Done Waiting

Like many of you, I read Orion’s statement about their being let go from Wizards of the Coast and their treatment while they were employed there. And I feel what many of you feel: anger, disappointment, sadness…a mix of feelings that, for me at least, add up to rage. And that’s what I had intended to do when I got up this morning. The previous version of this post was full of rage, lashing out at WotC and Hasbro, their management, at the co-workers who remained complicit in silence. But I deleted that post and started this one.

Because I have worked through rage, to contempt. And that is all Wizards of the Coast deserves from me, and all of us, today and going forward. I could run through a laundry list of reasons why. I feel like I covered enough of them in my previous post so instead I’m going to focus on one thing that stood out for me.

WotC’s most recent statement included the following bullet point:

“We’re proactively seeking new, diverse talent to join our staff and our pool of freelance writers and artists. We’ve brought in contributors who reflect the beautiful diversity of the D&D community to work on books coming out in 2021. We’re going to invest even more in this approach and add a broad range of new voices to join the chorus of D&D storytelling.”

And the thing that immediately occurred to me when I read Orion’s post yesterday was, they knew. When WotC made their statement, when they squirted out these beautiful sounding words, WotC already knew what had been done to Orion and the treatment they endured, and not only did they do nothing, they already knew they weren’t going to renew Orion’s contract.

They lied to us. They looked us in the fucking eye, told us everything was going to be okay, and carried on as usual.

meet it is I set it down

That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain…”

There is a tactic an abuser will use if it looks like they might get outed as an abuser. They will go to their previous victims, check in, and apologize. It isn’t sincere, the abuser isn’t trying to fix anything with this. They are doing damage control, so when the story of their abuse comes out they can claim they were already working on the problem.

The statement made by Wizards of the Coast in mid-June is the corporate version of that. They made it, not out of contrition, but to control the narrative. So that any stories that came out (and there have been many, Orion’s is sadly just the latest) would be mitigated. “No, our bad, but look, we’re getting help!” Like so many other abusers in out hobby and the industry, WotC has been outed. And not once, it must be said. People I respect have been telling us for years that we are in an abusive relationship with WotC, that they won’t change. Speaking for myself, and as recently as my last post, I held out hope that WotC could change, that they wanted to change. I was wrong.

I started playing Dungeons & Dragons on January 21, 1980. It has been a source of joy and creativity for me for forty years. I have found friends I wouldn’t have otherwise because of D&D. I have written innumerable words about and for the game. I have been this game’s champion.

Until today, July 4, 2020.

Wizards of the Coast is another abuser exposed in our hobby. It may be in them to redeem themselves, but frankly I no longer care. Given the size of WotC’s presence it may sound ridiculous, but for the good of the hobby they cannot be allowed to take up space here anymore. I’m sorry I wasn’t fully on board with that before, and I apologize to anyone I hurt by my continued tacit or overt support of D&D and WotC.

Disentangling our hobby from WotC will not be easy. There are any number of freelancers who, because of the market share D&D holds, rely on creating D&D content to pay the bills. This includes not just the DMs Guild, but also your FLGS, folx who make gaming accessories, and streamers. Yes there is an uptick in non-D&D games streaming, but the D&D tag on Twitch remains the most used and watched of the TTRPG tags. So while I hope each of these groups and creators will take a good, hard look at what is going on and make their own decision, I don’t expect there will be a huge switch overnight and I don’t fault anyone for that. Talk to me a year from now, though…

As for me? In my now deleted rage post I had a towering list of ultimatums and demands, promises I was going to make. But all of that boils down to one thing. I will no longer support Wizards of the Coast, or any game they produce. I am winding up any current obligations I have that might touch on the D&D space, and then I am done with it. I will not write another word about D&D, here, at The Rat Hole, or anywhere else. In order to cause the least harm to any creators who still rely on DMs Guild, I will continue to accept editing work for DM’s Guild projects, but will ask that I be paid in a royalty share to be assigned to Extra Life instead; if that can’t happen I will donate my word rate to Extra Life myself. Existing projects for which I currently receive royalties cannot be changed, but I will tally my quarterly earnings from those and also donate that amount to Extra Life. In any case I will not personally profit off of any D&D products, and I look forward to taking on editing work for products in other systems. A few current writing projects will be pivoted to system neutrality or other TTRPGs.

