Why safe spaces for social awkwardness are worrying

On Facebook, a friend just shared a link about the idea that Geekdom being a place where socially shunned males are free to be themselves is a radical rewriting of history. that erases women. The link is true as far as it goes; there are many many influential female Geeks that Tauriq Moosa missed out including Verity Lambert, Grace Hopper, and Marion Zimmer Bradley. But there are two other extremely important points I want to make.

Geekdom is thought of by some as the only place where socially shunned males can be safe and be themselves. I am a socially awkward male geek who sometimes has all the tact of a rhino in a china shop (a bull in a china shop turning out not to be that bad). But I don’t want a pure safe space simply because I’m awkward and mess up. When I mess up I want to know about it so I can try to do better next time. I do want somewhere I can share interests and a sense of fun, and that it has its own rules is a good thing. But that’s a different issue.

It’s hugely different because the single easiest way for someone to hide being deliberately harmful is behind a veneer of awkwardness.

Don’t think it could happen in geek circles? We’re going to talk about two alpha-geeks from the 60s. A married couple, in fact. Walter Breen and Marion Zimmer Bradley. (OK, who spotted the hook in the first paragraph?) In geek circles, Marion Zimmer Bradley was a famous and prolific SF and fantasy author, ran several fanzines, gave numerous authors their start in her various anthology collections, and much much more. Together they were founders of the Eastern chapter of the SCA – and Walter went on post-divorce to become an extremely influential coin collector. They were both highly influential members of various deep subcultures and put a lot of work in.

Walter Breen died in prison for child abuse. Marion admitted helping him commit and cover up his crimes in court.

***TRIGGER WARNING – child abuse, child rape – the links in the following paragraph are detailed about some aspects of the abuse. I’m going to talk about how and why.***

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Progress through Blood and Fire

It’s December 1.  I’ve just seen my first brass band of the year and seen my first red kettle.  Which means that it’s about time for the annual “Don’t give to the Salvation Army” posts to start appearing.  I wrote up why a couple of years ago.  (There are of course plenty of others around the net).  But this is not that post.  This is instead one to say “We’re winning”. Continue reading

All in all it’s just another brick in the wall

The Ferguson Riots are not just about the shooting of Mike Brown by Darren Wilson.  Yes, that particular tragedy is the trigger.  But it’s not the whole cause.  There are two immediate causes; the first being the shooting of an unarmed black man by a cop,  The second being the second.  Hands Up, Don’t Shoot is not exactly a new thing.  The Fresh Prince of Bel Air was making darkly funny jokes about it in the early 1990s.  (At the time I, as a middle class WASP living in a country where we seldom armed our cops despite an ongoing terrorism campaign thought the joke was entirely on the overreaction to the presence of the cop; I wish that I’d been right rather than not yet even a teenager and growing up in a family where I’ve heard someone unironically claim “British Police are the best in the world“)


But the cause of the protests and riots were the Grand Jury, after being given all the evidence, proclaiming that there wasn’t a case against Darren Wilson.  Something which sounds reasonable, after all, they were a Grand Jury and they were asked to look at all the evidence.
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Tabletop Roleplaying: Traveller to a Common Language

Where I left the development of tabletop roleplaying last we were back in the mid 1970s, and the only game in town was D&D.  This is a slight exaggeration – there were other games back then such as Chivalry and Sorcery (house rules for D&D turned into a game), Tunnels and Trolls (as far as I know the only version of D&D in this period designed to be simpler than the original), Bunnies and Burrows (a send up of D&D – I’m not making this up), Gamma World (using the D&D rules for a gonzo post-apocalyptic future), and Arduin (high powered rules for D&D that were given a cease and desist order for referencing D&D page numbers).  I think that selection is a fair representation of what was around at the time. Continue reading

Tabletop Roleplaying Games: Back where we started

My last posts have all been very serious and weighty.  This one might be, but is going to be about one of my hobbies – tabletop roleplaying games.  I’m a thoughtful gamer rather than an expert – so there may be things in here that are simply wrong – and my classification of tabletop roleplaying into decades is a good rough approximation but not entirely accurate.

