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Ceci n’est pas une Pipe

-Gilbert Kraag

Imagonem’s tireless reporter Gilbert Kraag is touring South America, perhaps searching for inspiration for one of his theories of trancendent role playing, perhaps looking for the fabled golden city of El Dorado. Who knows? This week he left Argentina for Urugay to meet the mysterious blogger RPGpundit, and ask him why he hates the Forge so much.

Crossing the Rio Plata in a thundering shitstorm, I’m weary and hung over. Too early in the morning for my own good, leaving behind the highest concentration of beautiful brunettes and all-you-can-eat-beef-fests I’ve had yet to encounter. All to meet a fellow geek on the other side of the river, in another country altogether. I’m going to Montevideo, Uruguay, to confront the scourge of all that is good, true and artful about gaming theory. The man calling himself The RPGpundit.

Lulling myself into a drooling half-slumber as the boat creaks and rattles in the heavy rain, I recapitulate the manifold notices I’ve written about ferries sinking in third world countries. Luckily, my argentine friends have assured me that Argentina isn’t one of those countries («but all the other countries on the continent are. We’re very European», they comfort me).

Arriving in Montevideo, relieved that this city of my childhood geography lessons actually does exist, the rain is still pissing down. I start walking towards the city centre, and get soaking wet before finally finding a cab. The city seems pleasant enough, and at a quieter pace than Buenos Aires. Low colonial buildings crown narrow, winding streets. Few minutes later, I find myself inside the restaurant El Facal, on the corner of 18 de Julio and Yi.

Clutching a pipe, a guy that could’ve passed for any nerd at the Oslo gaming convention I look around, trying to locate a bearded Uruguayan hate-mongering monster. I’d imagined some sort of hairy Guevara holding on to die 20s for his dear life while staring me down with bloodshot eyes, but he doesn’t seem to be here. I tell the waiter I’m meeting someone, and he gestures toward the outside patio. True to his words, there he is. Clutching a pipe, a guy that could’ve passed for any nerd at the Oslo gaming convention sits, with a skin almost as pale as the complexion I’ve carefully cultivated in dank Norwegian basements during the past 15 years of gaming. He has a trimmed reddish beard, relatively short hair, rectangular glasses and a greenish shirt. The RPGpundit. Author of «the world’s most famous RPG-blog from Uruguay, and self-proclaimed enemy of the GNS model and all that The Forge stands for.

***

After exchanging the usual pleasantries of Marvel Comics, freemasonry and the occult that is customary among civilized people meeting for the first time, He still refuses to give me his full name. «I’m cultivating sort of a persona», he shouts. «I’m The RPGpundit.» The mind boggles, but I decide to go along with the joke. «The RPGpundit» also refuses to tell me his age. «The RPGpundit does not reveal his age», he says, in the third person. What I get is this: he’s Canadian by birth, but holds a dual citizenship in Uruguay, is a master freemason and religious historian working for a company in the UK, currently doing a report on how religious groups propagate their message through new media such as the internet. How that is a paying job is anybody’s guess. He’s been living in Uruguay since 2003, where he plays RPGs four times a week with five different groups and swears a lot. And, like the rest of the people in the western hemisphere, he seems to feel the need to shout instead of talk.

– YOU SHOULD TRY THE CHIVITO, he yells.

– IT’S A VERY TYPICAL URUGUAYAN MEAL.

When the dish is served, I suspiciously lean forward.

– What are these?, I inquire;

– They look almost like vegetables.

– THEY ARE! THEY ACTUALLY SERVE THEM HERE!

Not having seen the things in a month of beef, I hungrily gorge, my hung over body yearning for vitamins and minerals. The dish consists of a slice of beef (naturally) on top of a sandwich, with some cheese on it. There are eggs, bacon, vegetables and a nice dressing. Sort of like a hamburger. The enigma is right, it’s pretty good stuff.

***

Telling my friends at the Norwegian RPG-forum I was coming here, the local Forge-enthusiast asked me what I wanted out of the interview, «except for a stream of pipe-smoke and hatred.»

The pundit’s blog, TheUruguayanGamer, has 1200 hits a day, from places as diverse as Nigeria, Russia and Germany. It has been published almost daily since 2005. Here, TheRPGpundit, among subjects such as pipe smoking, Hugo Chavez and the slow call centre service in the Uruguayan state monopolies, spews forth his hatred of «the Forge». This is an online group of chums who’ve been spending the past decade elaborating on RPG-theory and churning out indie games by the bucketful. What’s this guy’s problem?