And as I have said before, you’re going to see me talking a lot more about other creators on here. Picture our hobby like an enormous aquarium. Yes, D&D is a whale floating smack in the middle, big and impressive looking. It’s the first thing anyone sees when they first arrive. But it doesn’t actually do much except occasionally inhale and spit out other fish. If you pull your attention off the whale you will see it surrounded by a vibrant, colourful, exciting world of other creatures. Our hobby has so much more to offer than a whale that is taking up space better used by other fish*. It’s time for the whale to go. 

Because even if they fixed everything tomorrow, it wouldn’t be contrition or remorse. It would be fear. Fear of losing their place of power in our hobby. Fear of losing us. Because that’s what WotC hopes you and I won’t notice in all this: they need us, more than we have ever needed them.

*Just to head off the comments, yes, I know a whale isn’t a fish. You know what I meant so just don’t.

Waiting for the Roar

The round of atrocities which have led to wide-spread protests in support of #BlackLivesMatter and defunding police, also caused the TTRPG industry to take a hard look at its history of systemic anti-Black racism. Many companies, streamers, and other hobby notables were quick to show their support, helping to raise funds and outlining tangible ways in which they were going to move forward in support of Black people in the industry. But one voice was conspicuous in its absence.

Finally, on June 1, weeks after the protests began, Wizards of the Coast tweeted out their response from the D&D account. For anyone expecting full-throated support in line with so many other, earlier, TTRPG industry messages, the post seemed more like a, “Oh, by the way…” No where did it actually say Black Lives Matter, instead landing closer to All Lives Matter in it’s blandness. It was a statement long on sentiment and short on specifics, disappointing given how long it took for WotC to release a response in the first place. (In order to be fair, WotC did send a linked tweet with the BLM hashtag…twenty minutes after the initial tweet went out. So at least somebody though that was important, if only as an afterthought.)

Since then WotC has done a few things that seem to show active support; they hosted a fundraising stream featuring Black creators, charity bundles were pulled together on DM’s Guild, and their twitter account was RTing a number of other BLM events and initiatives. Still, this was all facilitating other folx actions; helpful, but amongst all the promotion for D&D Live and various Magic: the Gathering events, I waited to see some direct action from the company itself. I mean, in this same amount of time Itch and the TTRPG community were able to raise over $8 Million dollars. Surely WotC, backed by a major corporation like Hasbro, could manage something of a similar scale?

Fast forward to June 17, when WotC tweeted out another statement. While it might have appeared they were doing little, that was because they had been listening. Okay, not a bad thing, listening is the first step to learning. And in a linked page on their website, WotC laid out what they learned and what they were going to do about it. I’ll let you read it yourself.

My overall impression is that, while it gives the appearance of being much longer on actions than sentiment, it’s a lot of stuff the community has been asking for since well before the current protests. Criticisms of the biological determinism embedded in D&D go back years and decades, and when WotC is finally stirred to action? They’re going to do better in future books, fix problem areas in specific current books when they reprint them, and will release a supplement to fix the core character build process. The first one should be a given, and is arguably the lowest bar to clear given their track record. The second is great, and has apparently already been done for a few books, but no mention of what they’re doing for folks who already purchased the books (apparently there is something happening for those folx, but it should be on the statement page, don’t make people hunt to find it).

The last one, however, raises red flags for me. Why a supplement? Why not just update the core rulebooks in the same way you are doing with other sourcebooks? If they truly believe this is the path forward, why create a “separate but equal” set of rules that will inevitably cause issues in the community going forward. Any long time gamer can tell you, “supplemental” rules are optional rules. If they aren’t wholeheartedly adopted by WotC and incorporated into the DM’s Guild and Adventurer’s League, then this is just performative and WotC is trying to have their cake (that they didn’t even bake) and eat it too.

Now, let me take a moment to extend legitimate praise to WotC for hiring sensitivity readers for their upcoming work. That is an excellent step, and while it should have been done much sooner, the fact that they have done it is a positive sign. Hopefully it is something which continues once attentions wain.

The statement ends on a seeming commitment to hiring more diversely, which on its face would seem like a positive thing. And certainly a more diverse freelancer and staff pool is a good step. But there has been no mention of dealing with any of the systemic issues inside WotC/Hasbro’s office culture, issues which have led directly to some of the problems WotC is arguably trying to fix. As well, WotC and Hasbro continue to be silent in the face of calls to fire Mike Mearls and fix their harassment problems. So any diverse folx hired are coming into an environment which does not appear to value them enough to protect them, or support them with an equally diverse management.

