europe, and that took several years with borrowing privileges at Cambridge University Library.

If you take the research requirement seriously, then a single author cannot write a diverse and inclusive book. A single human being cannot know enough about enough cultures to do it. A team of half a dozen authors is going to be really pushed to do it, particularly if they all have to be native speakers of English, familiar with the game, and willing to write for what tabletop roleplaying pays.

Now, I think that the research requirement should be taken seriously. If you are purporting to write about a real culture, you should know that culture very well. For a contemporary culture, you really need to have lived in it while fluent in the local language. For a historical culture, you need at least a couple of years of reading around it, including primary literature. For a prehistoric culture, you get to make a whole bunch of stuff up, because we just don’t know enough to be accurate in the first place, but you need to be very familiar with what we do know.

On the other hand, if you are writing a fantasy culture inspired by a real culture, you should be granted a lot more leeway. Rokugan is not Japan. It should be exotic, in a way that a portrayal of real Japan should not. The Southlands does not have to be an accurate portrayal of North Africa and the Levant, and indeed it should not be. I think fantasy games (including far-future science fiction games) should be allowed to pick elements from non-Western cultures and use them to make fictional cultures that acknowledge the existence of people and cultures that are not straight white cis-male, without being required to accurately reflect the cultures they are borrowing from. I think this is the only way to make broadly inclusive games and settings feasible in tabletop gaming.

I also think that there is an important role for a diverse range of games that are not individually diverse, where the authors know enough about one culture to present it accurately and sensitively.

I don’t expect many people, certainly not many people who produce tabletop roleplaying games, to disagree with what I’ve written here. That’s because I believe that virtually everyone in this business agrees that inclusivity and research are necessary, and regrets the times when they mess up one or the other.

Persistence Ain’t All That

This post may come across as something of a rant, and possibly also as a humble brag. I have to concede that I’m ranting a bit, but I would like to emphasise that there is nothing humble about the bragging parts, and that I am entirely serious about the humble parts.

This rant was inspired by my misreading* of a guest post on Chuck Wendig’s blog by a (different) successful author. In it, she repeats the claim that persistence is essential, even the only essential thing, and illustrates it with her life story. It is true that persistence appears to have led her to success. There are a number of other famous examples of this available.

The overwhelming level of sample bias here robs the evidence of all meaning. What about all the persistent people who haven’t succeeded? Nobody listens to their stories, because they are nobodies. Why would you take life lessons from someone who has failed? Well, because if you only listen to people who have succeeded, you get a seriously distorted picture.

So, in full awareness that essentially no-one is going to read this, because I’m not famous enough, I’m going to tell the echoing ether that persistence isn’t enough, and isn’t even necessary.

Let’s take “not enough” first. I write and develop roleplaying games. I need to say that because hardly anybody has heard of me. I’ve been doing it professionally for 20 years; longer than Chris Pramas at Green Ronin, and a lot more people have heard of him. He even has a Wikipedia page.

I’ve not had a rejection letter for roleplaying games since I returned to them after deciding that they were not Satanic, around the age of 18. So, that thing about everyone having to collect piles of rejection letters? Not true. I’ve won an Origins Award and a gold ENnie award, helped out by the name recognition of Jonathan Tweet and Mark Rein•Hagen, but for a product, Ars Magica Fifth Edition, that was essentially my work. The previous four editions, which were not my work, did not win. I’ve been developing Ars Magica for longer than anyone else, and I’m getting close to having done it for longer than everyone else who has had the job put together. John Nephew has not fired me. He’s even given me pay rises and bonuses from time to time.

I do not suck, at least not as a roleplaying game author and developer. Because I am not depressed, I know that I do not suck. I do not suck, and I have kept this up for 20 years. Talent and persistence, getting published, I must have succeeded, right?

Wrong. Obviously, I don’t make a decent amount of money from roleplaying. Nobody makes a decent amount of money from roleplaying (except Robin Laws). But further than that, I have almost no name recognition. I’m working on a new roleplaying game, Kannagara, but does the fact that I am working on a new roleplaying game create any buzz anywhere? No. Now, we aren’t talking about fame. While people in the industry will recognise the names I’ve been dropping, I suspect that only the most dedicated roleplaying fans would do so in general. That’s the level I’m aiming at, and haven’t reached.

So yeah, persistence doesn’t always work.