– They’re swine!, he yells.

“These pretentious swine that feel threatened by people who don’t recognize their genius” – These are people that use RPGs as an excuse to justify their brilliance, genius or perceived artistic merit. They’re not into RPGs because it’s fun but because it’s their idea of an elitist thing to do. Ever since Vampire: The Masquerade in the early 90s, there has been an idea floating around that role playing games have some sort of artistic merit. At the start of this century, Ron Edwards comes along, saying that it’s academia. They’re these pretentious swine that feel threatened by people who don’t recognize their genius. “These pretentious swine that feel threatened by people who don’t recognize their genius”

– But, don’t you agree that some of the sessions that we play can have some pretty high aesthetic or intellectual qualities? Not only do I not have a problem with it if someone would want to look at role playing as an art form. In Norway and the Scandinavian countries, it could also be politically useful if they were recognized as such, due to the possibility for funding from the state.

– Now if you want to call it an art form to get money from the government, good for you. I’m not saying that role playing sessions can’t be beautiful or deep experiences. In that sense, sure, lots of shit can be called art. But it’s not art in the sense that an actual classical art form would be, he shouts in response, while gobbling the chivito.

I ponder the fact that our disagreement runs along the exact same lines as the ones that have been going on in the Norwegian LARP- and RPG-communities for the past five years. I wonder how many mirror-discussions have been spawned around the globe. Here we are, in downtown Montevideo, a Norwegian and a Canadian. Are these discussions held in Moscow? Addis Ababa? Unlike most of the detractors of ‘role playing as art’, though, this guy seems able to string together a complete sentence, making him more of a challenge.

“I’ve read most of the Forge-games, but not played any of them”– I’ve read most of the Forge-games, but not played any of them. One of their criticisms is that you have to play a game in order to know how they work. I tend to disagree. I haven’t dipped my hand in sulphuric acid either, but I know I wouldn’t like it, he says.

– I’ve played quite a few of them. Some of them work just fine, I weakly mumble, egg at the corners of my mouth.

– Oh yeah?, the dude leans back in his chair, sending me a knowing glare;

– Which ones?

– Well, uhm, I’ve played Dogs in the Vineyard. That was ok, but I’ve been told I approached it from a wrong angle by playing it in an immersive way, because I should really be playing it from the viewpoint of knowing that it is I as a player who’s morally responsible for the character’s actions. While still playing the character. Or something.

He just stares. I’m considering possible routes for escape.

– Um, and, well, Sorcerer, that didn’t seem to work for us… neither did Capes, or Under the Bed the time I tried it, but I’ve been told that can be really good, same goes for My Life with Master, I think we had some fun playing Nicotine Girls.

I’m sweating a bit now.

– Shock didn’t really work, but that was because we were playing without the correct rules errata… uhm… PRIME TIME! I yell.

– Prime Time Adventures works. We had a smashing campaign with that.

He leans forward and grins.

– That’s not exactly a great track record, is it?

I eye the knife, but he starts droning again and does not seem to be preparing a physical assault.

– Even I have a Forge game I like; Octane. It’s a cool, weird, post apocalyptic game where the players are driving around in souped up trucks after the third world war, with all this surreal stuff going on. Unlike other Forge games, though, you have a wide range of things you can do.

“Certain role playing games are practically never run as written”– If you play with a shitty GM, the game would suck even though the rules were great. Certain role playing games are practically never run as written, which is a great way gamers have of telling the designers to fuck off. I’ve never seen a game of Vampire: The Masquerade run as Mark Rein*Hagen envisioned it: people brooding about lost humanity. Instead, people use it to take the opportunity to be these beautiful, dark, leather-clad, uzi-wielding superheroes. Which is great!

– But isn’t that exactly the criticism that has been levelled against Vampire at the Forge?
– They’ve got an ok critique, but their answer is the opposite of what it should be. They go about creating these incredibly restricted games that pigeonhole the players. What you should do is create a game with as many possibilities for the GM as possible.

– They say the designer knows best, and then you end up with these silly little micro games that even the creators can’t stand playing for more than a couple of sessions.

A begging woman carrying a small child comes up to the table and shouts something at us. The RPGpundit yells back, in a polite manner. I desperately look around for a rock to climb on top of, but there’s none in sight. Pining for the fjords, I continue listening, my hearing only somewhat reduced.