On top of that, no where does this statement mention the faint bit of action present in the June 1 statement, the promised donations to three agencies.  By now someone in the Finance area at WotC/Hasbro should have been able to blow the dust off a calculator, figure out a number and a sufficiency of zeroes to follow it, and be able to announce it. That they haven’t at this point, while instead pushing third party initiatives through DM’s Guild and DnD Beyond, concerns me.

I have tried to be optimistic when it comes to WotC/Hasbro. In the face of everything I hoped they might actually take some sort of action befitting an industry leader. They were so proud of all those survey numbers they talked about a few months back, after all; all those folx playing their game, how wide their impact is spread. I’ve been waiting for a roar befitting a dragon.  But in this time of crisis, with people in the community they so proudly tout facing bigotry, hatred, and in some cases, death…well, we get this.

But hey, it’s a start. At least they’re still listening, right?

D&D Release Dates Leaked

In a move which is either a “Whoops!” from on-line seller Barnes & Noble or a calculated testing of the waters by the Hasbro marketing team, the release dates and prices have been posted for the first new Dungeons & Dragons products in over a year (sorry, I don’t count reprints and trips back to the well). Looks like some sort of Starter Set will be available on July 15th for $19.99, with the Player’s Handbook following up about a month later for $49.95. No images, or in fact any useful information, are provided beyond book title, release date, and MSRP.

I have some thoughts about the newest Dungeons & Dragons iteration. Many thoughts, in fact, which this news has stirred up. So let me give you a few in no particular order:

* $49.95 for a Player’s Handbook!? In this age of game systems printing all-in-one core books, and even Pathfinder giving us a core book with player/GM info combined, I’m both surprised and dismayed at Wizards for hanging on to this publishing tactic. I get the D&D books have traditionally been broken down this way; I can see my 1st, 2nd, and 3.5ed books sitting comfortably on my shelf. But with all the talk of D&D Next (so glad they seemed to have dumped that moniker, by the way) being a new direction for the game, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect them to at least follow Pathfinder’s model and combine player and GM books together. Especially for a hefty half a C-note.

And assuming the other two books in the D&D triumvirate are priced the same, that’s a price tag of $150. $170, really, because as the release dates now stand there is no talk of a Dungeon Master’s Guide or Monster Manual, so if you want to play right away you’ll need to grab that Starter Kit. A prospect which, based on the quality of the 4e Red Box, underwhelms me. So $170 for the “core set”…Wizards, you are asking me to take a big leap of faith here.

* No confirmation yet, in either this  newly leaked info or in previous mentions from WotC, on whether digital downloads will be available at time of release. Or at all, actually. Again, not something you can really afford to skimp or skip these days. Given how WotC dropped the digital ball when 4e released, silence on this front could be good. But it’s debatable whether it’s worse to promise the moon and fail to deliver, or promise nothing and turn off potential pre-sales. But like many folks anxiously awaiting D&D’s return, I’m hoping they handle their digital offerings right this time.

* I am excited for a new D&D! Yeah, I know I started with a couple of negatives, but I am honestly excited to see new Dungeons & Dragons material on store shelves. D&D started me down the path of table-top gaming, lo those many decades ago. Like many first loves I’m always going to have an attraction to it, even if I’ve moved on in my heart. I want it to do well, I really do. It’s going to take something fairly extraordinary to make it my primary game again; Pathfinder has pretty well taken that spot. And with games like Numenera and Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, it may even have a running battle as my second favourite.  But even with my misgivings, I know I’ll pick up the books at Gen Con and I know I’ll at least try to like the new game.

* While I hope it does well, I’m not of the same mind as a lot of folks who put a direct connection between the health of the table-top gaming industry and a new, healthy D&D. Yes, healthy gaming companies are good for the industry as a whole; if the new edition does well, WotC gets stronger, is in a position to employ freelancers, supplemental products can be produced, and so on. But I’d argue two things: 1) The gaming industry, for all intents and purposes, has lived without D&D for close to 2 years at this point. While I wouldn’t argue it’s at its strongest, it certainly isn’t weak. And, 2) When I hear most people talk about the new Age of Prosperity which will follow the newest D&D, they use the d20 release as an example. But much of what strengthened the gaming industry when 3rd/3.5 hit the market was the Open Gaming License (it could also be argued that it later weakened it, but that’s another article). So far there doesn’t seem to be any sign of anything similar coming with this edition, so I don’t think the effect will be as monumental as some hope.