I’ve also written a novel, and tried the online crowdfunding model. That was Tamao. That didn’t work, either. People I didn’t know did send me money. One guy even sent me $25 a couple of years after I’d finished, when it was obvious he wasn’t going to get any more story out of it. So, it doesn’t suck. Strangers don’t send you money because you wrote something that sucked. And I finished it. Wrote the whole thing in a year. That’s persistence.

No success yet.

Then there’s my blog. Not this one. I’m not so brazen as to claim persistence here, but my Japanese one. Every day, for nearly eight years. Recently, at least 1,000 characters (roughly 500 words equivalent) every day. Frequent and regular updates with new material, sustained over a long period of time. That’s how you make a successful blog, right? I’m averaging about 100 views per day, and no comments. That’s not a successful blog.

But I’ve not given up. I still do it every day. It has been great Japanese practice. Lots of persistence here.

No success, though.

On the other hand, let’s consider an area where I wasn’t persistent. Philosophy. I got a PhD in philosophy from Cambridge 15 years ago. So, yes, I was persistent enough to finish a dissertation. I then spent five years trying to get a job in philosophy. Failed.

So I chucked it in and came to Japan.

A couple of years ago, I was offered a job, which I’m still doing, based on having that PhD. The content of my work has steadily got closer to the content of my dissertation, to the point that, this year, I will be directly applying my PhD to my work, in the private sector. The job doesn’t currently pay brilliantly (start up), but it pays a lot more than minimum wage. And a lot more than roleplaying games, novels, or blogs — at least for me.

This means that the area where I wasn’t persistent, the area that I abandoned pretty much completely for eight years, is the area where I currently seem to have the most success. It has at least as much promise for future success as any of the others as well.

Persistence: not needed, and not enough. Rather overrated, all round.

When you are struggling with something you want to do, but are not succeeding at, the big question can be framed as “Which story am I starring in?”. Are you starring in a story of someone who holds on to their dream, struggles through the difficult years of no recognition and piles of rejection slips, before finally succeeding? Or are you starring in a story of someone who wastes his life producing things that no-one wants to read, dying with piles of manuscripts that do not become interesting even posthumously?

Obviously, if you’re in the first story, you should not give up. Keep pushing! Keep writing! Persistence!

If you’re in the second story, you should quit now. Do something more productive with your life. Everyone has something to offer to the world. In your case, this isn’t it. Abandon the illusion that is holding you back, and find your calling!

So, which story are you in? It’s really, really hard to tell. In fact, I suspect it’s impossible to tell. That makes it unfortunate that the two stories recommend diametrically opposed courses of action.

This is why living a good life is hard. The decisions are not easy. There are no universal prescriptions that will always lead you to the right decision. Sometimes, you should give up. Sometimes, giving up will actually lead to success in the area where you gave up. And sometimes you shouldn’t. Sometimes you should be persistent.

Sometimes you should do what you love. Sometimes you should recognise reality and do what is necessary to live. Sometimes your family should come first, and sometimes you should prioritise work for a while to make sure that your family has a home and food. Sometimes you should stand up for what you believe, and sometimes you should keep your head down and wait for the persecution to pass.

There are no easy answers, and most people never get to know whether they made the right decisions. So, if you are a struggling writer, you have to decide for yourself whether you should give up. I’m not going to recommend either option. Giving up worked for me; persisting worked for other people.

I’m afraid you have to run your own life.

* The original post was by Kameron Hurley, and it turns out that her point was that she had redefined “success” in terms of persisting, so that the lack of other kinds of success wouldn’t put her off. Since that is what I have done for my Japanese blog, I think it’s perfectly reasonable. The post above still stands, however. Back

Mimusubi

I have a new project, and it has its own website: Mimusubi. It’s a role-playing game about creating things. Those of you with good memories may remember some work on this topic here a couple of years ago. I’ll be discussing the design on the Mimusubi website, and plan to release it commercially in some form. If you’re interested, please go and take a look.

Yes, adding Mimusubi to the Japanese blog probably does mean that this blog will be neglected even more than it has been recently. Insofar as that is possible.

Ars Magica Video Game Kickstarter

We (Atlas and I) are working with Black Chicken Studios to produce an Ars Magica video game. (I suspect that Black Chicken will be doing most of the work, being the video game people, but we will have a lot of input as well.) Black Chicken have launched a Kickstarter to fund it. Atlas has a press release about the game and Kickstarter as well.

The target for the Kickstarter is high, because it has been properly budgeted, and $290,000 is actually enough to make sure the game happens. If there isn’t enough interest to pay for the project, we won’t do it, and thus avoid losing $290,000, but we really hope there is enough interest. Is there any interest here?

