Welcome to a double issue of pirates and swashbuckling adventures for RPG Review, an unexpected double issue which started short, had some large articles provided and then followed up with another two months or so struggling to get the page count up. The horrible result is that this big issue is epically late, leaving less than a month for the deadline for the next issue. This is what happens when one tries to be old fashioned in the production style and provide a consistent page count. Gaming 'bloggers can just put the material up and to hell with the word count! Which is, of course, a very tempting path to take. As it is, this is a shorter issue than usual for a double – it is supposed to be a massive 128 pages [EDIT No, we made it!]. Well we made the tonne as they say in the old language, but we've still fallen a little short.
But on topic there is a great deal that fascinates contemporary people about the “age of piracy and swashbuckling”. In part it is the escapism and danger of the high seas, free (more or less) from the constraints of civilisation. In part it is the sense of adventure and danger, not to mention a fair bit of fantastic superstition that characterised the times.
Doubtless there are many others who are excited by the cinematic portrayal of the fashions of the time, or almost certainly the swordplay. Whether it the classic pirate or musketeer films of the past to contemporary viewing such as the successful Pirates of the Caribbean series, the combination of adventure, romance and flourish is something that excites and involves.
This is all a very far cry from real piracy which, for the purposes of consideration, also includes privateers. It is reasonable to assume that ever since since water-borne vessels were used for commerce that there were those who took to the sea (or even river and lake) to raid such vessels. The first historical records refer to the 'Sea Peoples', a nebulous term for raiders in the east Mediterranean, who were first mentioned in Egyptian records dating back to 1275 BCE. Indeed there were a multitude of sea-borne raiders who were given this collective name by more contemporary writers, of which the Lukka of south-western Anatolia and the Sherden, of whose origins are still under fascinating dispute.
In the Hellenic age, it seems that everyone – Greeks, Romans, Illyrians Tyrrhenians, Phoenicians, Goths - all engaged in piracy. Indeed, piracy was so common that major cities were built slightly inland to provide protection against coastal raiders (who depended on speed rather than numbers) with paired harbour-side fortifications (e.g., Rome and Ostia, Athens and Piraeus). Piracy was so profitable that by the 1st century BCE that small pirate states were being established along the Anatolian coast, with Julius Caesar captured and held prisoner for a time. Even on the other side of the Roman Empire, hundreds of years later, as it well known St Patrick was captured by Irish pirates – but that's certainly another story in its own right.
Into the medieval period, the Vikings were the most well-known piracy group, ranging from the well-known coastlines of northern Europe but less well-known even raiding the north African and Italian shoreline and, in the other direction, along the rivers of Eastern Europe into the Black Sea. During the same time, Moorish pirates established themselves along the coastline of southern France and the Baleric Islands, even sacking Rome and controlling the passes in the Alps - rather inland of them. Yes, there were conflicts between Moorish pirates and Viking pirates. On the other side of Rome, the Narentines established themselves on the Illyrian coast and engaged in significant piracy in the Adriatic Sea, even invading southern Italy for a time but mostly causing great suffering among the Venetians.
The other side of the world has had its share of piracy as well, with the Yellow Sea between China and Korea being particularly subject to such preditations in the ninth century, eventually leading to an enormous garrison being established known as the Cheonghae Garrison. Some time later, the Wokou established themselves in Japan and outlying islands and for the next three hundred years (yes, that's right) would raid the coast of China. There is enormous dispute of the ethnicity of these pirates inevitably tied to national pride. Contemporary accounts suggest that they were multi-ethnic, rather like early modern pirates of the west. Further south it is a surprise to nobody that piracy in the Indian ocean and Malay archipelago has been common with the Buginese sailors of South Sulawesi and the Moro pirates of the southern Philippines being particularly notable. Among the Chinese Zheng Yi Sao formed a pirate coalition in the early 19th century that consisted of over ten thousand individuals, a serious challenge to the Qing navy.