Okay, those are some of my off-the-cuff thoughts about the new D&D. What do you think? Are you excited, meh, or somewhere in between? Drop a note in comments.

Free RPG Day Reviews, Part 2

In Part 1 of my Free RPG Day Reviews, I looked at my three favourite small press offerings.  Today I want to look at what the big publishers brought to the table. If you are sitting comfortably, and even if you’re not, we’ll begin.

Star Wars Edge of the Empire RPG Quickstart/Shadows of a Black Sun – (Shadows of a Black Sun is an adventure set in Fantasy Flight Games’ Edge of the Empire RPG. Edge of the Empire, as the name suggests, focuses on characters and role-playing on the outskirts: the thieves, the scoundrels, the down-but-not-quite-out. And the FRPGD adventure backs that up by throwing the supplied pre-gens (not a Jedi or Sith in sight) against the scum and villainy of the Star Wars universe. To my mind it’s an approach long overdue, and I can’t wait to see other adventures in the same gritty style.

But what intrigued me the most were the mechanics presented in the Quickstart rules.  For ease of play you will need to buy the special dice especially for the game, though there is a chart for converting from regular polyhedral rolls to the new symbols if strange new dice don’t do it for you.  Whatever dice you use, every important action is resolved as a challenge rolled using the player’s pool of dice against the game master’s.  Certain things cancel each other out and the end result tells you not only success, but degree of success and whether there are consequences regardless of success. At first glance it seemed complicated, but after I tried a few practice rolls it became pretty intuitive.

You did your job, Shadows of a Black Sun: I’m picking up this game.

We Be Goblins Too!We Be Goblins Too! is the sequel to Paizo’s amazingly popular We Be Goblins! adventure module from FRPGD 2010, and all the feedback around the web says this one will be just as popular. Written for the Pathfinder RPG, the adventure focuses on the literal trials and self-inflicted tribulations of the four goblin characters supplied with the adventure. Having lost their tribe to filthy adventurers, the four buff goblins (level 3, practically heroic for goblins) seek to join a new tribe. And a new tribe wants them, but wants one of them to be chief as well. Hilarity ensues!

Honestly, there is nothing not to love about this adventure. Another chance to play the barely lovable, fire-flinging sociopaths of the Pathfinder universe? Yes, please! Loads of fun for gamers new and old, and a great way to get new players into the game (though maybe start with We Be Goblins! to get the full goblin experience). Seriously, you’re playing goblins, so knowing the rules is secondary; goblins are as ignorant of how things work as new players often are, so it’s a perfect fit for newbies. And I can’t say this enough, you get to play goblins! Goblins!

Okay, I sort of tricked you. There were three in my last post, you had every right to expect three in this post. But I wanted to talk for a moment about a big publisher I was disappointed wasn’t there this year: Wizard’s of the Coast.

Given how hard at work they must be on D&D Next, one could maybe understand why they’d want to take a year off from FRPGD. Except that WotC scheduled their World Wide D&D Game Day for June 15. Why yes, that is the same date as Free RPG Day. So not only did they decline to take part in an established and successful community-building event, but they pulled the super douche move of running a competing event on the same day. I have no idea how popular an event it was elsewhere, but to the best of my knowledge no local stores ran a WWD&DD event at all so I’m unsure what this was meant to accomplish.

I don’t want to turn this into WotC bashing. I’m excited about D&D Next and some of the stuff I’ve seen in the open playtest. But I do think this was a missed opportunity on their part, and a serious misstep with the gaming community. I’m not privy to the details of their production schedule, but they could have pushed their thing back a week. Heck, running an event the week after a successful FRPGD could have brought them more players. Instead they chose to fracture the gaming community with pointless competition. I’d understand if they were launching a new game that day, but D&D Next isn’t even going to be available for Gen Con this year. So why the pointless big brother bully tactics?

Okay, that’s enough from me. If you have a favourite FRPGD find or any thoughts on my post, leave them in the comments below. And if you hit up World Wide D&D Game Day, tell me about it, I’d be interested to hear how it was for you. Next time, dice talk!