Choosing the World

Although I will, of course, develop the detailed design of the game world while I’m working on the game, I do need to choose the basic type of world I want to create. Since we are focusing on things I’m personally interested in, there are four options: “classic” fantasy, modern fantasy, science fiction, and historical.

By “classic” fantasy I mean, essentially, the sort of fantasy world popularised by Tolkien and his imitators. Elves, dwarfs, orcs, swords and sorcery. That sort of thing. Yes, a lot of role-playing games have used this background, most famously Dungeons & Dragons. However, the basic aim of my game is sufficiently different from that of D&D that using a familiar background might actually be a good thing, if I’m aiming at an audience of role-players. If the background is classic fantasy, the players’ assumptions about the general ways in which the background works will be correct, which will help them get into the game, and make sensible choices from the background options available. As the basic goals of the characters are very different from those in other role-playing games, a bit of familiarity could be a big help. In addition, this is something I keep coming back to when I look at classic fantasy worlds; I really like them, no doubt in part because they were an important element in my formative years, but the games set there do not support the sorts of characters I actually want to play.

What about the other sort of fantasy, modern fantasy? If I wrote a modern fantasy game, I would probably set it in Japan. It would be something like Tamao: The RPG. Of course, that would make the background very unfamiliar to the players, apart from the handful of English-speaking role-players who live in Japan, unless I wrote it in Japanese and targeted the Japanese market. However, I suspect that’s a bit too ambitious for the moment. I could set it in the UK or the USA, but that removes one of the big advantages of putting it in Japan: I can’t use information and images that I can gather just by walking around the area where I live.

Moving away from fantasy, if I created a science fiction world it would be fairly hard science fiction, not space opera. However, since the things that characters would create would include new scientific theories, it couldn’t be hard science fiction according to the strict definition, because the characters would discover things that broke the currently-established laws of nature. (This is, however, a fundamental problem for hard science fiction; new scientific laws will be discovered in the future, so if you set something far enough in the future it’s not hard science fiction if you don’t make something up, but also not if you do. Obviously, there are ways round this, but it does make the standard definition less applicable than it might be.) I’d probably set it in a somewhat transhumanist setting, like those used in Transhuman Space and Eclipse Phase, because those settings provide a lot of space for engineering creations as well as for fundamental scientific discoveries, and thus make it easier to create a setting that supports a long-running campaign. It’s a bit hard to maintain continuity, and interest, if you completely restructure the world every week.

Finally, a historical setting would probably start with a straight historical setting, without fantasy, but the actions of the player characters would quickly turn it into an alternate history setting. They might make scientific discoveries and change the technological background, or create important new works of art, or change the political structure. In any case, the aim of the game would be to enable the player characters to change history, in deep and fundamental ways. However, the first changes might be quite minor, so this would also have an educational aspect, as the players would naturally learn about the historical period while playing.

The downside of both a hard scientific setting and a historical setting is that a large amount of research would be needed to do them properly. I could probably do a historical game set in medieval England based on the research I’ve already done, and I have enough scientific background to be able to make a stab at the science fiction, but in either case I’d have to do even more research. This isn’t entirely a bad thing, because I like research, but it is another barrier to getting started on writing the actual game. I probably don’t need any other preparatory projects to waste my time on.

To a lesser extent, the same can be said of the modern fantasy setting. While I only need to go outside and walk around for some things, for others I really would need to find out how Japanese society works in that respect, and that might not be at all easy. Again, it’s something I want to know, but research takes me even longer in Japanese than in English (my Japanese reading speed is still not the same as my English reading speed), so it would, again, significantly delay the creation of the actual game.

Looking at all of these issues, it rather looks as though the classic fantasy setting is the best choice to start with. I can just make the background up to fit the structure of the game, which is likely to be helpful while I am still trying to get things working. More generally, I can just make bits of background up as I need them, and, as long as I keep track of them, they can’t be wrong. I might decide I want to make revisions later, and there will be time for that, but I can’t make actual, unambiguous mistakes.

The next step, then, is to start actually writing the game. This process, however, will not lend itself to regular blog posts, and virtually nobody is reading these posts anyway, so while I think I will post about it from time to time, when there is something significant to say, this will be the last of this semi-regular series.

Setting the Scene

Introducing the game world is, like character creation, a major problem for role-playing games. Most games end up with several volumes of world information, running to thousands of pages; Ars Magica is certainly no exception to that. Reading this information and discovering the game world is part of the fun for a lot of people. However, feeling that you need to read several thousand pages before you can play a game does tend to discourage casual players, and make it hard to try new games. It’s even more of a problem for my design, where I want people to be able to start playing within fifteen minutes, and to do so without a gamemaster, and thus without someone assumed to know what is going on in the game world.