The most famous pirate period - and the one where almost all the film and gaming periods are set - is the "golden age" from around 1600 to 1750. The Barbary corsairs must receive first mention here for being active from the crusader period onwards, launching their attacks on shipping in the western Mediterranean Sea, raiding coastal regions of Italy and Spain in particular and even reaching as far ast Iceland. It is estimated that over a million Europeans were captured by Barbary corsairs and sold as slaves 16th and 19th centuries. Among the European powers it wasn't a very far step from official imperialism to unofficial piracy, many finding their home in places as far away as Madgascar, site of the "probably fictional" pirate utopia "Libertatia" which receives an interesting coverage by William S. Burroughs' novel "Cities of the Red Night".
But it is the Caribbean where the historical pirates are most famous. As France, England, and the United Provinces sought to acquire land and possessions there was a great deal of opportunity for blatant robbery even under the guide of official legitimacy from one power to another. Indeed it was this offical recruitment that brought the period of piracy to its peak, especially through recruitment by the English and French of those based at Port Royal. As the Spanish power declined and Franch and England returned to conflict, piracy shifted from the Caribbean to the Indian ocean and further afield into the Atlantic, especially the "triangular trade" of Europe (export manufactured good, import raw materials), Africa (import manufactured goods, export slaves) and the Caribbean and American coast (import slaves, export raw materials).
In contemporary times there is still impressive levels of piracy, with estimated worldwide losses of US$16 billion per year especially in the Red Sea, off the Somali coast, and in the South China Sea. As merchant navies have a convention against carrying heavy weapons in peacetime, there is an increasing practise of using private security guards with light arms as a means to deter the typical small pirate vessels. One of the more interesting challenges relates to international law; an appeal to universal jurisdiction is made, so that governments may intervene outside their territory on the basis that piracy is a threat to all shipping. It is something that would also find its way into the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Regardless of whether historical or fictional, here we have a great collection of the pirate and swashbuckler themed RPG articles which, to be honest, has never been a particularly huge part of the roleplaying world but sufficiently popular to generate a couple of very notable games, even from the earliest of days (e.g., En Garde!) to some rather impressive sellers (7th Sea). We start however with an interview with Mark Pettigrew who designed a game in the early 80s called Flashing Blades', a game sufficiently impressive that it still retains an active fan and playing base. One cannot help but think when reading Mark's words how he is still a little surprised and humbled by the continuing popularity of his effort.
Following the gaming reviews, Karl Brown offers a series of pirate and swashbuckling styled characters for a variety of game systems and with some notable quirks. Further on in the issue is a set of pirate encounters by the same author for Gulliver's Trading Company and Nautical Races for D&D 5th edition.
This is a scenario heavy issue as well; Nicholas Moll kicks off with a spacefaring pirate adventure, 'Belly of the Beast' and Michael Cole follows wih a discussion of pirates in Middle-Earth along with a scenario for that setting. Yours truly also contributes with a pirate variant of Shab-i-Hiri Roach, a RuneQuest Pirates adventure where all is not quite what it seems, and a review and elaboration of 7th Sea's Freiburg. For those who prefer a dash too much realism and grit, “Jake the Peg” (possible a nom-du-plume) offers Life As Pyrate in an entertaining manner.
From our regular contributor Andrew Moshos offers trilogy of movie reviews, the Pirates Band of Misfits, Noah, and Jupiter Ascending. At least two count as nautical; not sure whether Jupiter Asceding counts for anything. Mingshi's impressively large gossip column, I mean industry news, has managed to introduce a number of appropriate examples for the setting and style for this issue along with her usual compilation of what's new in the hobby. Finally, as a example of how all articles in each issue are not directly related to the chosen subject matter, Brendan Davies offers some designer's notes for Gamandria, especially with regard to Thai influences and, in a genre-fiction review, Nick Langdon provides his thoughts on “The Wheel of Time”.
There is another matter which this editorial must address and alas, it is the less pleasant side of the hobby which has really only touched the more narrow focus that one finds with tabletop RPGs, but has affected the industry on a larger scale. I am talking, of course, of a general toxicity that has affected the community under the guise of “Gamergate” and more recently the kerfuffle over the Hugo Awards.
As an aside, I can't stand the tendency for any sort of real or imagined conspiracy or scandal to utilise the -gate suffix. Sure, it made sense with Watergate, because that was the name of the hotel where the events happened. The others (and there are lots: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_scandals_with_%22-gate%22_suffix) are nonsense and should die in a fire. Mind you, I do chuckle a little at the irony of the gamergate which, in entomology, represents reproductively viable female worker ants in colonies which do not have a queen. If this was intentional from those who coined the term, kudos to them. If not, you've just added to a long list of a ignorant cultural phenomenon.
