(Painting by René Magritte)
This rant of a blogpost was inspired by Full Metal RPG Episode 57 – “Heather, 5th Edition Vampire the Masquerade, Vampire the Requiem, Omega Zone Review.”
(You should check out FMRPG, they’re fucking rad)
I’ll start this philosophical bullshit with a strange question:
If we can play pretend for free and at any moment we choose, why bother paying a clerk in paper or electronic trust to deliver a packaged experience made by some far distant organization of people?
Plainspeak: Why bother buying RPG books when you can make it up yourself for free?
I see at least 4 great reasons: 1) people who write/create collaboratively for a living are more likely to create excellent content, 2) To have an agreed upon common language (aka rules/setting/character options), 3) to feel a sense of belonging to the group that uses this same common language, and 4) to commiserate with afterwards (between games) with people who speak the same common language.
We buy rule books because that’s the cost of entry into the gaming club. When players and game masters have rules to go by they have a social currency they can agree on, comprehend, and adhere to. It leads to an experience that can be repeated again and again, across the globe, regardless of personalities or circumstances. It offers consistency, predictability, and comfort. It also offers a sense of belonging.
Twice in one week I was out in public with the common rabble of my fellow humans and I was called out for wearing symbols emblematic of my hobby interests. Someone spotted my d20 spinner ring and asked if I played D&D. Someone else spotted my “Lake Geneva Games” t-shirt and asked where I got it and if I knew any good places for people to run a game of D&D. The effect of both interactions was a surge of dopamine in my brain and a flash of smiling recognition. I immediately knew something about these people and they knew something about me. By no means was this a complete recognition, we might have argued over religion or politics or whether or not Dark Side of The Moon was the quintessential Pink Floyd album, but we had at least the common ground of Dungeons and Dragons and all that entails.
Without me wearing symbols of my interests and without companies creating rule books and people purchasing these products these moments would have never happened. I would know nothing of my connection to a wider world and human moments of empathy would have been lost.
A club can be used to fulfill the human need for belonging, or it can be used to bludgeon an “other” over the head because they don’t belong.
At their core, clubs and labels fulfill our brains innate desire to rationally comprehend the world around us. Flooded with sensory input from the external world as well as our own internal thoughts, in order to function we need to prioritize and compartmentalize information. If we refuse to do this or perhaps if our brains cannot do this for some physiological reason, we will quickly find ourselves unable to relate or cope with day to day modern human life.
Language itself is compartmentalized information. If we didn’t have language we could not express ourselves and meet our basic needs. I don’t see people scrambling to create a language revolution where we return to the good ol’ days of grunts and pointing. But people perennially love to discuss the oppression of labels and clubs. Personally, I think we’re having the wrong discussion. The oppression we should really be talking about is human cruelty. The insufferable insanity of crowds and mob mentality. The ever present evil of blindly following orders. The cults of personality and devotion that lead ordinary people to defend the honor and image of people they have never even met. Labels and clubs are not to blame for how people may misuse them.
I find it amusing that a podcast (FMRPG) that refers to its loyal audience as “cultists” recently discussed the sins of labels and clubs. This dramatic irony will not be lost on my friend Brendan of FMRPG. This isn’t me saying he’s a fool and a charlatan. I just like giving him shit. (I will admit, it’s easy for me to sit here and dissect and create points and counterpoints when I have the luxury of pausing and replaying the conversation on the podcast.)
The following is a brief transcription of the discussion in question (between timestamps 1:08:13 – 1:11:41)
Heather: “My biggest problem with vampire games is the way that they make you have to be in some kind of club…Why do vampires have to be in their own little clubs and fight each other?”
Brendan: “I think V5 acknowledges that…life doesn’t just get boiled down to what weird little group you’re in. I think that was a major failing of the original Masquerade material…it started out being this edgy different thing, ‘oh I get to choose a clan, and I’m part of a sect’ and these ideas of belonging that had never been expressed in roleplaying up till that point, felt very new and very fresh. But by the time you hit ’97 through ’99 people were starting to talk about ‘oh that character is the way they are because (and they would cite clan or cite sect).’ And then they started doing what I consider even more heinous things saying ‘this character can’t be because of clan or sect’ ‘Oh that characters not Brujah, Brujah would never be like that!’” (Alignment arguments anyone?)
Brendan: “This idea that you can break everything down into these finer and finer subgroups is actually destructive to creativity. It’s destructive to the way that games get played where everybody is always trying to analyze everything…what little nook can I slot you into?”
I agree with Heather and Brendan, but listening to the discussion I had my own thoughts I wanted to elucidate here. In my opinion it’s not clubs or labels that’s the real problem. What’s really to blame in these egregious situations is simply people being fucking shitheads.
I see where they’re coming from. I have been privy to conversations where people are diametrically opposed to what I believe or what I participate in. I have been “the other” in arguments that is bashed over the head with ideology and labels. I have bucked labels and tried to redefine myself. But in the end, all these years later, I realize how narrow my perspective was, and that I myself was conforming to just another set of rules and ideology. It’s like the person who says they want to rebel against society and its ideals of what is and isn’t acceptable and they purchase all their clothes from Hot Topic. It’s missing the point entirely.
The real point, as I see it, is that human beings can think stupidly and act outright disgusting to one another. When I was in high school I was abhorred that the “popular kids” started liking System of A Down. I didn’t want them joining my own edgy anti-establishment club of cool kids. Shouldn’t I have been happy that the band was succeeding in reaching a wider audience? Shouldn’t I have been using this common ground as an entryway for further understanding and empathy with my peers? Couldn’t I have just let it go and not be concerned with finding fault in others? Sure. But I wanted to throw a temper tantrum over what other people could and could not like based on my own prejudices.
“Oh you can’t play with us because you’re a (insert label here).” I’ve recently learned a little bit about this going on in the gaming community at large. I learned that we even have a label for this labeling. “Gatekeeping.” Keeping out people from a fandom or a hobby by direct or indirect means. This kind of behavior or language disgusts me. I want everyone to feel the rush of excitement I get when the final blow is struck with a critical hit against the Big Bad. I want everyone to feel welcome at my table and find a bit of solace from the too often confusing and chaotic real world. Not everyone needs to like what I like and everyone can find their own fun. Just don’t find your fun at the expense of others. Don’t be a wangrod to prove you’re right and others are wrong.
In summary: we need labels and rules and clubs to have a functioning society and in order for gaming to even happen in the first place. Just don’t be a fucking dick at/around/about the games we play. Fuck off with that shit.