A bad approach to this problem would be to provide lots of material to be read out by the players. Reading is fun, but it isn’t playing, so this also delays people getting into the game. In addition, the players are not going to remember everything that is read out to them, particularly if it’s about an entirely fictional world, or something historical or from a remote culture. Boredom and confusion are the likely result, and neither of those is fun.

On the other hand, the information does need to be contained in the scenario, because there’s nowhere else to put it. However, it is better if the information is supplied as needed, rather than in large chunks, and if the information supplied is closely involved in the action being taken. This is the “show, don’t tell” rule for writing fiction, transferred to a role-playing context.

The concrete application of this is to the description of the actions the characters take, and to the description of the characters themselves. Each individual problem needs to be described, and that description should introduce part of the world. Further, each action that the characters take should be described, and further the world’s description. Describing the problem is relatively easy; this can be a bit of text that one player reads out. It can be kept short, and it’s immediately relevant to play, so boredom and confusion can be avoided.

Character actions are a bit more difficult, because the players should have control, but don’t have the necessary knowledge. I think the best approach may be to provide two or three options for actions in each situation, with a description, and then let the player choose which one the character does.

Character features, which grant additional dice to roll, should also describe part of the background. They won’t go into detail, but they’ll start to reveal something of what the game world is like. And, if they’re chosen, they’ll be linked to the character, and thus easy to remember and important. Of course, they should continue to be important in later parts of the scenario, but that’s just a matter of careful design.

Finally, there’s the background itself. What is the world like beyond the immediate concerns of the characters? Here, I would like to introduce elements that characterise the world, and the particular location where the characters are working. One possibility is to make two elements available at each action, with a brief description of each one. Then, the player can choose to incorporate one of the available elements into the description of her character’s action. If she does so, she gets an extra die to roll, and that element is confirmed as being present in the immediate environment.

A possible development of this is to have more detailed descriptions of certain elements, which become available when a basic element is in play. Later players can choose to involve them, making the description richer, and getting extra dice for their characters’ actions.

However, there’s going to be a lot to keep track of here, and scratch paper may not be the best way to do it. Instead, I think it might be a good idea to print the descriptions on cards, around business-card size. The cards can then be placed between the players, so that they can see what elements there are in the environment, and how they are built up. The cards could also have pictures on, although, as I can’t draw, that is unlikely to happen in the first stages of development. Actually, the whole thing could be made multimedia, with images and sounds, even animations, and then run on a laptop, tablet computer, or smartphone. However, I’d have to learn to program to do that, as well as get the multimedia from somewhere, so that’s also not going to be the immediate form this takes.

Another advantage of using relatively small cards is that it limits the length of the descriptions, which is an important consideration. The elements might build up into a lengthy, detailed description, but they start small. Since adding detail means going back to an element that has already been added, that will remind the players of what is around them, and, again, makes it important that the individual elements are short. Reading over a lot of long descriptions repeatedly risks creating boredom again.

This is going to require quite a lot of work from the author of the scenario. He will have to make sure that the elements work together well, support the story of the scenario, and let the players generate interesting characters. They will also need to be structured so that it is very difficult to produce something that doesn’t make sense. Thus, each background element card will need instructions for what replaces it in the pool of available elements if it is used, or, for incompatible detailed descriptions, what has to be taken out. For character elements and elements of the thing being created, the scenario needs to specify what is available at each point, possibly depending on what was chosen earlier.

However, it is important to avoid closing off options. We must remember that the players do not know what they are doing; they should not be allowed to make choices that mean they cannot do, or be, something significant in the game world, at least not early on. For example, in a classic fantasy game, players should not be able to exclude the possibility that their character belongs to a particular race until they know enough about the races to make that choice sensibly.

Again, looking away from the scenarios, this information can also be gathered into books about the game world, so that they are available for people who like to read that sort of thing. A player could learn about the background from books, which would just mean that he knew more about how the elements introduced in a scenario connected to the rest of the world. That wouldn’t, normally, be an advantage, since the characters would be assumed to know even if the players didn’t. It would also be possible to produce packs of background elements, for use with any scenario, that introduced new features of the game world.

I’ve been very vague in this as to the nature of the background, because that’s the next thing I have to decide. In broad terms, what is going to be the setting of my game?