But back to the subject at hand, if you are unaware of these issues, some congratulations are due. You've managed to avoid the better part of two years of an awful culture war, primarily carried out over the Internet but with some very serious real-world implications. The summary version of “Gamergate” is as follows: Game developer Zoe Quinn released Depression Quest, a text-based interactive fiction game which resulted in several positive reviews. A number of gamers felt that the game was receiving undue attention with criticism often centred on the fact it was (a) text-based and (b) about 'boring' subject, rather than killing bug-eyed aliens or orcs. However what really kicked the debate off was a near-ten thousand word post from a former partner of Zoe's accused her of having a relationship with a gaming journalist with the implication that this relationship led to favourable reviews.
This wasn't actually true of course; the journalist never reviewed Quinn's game and the only connection was a news article written before their relationship. Still, it didn't stop the beginning of what can only be defined as a misogynistic harassment campaign, which included rape and death threats. These were also used against Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist cultural critic of the gaming industry, which included Utah State University having to cancel a speaking event due to mass shooting threat. Game developer Brianna Wu was also subject to rape and death threats. From the other side of the story, there have been similar accusations, and even a bomb threat against supporters of Gamergate. And so it goes on; one can review the entire sordid affair at their leisure.
With regard to the Hugo Awards there is certainly a continuation. Two groups, calling themselves "Sad Puppies" or "Rapid Puppies" respectively indicating their own orientation on the issue, have reacted against what they consider an over-emphasis in the Hugos in giving awards to authors from groups that have been traditionally marginalised science fiction. Rather than seeing this diversification as progress, they've interpreted it as a whittling away at their cultural identity. The chief spokesperson of the Rapid Puppies, Theodore Beale (aka Vox Day) has bluntly stated: "I consider women's rights to be a disease that should be eradicated". Certainly this position would be rejected by the “Sad Puppies”, but a general opposition to a perceived “pro-minority group bias” exists in both camps. Because the Hugos are a "people's award" a campaign has been orchestrated to purchase supporting members and vote for a slate of authors for the various awards. All very much in accordance to the rules, albeit a gaming of the system.
Among the Gamergate advocates and Hugo Puppies there are some people who claim a degree of innocence. Their interest, we are told, is that they want high quality games and publications. They are concerned that reviews, awards, etc have become dominated by "social justice warriors" (as Dave Cake quipped, "I prefer to think of myself as a 'Social Justice Wizard'), with a left-wing political agenda, and corrupt processes. They just want play games and write fiction in a free and creative spirit, without having to worry about what group they might offend by their work. They don't want to be jumped on by others with the accusation that their publications, their games, and so forth, are racist, sexist, etc, especially when they are contextually appropriate. It is unfortunate, they will admit, that misogynistic and racist trolls have been attracted to the Gamergate and Puppy cause, and they want to distance themselves from this majority. Is there not some legitimacy to their complaints?
In a nutshell, not as much as is made out. The chief argument that somehow the gaming industry press is an elite left-wing clique that systemically excludes good games and publications that are contrary to their worldview is seriously lacking in evidence and more to the point, it is in a hobby area that is hardly monopolistic by any stretch of the imagination. It's a hugely competitive area, especially given the media involved which is pretty much web-based publications and software. There are some real and serious examples of revealed conflicts of interest; video game producer 3DO threatened to reduce their advertising expenditure in GamePro following a negative review in 2001. In 2007 an employee of Gamespot was sacked after giving a negative review to a game from a company that advertised heavily on the website. From a 2014 survey by Mike Rose in Gamasutra, approximately a quarter of high profile YouTube gaming channels receive pay from the game publishers or developers for their coverage.
