2016-07-27 OSR and DIY D&D

Ben Milton recently asked about the difference between the OSR and DIY D&D on Google+.

OSR is about going back to the old games and exploring avenues not taken at the time. In terms of products, this meant republishing rules compatible with the old games and adventures looking like the old modules. As time went by, the OSR developed new settings, new ways of presenting setting materials, rules that where still compatible but included many house rules, or rules that were incompatible but still recognizably derived from the old rules. This latest development is what I call DIY D&D. So for me, DIY D&D is a subset of the OSR.

The market being so small, all of this was driven by very small teams of people and facilitated by POD. I’m not convinced that words such as independent and anti-establishment mean so much in this context. If a writer, two or three artists, an editor, a layout person and a publisher make a book, is it all that different from how Paizo and WotC work? Are their teams so much different? It would seem to me that their product is simply more opinionated, less designed to reach the widest audience possible. As such, I also see DIY D&D as an aesthetic movement. In way, pushing the hardest down “avenues not taken at the time”.

Zak also left a comment: “DIY D&D is a term I invented because I hate a lot of old stuff but I liked the bloggers who talked about it and their garage-rock house rules approach.”

If you’re wondering who Zak is, you might want to read his blog – or you might want to read this piece by Vanessa Veselka, The Best Monster (2014), as an introduction. I liked it very much. Zak wrote another article himself, Why I Still Love 'Dungeons & Dragons' in the Age of Video Games (2015). And then there is the older one which caused some controversy back then, a piece by Davy Rothbart, Playing Dungeons and Dragons with Porn Stars (2012).

I don’t follow Zak on G+ and he doesn’t follow me. I just read his blog and every now and then I read up on the controversies he’s embroiled in. This is the very first controversy, apparently: Default Tracy Hurley & Filamena Young Attack the D&D With Porn Stars Women Transcript, just in case you are as confused as I am by the recent resurgence of the discussion after the post of Mark Diaz Truman on Google+, Two Minutes Hate.

Curious about the post by Mark Diaz Truman? I thought it was a good read. I’m all in favor of treating people like people, not like objects of hate, in favor of some humility, recognizing the achievements of others and the failings of oneself. And I have often scratched my head, wondering what the hell I just read in a thread on G+.

Zak often comes across as aggressive. Here’s an example on a blog post of his where Brie Sheldon is quoted saying “I have been directly impacted by the bad behavior of Zak” and he jumps on that and wants to see the evidence. He also provides a link to a longer thread by Jeremie Friesen on Google+ where Zak and Tracy talk. He really wants to defend himself against any and all slights, including the thread mentioned above.

Here’s why I care: back when I ran the One Page Dungeon Contest I liked the fact that every submission had to use a Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike license. One day Brett Bernstein contacted me and asked me whether I’d be OK with Precis Intermedia collecting the submissions in a printed volume. Of course I’m OK with it, but more than that: it doesn’t matter whether I’m OK with it. You don’t have to ask. That’s what the license is all about. No more asking for permission is key. The Book Free Culture talks about this a lot. The licenses were created to get around the need to ask for permission.

Sadly, some people didn’t understand that applying the license to their submission allowed others to do this very thing I was so happy to see. I felt I had done a good thing by insisting that the contest submissions used Creative Commons licenses but somebody else wrote a blog post calling the result a “dick move”. [1] [2] That hurts. And it keeps on hurting because the written words do not disappear. The spoken word will disappear, but the blog post will stay. Somebody is forever insulting me.

That’s why I agree with people like Zak: there needs to be more accountability online. Posting online is not like talking to friends. Posting online is like writing for the press if more than a handful of people can read it. Accountability is key. Politeness is key.

I really don’t like vague statements. I remember one of the comments in particular. Avonelle Wing says: “I’m concerned about all the voices that have serious issues with how they’ve been treated in the past who have now been silenced entirely because one person (one white man) behaved inappropriately in public in the perception of one high-visibility entity.” To me, this is an opening statement that works well in a face to face conversation, a private conversation. Are we talking about Zak? Who are “all the voices?” If we were friends and talking face to face, I could ask for clarification, we’d share the backstory I’m missing. But written words, no links to threads, no names, it’s all so vague. And yet, we’re perhaps discussing the reputation of a person. I’d be trying to defend myself against such vague insinuations and I’d like to see some evidence so that we can talk about it. The alternative is not to make such insinuations in public. I’ll go back to the thread linked above where Tracey Hurley is talking to Mandy and Zak. Is Tracey Hurley one of the people that have been silenced? I’m not friends with her, either. All I know from reading the transcript is that Zak and Mandy are vigorously defending their way of life and saying that they are not willing to take the blame for things that are wrong with capitalism and the magazine Maxim. Thus, the vague statements make it hard to know if I’m understanding what Avonelle meant. And comments are closed. And then another vague statement: “Fear of retaliation is gatekeeping, and there’s definitely gatekeeping going on that is keeping women out of publicly producing games.” What is the retaliation we are speaking about? Is it Zak angrily demanding that people provide proof when they allege his wrongdoings? Would me asking for quotes be construed as the same kind of “retaliation?”

Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences. I think people should own their accusations and name names and link to evidence—or take their discussions out of their public sphere. Is this “silencing?” I don’t think so. These are the consequences of sharing a public space. Your freedom ends where it impinges upon another’s.