***

– The Forge is a cult, the Cult of Ron. They have this dogma that says they’ve created at perfect model for games, which is not an academic way to approach theory. It’s religion.

– Things they can’t explain within the framework of the theory, like the number one single reason that people play these games, namely to get into the head of a character, they have to label it ‘immersion’ and explain it away with it being a symptom of mental illness, he says, sputtering.

– And if you play their games and don’t have a good time, you’re «brain damaged». I actually congratulated Edwards when he made the brain damage-comment, because it meant finally owning up to what I and everyone who’s been following the discussion have known all along; that they view the rest of us as brain damaged idiots.

For a second I’m thinking he’ll pause briefly for air, or to chew, but no:

“The good games are the ones that recognize the GMs role and how important he is” – The good games are the ones that recognize the GMs role and how important he is. What the World of Darkness did wrong was to create a dictatorship of the setting, where the GM was constrained by all these metaplots and powerful NPCs. The Forge was created as an answer to that, but has ended up with a dictatorship of the system, where the GM is reduced to sort of a eunuch.

– A good role playing game is a toolbox for the players, giving them the freedom to create the adventures they want. I think games like Warhammer, Amber and d20 do just that. They have lots of nifty toys you can play with, but they don’t try to pigeonhole you.

– Many of the Forge games aren’t really role playing games, they’re storygames where you collaborate inventing a story. I think they will evolve into games where you don’t play a character at all.

“The Forge is religion masquerading as academic studies” – Ok, but… like, so what? Can’t you just let them do their thing and get on with it?
– Forge is religion masquerading as academic studies, and because they feel the need to preach they’ll go everywhere else to spread the word. What they’ll do is they’ll enter discussions and talk as if their terms, like ‘narrativism’ and ‘gamism’ are valid. This starts spreading, and after a while you have to accept the terms if you want to be part of the discussions on gaming design and theory.

– One of the first things Ron Edwards says in the first three essays on Forge theory is that people who play the games that he thinks are inferior are not actually having fun, and that they’re miserable. That’s wrong. And when your fundamental assumptions are wrong, the rest of the theory will be flawed.

– It’s a bit like if I were to say in a discussion, ‘all French are sodomites, and therefore we ought to do this and that’. Unless you challenge that presupposition, you implicitly accept it, and that’s what’s happening in discussion forums all over the web with the Forge gobbledygook. This ruins the ability to talk about the theory of game design without getting into Forge theory, because inevitably someone will get in there and start talking Forge-speak.

– But don’t you see any merit to having a living theory community like that for game designers?
– That’s what Mike Mearls (game developer at Wizards of the Coast) keeps telling me, but I don’t buy it. That’s like if you were a group of biologists who wanted to set up a biology forum, and were inspired by the fact that some creationists were already set up and hugely influential on the internet, just because they were also discussing the origin of life.

– Why all the hate? Couldn’t you make your points more effectively if you cut down on the antagonism and profanity?
– Sure, there are some people who might be easier to persuade that way. On the other hand, not as many people would listen if I’d done it differently. What I wanted to do was to create an opposition to what the Forge were doing, and say that we would stand up for RPGs as fun.

– Look at Hunter S. Thompson, or Stephen Colbert. They captured their audience with a persona that caught their attention, and then later, that audience actually started listening to what they had to say.

Due to this innovative style (or offensive nature), the pundit has managed to get himself banned from RPG.net, E.N. World, and the Green Ronin boards. In September, he took over TheRPGsite. He proudly claims that it has grown from a mere 300 users to over 3000 in that short time, and says it’s a safe haven for ‘the common gamer.’

– It’s not that we ban anyone, but here we say to the Forge-types that; we do not accept your terms and dogma as final truth, and if you want to post here, you’ll have to explain yourself in fucking English, and not in a home-made language.

– The site is for the 90 percent of the gamers who actually play and enjoy the so-called «traditional games», and its success shows that there was a huge amount of people who felt underrepresented by the forums that were on the internet before. It’s actually growing to become a viable competitor to RPG.net, with 3-4 new members per day.

***

He stares dreamily at the pipe, actually shutting up for a full three seconds, then he looks at me, and again I sense danger.

– I’m getting the impression that Scandinavia must be some kind of paradise for nerds, he says.