Now even if this is but the tip of the iceberg, it's not too much of an iceberg especially when compared to other publications (hello music industry?). Notice that this is a fifteen year range of confirmed cases. But disclosure is incredibly important. Every game reviewer on the planet should make explicit what ties, if any, they have with particular publications down to the fact that they've received the product for free (kudos are given to rpg.net for insisting on this in their reviews). Those which do not do this simply are not worth the time of the day and, due to a competitive industry, can be avoided. More importantly are game producers; those which threaten solely on the basis of negative reviews need to be called out and identified, because what they are doing is turning what should be genuine critical reviews into nothing more than free advertising. Sadly, this happens in the TRPG industry as well. I once asked someone for a review in this publication and this was their response:
"As well, I am not sure getting back into full-on reviews is wise for me.... Picking products and presenting them positively doesn't really risk much in the way of backlash, professionally; actual reviews, however, gets me into some sticky weeds."
I felt sorry for the person in question, because they indicated that they would be interested in provide “actual reviews” but they were worried by the backlash they might receive from such content. As a result, they provide a low-risk “positive” portrayal of select products. This is a microcosm example of a society without criticism, which means, one which cannot evolve.
Sure, there's always room for criticism and improvement, but certainly that is exactly what the gamer and science fiction community has done over the past decades. You want criticism and improvement to the industry? Fine, there's plenty of work that needs to be done, absolutely plenty. The process of cultural criticism improves the genre, rather than detracts from it. Certainly, such reflection does cause discomfort among many because they are forced to have a look as some of the problematic aspects of the escapist fantasies, and if there is any doubt about this Anna K's review of "corpse tits" (https://gomakemeasandwich.wordpress.com/tag/corpse-tits/) should be evidence enough. I know that there are some gamers and science fiction fans that would rather wish the entire world of cultural critics would simply go away and hadn't discovered them, but this is inevitable. They are also part of the community and have been since the very first days. Do anyone seriously think that you could engage in escapist literature and not have an exploration of social alternatives?
Our own hobby is far from excluded from all this. The following are examples of derogatory comments by one game designer in a gaming forum:
"Even I, for all my downright contempt of everything they stand for, will fuck a goth chick. To do anything less just wouldn't be wholesome. Oh, I'll mock the shit out of her right after, and wouldn't actually want to be in a relationship" and "One GM, one player. Isn't that really more than a little bit gay?"
This is an example of an attitude that is grossly disrespectful of young women of a particular fashion sense. It is this sort of exclusive objectification of others that constitutes sexism; it hearkens back to the days of “if I can have a +1 sword that talks, why can't I have a +3 female that doesn't?”. The fact that the general slang for a sexual orientation is being used as a substitute for 'lame' demeans people of that orientation is oblivious to author. If they were genuinely concerned about sexism and homophobia, they would at least make the effort to admit that these prior statements were wrong, hurtful to others, and make an apology for them. That would be a big thing to do and would garner a great deal of respect. Any damn fool can be a foul-mouthed keyboard warrior. What takes real strength of character is to be able to reflect on one's own actions and words, consider how they may have been inappropriate, acknowledge it directly, and step up and say that one was wrong, but they've learned from the experience.
There is, of course, some edgy material which can be confronting, even damaging, if not presented in a considered manner. Cthuthultech includes three adventures which have unavoidable rape scenes, two of them against player-characters. Yes, this is a game about cosmic horrors and amoral cultists derived from a mythos written by a person whose racism is notorious. One may expect that sexual violence could be part of the storyline. One can make a literary argument, as James Desborough has done (with the sensitively entitled “In Defense of Rape” blog post), that as a plot device, as a motivating characteristic, as a thematic element, and that absolutely nothing should be off limits in fiction. But I don't see too many voices being raised against such literary devices. The critical question is instead, "is your work promoting and encouraging such activity? Are you being gratuitous to the point of perverse titillation with its inclusion?". Really Cthulhutech, did you think you might have gone a little too far when you wrote "only around 2% of the published material even includes the word rape" as a defense for the content?