„Das Recht ist also der Inbegriff der Bedingungen, unter denen die Willkür des einen mit der Willkür des anderen nach einem allgemeinen Gesetze der Freiheit zusammen vereinigt werden kann.“ [3]

Another example is a post by Sophie Lagace, Who measures progress? Good question. I’d love to see the “long-documented bad behaviours” she mentioned. And I keep wondering about “Calling out of victims.” When I read the transcript above, it seemed to me that Zak was the victim, except that he doesn’t show fear and doesn’t retreat to a safe space and instead defends his reputation vigorously, angrily. And yet his anger doesn’t get seen as appropriate. It’s weird. The entire blowback Mark is getting is weird.

After adding to this post over the days that the discussion has been unfolding, I realized that I had already said most of what I wanted to say back in 2014, Speaking in Public. Back then, I said:

What I took away from all those years on the Internet was being more careful about what I said. At first I felt like a coward. Afraid of comments on my own blog, I was.

Is this me being silenced or is this me being reasonable when speaking in public? I’m not being silenced and neither is anybody else who is rightfully criticised and challenged in public. Belonging to a group that is being silenced (their actors don’t play in big movies, their books don’t get nominated for awards, their artists are being paid less, their complaints about abuse are being ignored) does not mean that you get to say whatever. Like Tracy in that first thread up there, she definitely has the right to object to sexualized images of women playing D&D in a magazine—but she does not get immunity when challenged by the people being portrayed.

As I said back in 2014:

If I can’t stand the heat after nailing my blog posts to the church door, I’m not going to post.

Still true.



Similar situation here: Alexander Cherry opens a discussion on Google+ with “So, as far as I can tell, the Old School Revolution is about demanding bad game design. Can anyone give me a counter-example?” How’s that for a terrible opening? Natalie Bennet says in a comment:

Your original statement is so non-sensical that it’s impossible to respond to it.

Clearly people who identify with the “old school revolution” don’t agree that the games that they prefer are “bad game design.” We play those games because they lead to the play experiences we prefer.

So you’re either trolling, stupid, or have a definition of concepts like “bad” and “about” that is incomprehensible to other humans.


Next time, try something like:

“Features of OSR games like X, Y, and Z thing seem like bad design. They lead to behaviors A, B, and C, which aren’t fun. But some people really like them, there are a lot of games that use them. What’s going on? Why do people want games like this?”

If you start from the assumption that people you don’t understand are basically reasonable, but have different experiences and temperaments than you, talking to them tends to go better.

And yet, at the end of the day, Zak’s doing evil shit? Alexander Cherry ends the thread:

Since Zak’s created a hostile environment in this thread, I’m disabling comments, which I should have done the previous time he did it.

But how did we end up here?

Ralph Mazza starts by defending the position that D&D is poorly designed. If there’s an argument I don’t see it. It basically seems to say that the rules are bad because he can’t use the rules without telling us what it is about the rules that prevents him from doing it.

D&D games aren’t bad design because they encourage free form. D&D games are bad design because D&D was a piss poor game in the first place. It encourages freeform, not because it was designed to encourage free form, but because that’s the only way to get the creaky thing to work at all. This is to be expected from a game that pioneered a whole new thing...the very first automobiles were also piss poor cars. We respect the achievement and put them in museums, but no one is commuting to work today in a horseless carriage.

D&D is a bad design. And OSR games that try to get the desired play experience by emulating a known bad design are thus themselves bad designs. And therefore OSR gamers who demand D&D-esque clones, are essentially demanding bad design.

Tony Tucker and Alexander Cherry then talk about combat with Tony saying:

Also, in OSR games combat is heavily discouraged. There are palpable rewards for avoiding it, and minimal rewards for engaging in it.

Zak comes in, picking up on Ralph’s idea that people need to avoid the rules in order to play the game, and picking up on Tony’s point that avoiding combat is often what the game is about, and writes the following:

Players often have snacks during D&D yet the game does nothing in the rules to encourage snacks. It is therefore poorly designed. When players are snacking they aren’t interacting with the system. Clearly, someone like Ralph should write a storygame which supports snacks so we don’t have to think up our own snacks.

I may have said it differently, but given the opening statements by Alexander Cherry and Ralph Mazza, it seems quite appropriate. And then it all goes downhill.

– Alex Schroeder 2016-08-02 13:04 UTC

People accusing Zak of being a harasser and friends of being his sock puppet accounts and whatnot because of a video game. But look! Coworkers speak out:

– Alex Schroeder 2017-02-20 07:02 UTC

Long chronology with many links by Patrick Stuart: A Timeline of the Zak Wars.

– AlexSchroeder 2017-03-08 16:44 UTC

Thanks for writing all this up. It can be hard to have a cogent opinion about controversy in the dnd world, especially when there is so much content out there to review. Your post help me make sense of it all and really simplify it for me. I wish more people wrote about this stuff from what seems like a removed perspective.

sean 2017-05-18 10:14 UTC


– Alex Schroeder 2017-05-18 10:29 UTC

Update: 2019-02-11 More Zak Smith.

– Alex Schroeder 2019-02-11 20:08 UTC

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