– You have the bands coming out of there, like the Kings of Convenience, you almost get the impression that there are just all these dudes in tweed going around with big glasses all day long. And now you come here and tell me about state funding and this huge LARP-scene.

I tense.

– No, it’s hell. We are persecuted daily. The women are butt ugly and it’s cold even in summer, I mumble.

What will be next? This guy moving in next door, getting some sort of triple citizenship and shouting about dungeons and elves all day long while me and Matthijs try to concentrate on playing «Zombie Porn» as artfully as we possibly can? The hell with it, I’ll just stab him in the eye and make my escape.

But then the coffee arrives. I haven’t had caffeine in hours, and it seems even more tempting than bloodshed.

***

– What’s great about the RPGsite is that it’s become a rallying point for people who like the idea of small press publishers, but who don’t want to be stuck in the whole Forge identity, he continues, gesturing at me with the pipe.

– I’m not against small press or indie RPGs. I’m in favour of them. The RPGsite is growing into sort of an indie publishing community, putting out these great little games. Stuff like Coyote Trail (Wild West), Starcluster (Travellerish sf) and a great little game called FTL Now, which is good, hard sf. Some of these games even meet with financial success.

– Many people who’ve heard about me maybe think I’m into rules heavy games, but stuff that’s heavier than D&D, like Shadowrun, I really can’t handle. I love like Over the Edge and Amber, they’re among my favourite games. But those are also seriously interesting games. A lot of the Forge games are just pretentious without being smart.

A shoe shiner comes up to The RPGpundit at the restaurant. He smiles a triangular little smile, and puts his shoe on the stool.

“I live in a high-rise, have a maid, and there are people shining my shoes” – I love Uruguay, man. In North America, with what I earn, I’d have to share with someone. Here I live in a high-rise, have a maid, and there are people shining my shoes. It’s disgustingly exploitative, but I can’t say I don’t enjoy it. I, mean, I’d love to see the economy here improved, but I must admit I do enjoy living an upper class foreign lifestyle.

TheRPGpundit is currently working on an RPG aiming specifically for the Latin American market. It’ll be published by Flying Mice Games in the fall.

– I was incredibly surprised at how big the role playing community is in Uruguay. When I came here, I had very low expectations. At best, I thought I’d find some expats to play with. But I’m guessing there are up to 2000 people who’re into role playing on a national level, and unlike North America, there’s an actual community where almost everyone know each other.

***

The waiter is shuffling off with the cups and plates, the begging woman returns, seemingly only in order to look me in the eyes and shout some more. The RPGpundit starts stuffing his pipe again.

– I love pipes, he muses.

– I love them for the way they look, the ritual of smoking them, the fact that you can actually taste the tobacco. Many cigarette smokers in the world would actually like to quit, but I bet you can’t find a single pipe smoker who is trying to do that.

Carefully, he holds the pipe forth, somehow inspecting it. A freemason ring shines on one of his fingers.

– I won’t deny being a freemason has helped setting myself up in this country, he says. But the most important thing to me is that it is a universal brotherhood. When I approached the local lodge here, they knew I was someone to be trusted and with whom they shared common values, simply because I’m a Mason. And I knew that I could trust them.

– It’s not about nepotism, but about common values.

– So, the initiation system, is that a bit like levelling up in D&D?
– Yeah. But you get access to more spells.

***

After saying goodbye, I drift toward the Old City. The weather has cleared, and the architecture is pleasing. Noticing the name of the current US president written on walls in brightly coloured letters, I conclude the Uruguayan people must love him dearly.

At a restaurant, I order yet another chivito and a huge bottle of beer. The dish is called «chivito canadiense».

Is there no fucking escape?

***

(Mr. Ron Edwards of The Forge, when asked to comment this article, did not wish to do so directly, but instead referred to a previous extensive interview in Imagonem, where he also comments «the cult of Ron»: you may read that article here. )

Discuss this article on the Norwegian RPG-forum rollespill.net
(NB! The forums are in Norwegian.)

Discuss this article on theRPGsite

Discuss this article on RPG.net (in a members only area)

Discuss this article on nerdnycforums

…or over at Steve Jackson Games

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  1. […] bestemte seg for å satse liv og innvoller på en gonzoistisk rundtur i latinamerika i 2007, stakk han innom for å gjøre et intervju; siden da har Punditten stort sett bare klart å bli utestengt fra enda flere nettfora. Ofre […]

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