As another example, consider the Babylon5 Earth Alliance Factbook. Fine, in the television character nationalities were stereotyped. Ivanova was a sombre pessimist, "that's a very Russian attitude", she said. Michael Garibaldi was often seen with Italian food. But these are harmless stereotypes which, whilst not true (there are some optimistic Russians and some Italians who prefer burgers and fries over cannelloni) are hardly offensive or denigrating. Many roleplayers put on foreign accents (usually badly) and ham well known harmless tropes associated with a culture. The sourcebook however, nationality after nationality, proposed harmful stereotypes; the Irish love fighting and drinking, the Scots are belligerent and barbaric, the Germans are described as "one of the most militaristic countries to ever march troops across a border", the people of Greece and the Balkans are "greedy and sanctimonious, seeking wealth in all its forms but rarely hanging onto it long once they achieve it." As for the French.. well, let's just cite the entry:
"They tend to see their way as the best and everyone else's way as unimportant or just plain wrong. They rarely admit they are mistaken about anything, and even when faced with undeniable proof that they made an error, their response is to shrug it off and change the subject."
The irony is palpable.
Further examples? How about 'Belle and Blade' a vendor at GenCon which provides various DVDs in the war genre. Somewhat more disconcerting is how they easily make light of Nazism, with t-shirts emblazoned with each of the SS Division insignia, or entitled "Afrika Korps World Tour" and so forth. In 2013 however the Nazi-love joined up with rape "humour"; underwear emblazoned with the slogan "I Could Use A Little Sexual Harassment".
Or F.A.T.A.L. There, I named it.
It is not some left-wing conspiracy to raise complaints against such sentiments; it is not an argument for or against a conservative or liberal approach to institutional reform, or a capitalistic or socialistic political economy. It is about being a decent human being who grants all people at a modicum of inherent respect and dignity regardless of the ethnicity, nationality, religion, or political viewpoints. It is, a nutshell, a “no asshole” rule.
Least this seem flippant, there is a very good book by Stanford professor Robert I. Sutton with exactly that title (and the informative subtitle: "Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't"). The basic argument of this book is that "asshole behaviour" in the workforce damages productivity. It is really a surprise to discover where workplaces where insults, threats, flames, etc are common are unpleasant places to be? But it's worse that just productivity; it increases absenteeism, lowers commitment, it costs time to manage the situation (not to mention potential settlement fees), and, to the victims, it leads to heightened rates of stress and depression.
Now whilst Sutton concentrates on workplace environments, it is my suspicion that the same sort of metrics apply in all communities. Assholes destroy communities; the destroy them by the exclusiveness, the destroy them by demeaning others, the destroy them by their lack of civility, their denigrating stereotypes, and their basic trolling. Most people when encountering such behaviour, as Sutton points out in workplaces, simply opt to quietly leave. Those who cannot, or are stubborn enough to stay have to be extremely careful. The studies that exist suggest that asshole behaviour is “contagious”, insofar one such people take control of a workplace in order to participate effectively, others must lower themselves to the same level. Certainly one can think of online and real communities that have suffered the same fate. The inevitable trajectory is towards a group of thoughtless poo-flingers where the only competence of note is the ability to cut down another person without consideration of their actual argument. It isn't even up to the level of the old-hands on the usenet group alt.flame, who used to admire those who could respond to others in a critical manner but with such subtlety that those they were insulting didn't even notice it.
To put simply, communities that actively encourage constructive debate, which do their utmost to be helpful and friendly, especially to newcomers, will be those that prosper. For this reason I do not mind those online communities that regulate the postings to this effect. This does not mean an avoidance of a “full and frank” discussions over particular topics, or indeed, any topic. But it does mean at least retaining a modicum of civility with one's interlocutor. So perhaps, dear roleplayers, we could conduct this experiment? Do you think it might help the hobby if we're a welcoming community?
Well, that depends. That is, it depends on which particular community one is talking about. If it is not already quite apparent, cultural critics and the social justice wizards are not advocating legal censorship in most cases. There may be some exceptions that already exist (e.g., advocacy to commit a crime, false statements of fact, “fighting words” and threats, defamation etc) or should exist (e.g., group defamation). To put it bluntly there is no use crying “free speech” if you've been expelled from a forum's “no asshole” rule or your article has been refused publication, when there are plenty of opportunities for one to be published in other areas or start one's own forum where other like-minded individuals can meet. Or you could just stop being an asshole. Is it really that difficult to make your point in a civil manner?
I think the point, at least in the context of this publication, has been made. Game on. Don't feed the trolls. But do call them out - elsewhere.
Lev Lafayette (firstname.lastname@example.org)