So what is tabletop roleplaying?  The only answer I can give is people getting together to sit round a table having fun with a shared imaginary world, and in some cases doing so on a weekly basis for years on end.  What it is varies almost from group to group – and all versions are valid.  I can more or less group what is considered cutting edge – but there are outliers in any grouping, and people don’t stop playing a given game just because more come out.  People still play Monopoly – and that is not only ancient, it was deliberately designed to not be fun.  So I’m going to divide the strands that make up tabletop roleplaying by period of starting (it’s as good a method to start as any) – and this post only deals with the oldest strand.

Prehistory – Braunstein

In 1967, Major Wesley in a tradition that was to mark roleplaying games said “What if?”  He took a tabletop wargame and gave each participant a part to play of a specific officer or townsman to add some realism – and called his game Braunstein.  And he found his players had minds of their own and the result was complete anarchy.  Very fun for most of the players but worrying for him because they didn’t do as expected (something that would become a tradition) and responded by doing absolutely the wrong thing and trying to restrict their options for the next couple of games, at which the players had  (something else that would become a tradition).

Game four was set in a banana republic and along came someone called Dave Arneson, playing the Students Revolutionary Leader (who got points by distributing his flyers).  Only Dave Arneson came along with a fake CIA ID and convinced everyone he was (a) a CIA agent and (b) the safest person to look after the republic’s treasury because of this.  Game, set, match.

Arneson decided that was fun.  And ran his part of the Castles and Crusades society that way – apparently driving Gygax almost mad with reports to a wargaming society that were talking about stealing magic swords rather than epic battles.  Gygax came to take a look – and completely revamped what he was doing, ending up by producing D&D.

The 1970s – Dungeons and Dragons

Gary Gygax was, like Dave Arneson and everyone else round then a tabletop wargamer, and early Dungeons and Dragons was about taking things to the next level of challenge than a wargame.  So instead of commanding an entire army, each of the players except the runner (the Dungeon Master or DM) took a person and their retainers, and the goal was to get as much loot from a dungeon as possible without dying.  More or less like an asymmetric boardgame except you could do anything you could think of and it was the DM’s job to work out what happened from an off the wall plan.

Or possibly more like a video game; the dungeons the adventurers were trying to loot were built in levels – which matched how hard the area was.  And when one player of that period was asked what his monsters ate, he put a McDonalds on the sixth level with prices in copper pieces.

The basic rule of the period was “We made some shit up we thought would be cool”, and role playing games were about exploring the unknown and making it out alive.

I Fought the Chaos and the Law won

Early D&D had a fundamentally different relationship between the players and their characters than you normally see now.  Play was commonly “Pawn Play” – instead of being a person to flesh out, a player character was your playing piece to use as effectively as possible in the same way a wargamer uses their army or squad.  Player skill at overcoming obstacles was almost the point of the game – you just had a much bigger toolbox than you had in traditional wargames.

The method of gaining power was treasure – you either gained more powerful objects, gained experience points, making you more powerful, or both.  So smart play revolved round not killing monsters for power but robbing them blind (a slight improvement) and for preference you evaded them.

Alignment was law vs chaos initially rather than the classic nine point alignments – you were on the frontier with chaos being things looking to tear down civilisation (not that too much law was much better).

So with these constraints, characters were almost as much pawns of the player as boardgame or wargame pieces are – and NPCs were equally pawns.  Identity and a coherent world were less part of the game than fitting into puzzles.  This was to change, and change several times.

If this sounds like fun

The players who like to play in this style normally gather under the heading of the OSR and I’d start off looking at Grognardia (and links provided by Grognardia) – with the game of choice probably being Swords and Wizardry which is a legal reimplementation of the original published rules of D&D.

The module I’d recommend for exploration is Caverns of Thracia – and I’ll let Zak S (NSFW), Grognardia, and The Alexandrian’s play report explain why.  For challenge it’s White Plume Mountain or the notoriously lethal Tomb of Horrors, and for sheer atmosphere and advice for a prep-light game I can’t beat Vornheim.  But half of this is missing the point – coming up with your own environments is part of the fun of this form of play.