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Friday 19 December 2014

The RPGPundit Interviews: James Desborough

I've never done an interview, in all the years that I've been blogging. I've been given lots of interviews by others, but never really bothered to do one myself.  But I figured if anything would draw a lot of attention it would be if the RPGPundit (a fairly controversial figure in the RPG world, I'll admit) were to interview James Desborough, perhaps an even more controversial figure.

I wanted to have the chance to talk with James because he's a vexing figure for me.  It sometimes annoys me to find myself having to defend the guy.  I can't decide whether he simply doesn't realize what he's doing, the way he consistent courts controversy by opening his mouth and saying things the worst way possible about some of the worst things possible, or if he's doing it all on purpose because he revels in controversy.  Either way, it proves to be a challenge in the realm of "with friends like these.."; though I recognize the irony that for other, far more moderate figures in the RPG world, they might feel similarly about me.

So let's get started and see where this led us:

Q: Ok, first question: could you describe your game designer credentials to us in about a paragraph?

A: Well, let's see... I've been roleplaying since about the age of eight or nine and making up my own material for almost as long. I've written for Wizards of the Coast, Cubicle 7, Steve Jackson Games, Mongoose Publishing and a bunch of smaller companies like LPJ Design. I've written for or created a good number of systems from 3rd and 4th Edition D&D to FATE, from OSR to Indie and now I'm creative director at Chronicle City. I've been writing and designing professionally for about thirteen years now - starting with The Munchkin's Guide to Powergaming.

Q: You have something a reputation in certain circles for somehow exemplifying all that they think is wrong with the RPG hobby.  Do you have any response for that?

A: I think that's true of both of us for different reasons and I consider my most vocal critics, themselves, to exemplify a lot of what is wrong with the hobby. Plenty of blame to go around everyone with the important difference that I don't try to dictate what other people make or do or what - and how - they play. I think I'm just a convenient bugbear who made the mistake of answering back and explaining himself. High crimes indeed. It's getting to the point where nobody is safe from the kinds of criticism I've been in for. White Wolf - at one time considered painfully progressive and right-on have taken a beating and even beloved figures of the hobby aren't immune, as the fuss over Numenara shows. I think there's room for diverse opinions and games in the hobby and if you don't like what's available, add to what is, don't take away from what is.

I also think they're, largely, wrong about me.

Q: I think, however, that the people who think I exemplify everything wrong about the hobby have issues with my ideology (or with the aggressiveness of how I pursue my defense of regular RPGs).  I'm no stranger to being slandered by ridiculous claims about my games or beliefs, but I'm generally not painted as a pervert. 
Would you like to share about how you think they're wrong about you?  Just what did they get wrong?

A: Well, for starters I don't think there's anything wrong in being a 'pervert', as in enjoying sex, sexual themes, sexual humour, pretty girls (or boys) or any of the rest of it. The kind of people who criticise me will celebrate sex in some circumstances while decrying it in others. Which strikes me as a deep hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance. So, yes, I like boobies, if that makes me a pervert your bar is set ridiculously low. It's not like even the majority of my work is lashed to the mast of erotica, sex and so forth anyway.

There's also a certain amount of failure to parse satire and humour and to, apparently,  powerfully resent not getting the joke and to presume you're calling it a joke simply to escape righteous retribution. Which simply isn't true. The picture painted is of some aggressive pervert out to demean women - they even started spreading a rumour that I had, personally, raped someone this last round of vitriol. The truth is I like sex and sexual themes, I hope to tackle them with a more serious bent in the future rather than humour (humour is what makes it safe to most mid-upper tier companies). I support what I consider genuine equality, I support diversity, I agree we need more people in the hobby (though I disagree with their assessment) but I like what I like and that - by and large - is what I'm going to make.

So tough.

If people don't like what they see, I suggest they make the things they do want to see. I see you doing that and I see people like Machine Age doing that but a lot of people seem to prefer to tear down people who actually make things, rather than do it themselves. Given the low bar to entry when it comes to publishing now, the mind boggles.

Q: So playing devil's advocate, do you think there isn't anything different about your work that makes you a bigger target?

A: I think it's more to do with my attitude and opposition to censorship than with my work per se. After all, it was the blog post defending the use of rape (and other horrible circumstances) in fiction that set them off, rather than my actual work before that 'incident'. I think Raggi - of Lamentations of the Flame Princess - deliberately plays up to it and encourages it, more power to him for that. I just make what I make.

Q: Regarding "attitude", I agree that James Raggi does "play up to it" and encourage his critics; though he seems to do it in a pretty smart way, enraging his opponents while garnering support from the OSR base.  Now, continuing to play the part of the "tough interviewer", I've noted that your posts in places like Google+ seem to often be intentionally seeking out controversy as well, though I don't think in quite as focused a way as Raggi does. He makes a point of being controversial about his game, while you tend to be controversial in your posts in general. Do you really think this is helping things?

A: It finds me. I don't seek it out. I see something that I find interesting or annoying and I speak up about it.
I think it does help to have a (hopefully) intelligent, considered, countering voice.

Q:  I don't think that's true.  Just in the last few days on your G+ feed you posted: A link to an article defending Richard Dawkin's statement that "mild pedophilia" he experienced as a child "didn't do him any lasting harm"; a link to your blog defending DC's recent "draw Harley Quinn trying to kill herself" contest; a link to the "Social justice league" cartoon; another blog entry of yours where you defend the PAX/Penny Arcade guys from the recent pseudo-activist crusade against them; a critique of the "Atheism+" movement; a post where you call kidnapper and rapist Ariel Castro's suicide "a tragedy"; a post where you say you're "encouraged" by the recent backlash against the "social justice extremists"; a poem making fun of the obese (with picture of a "jolly" looking obese black man); and a link to an atheism blog of yours where you decry having been banned from certain forums and defend the use of the term "fucking cunt".  I'm not specifically attacking or defending any of these particular examples (all from the last 12 days of your G+ feed, by the way, as of the time of this interview); but I think that its pretty obvious that in some way you are "seeking it out" by intentionally and regularly courting controversy, not just within the realm of RPGs but all but going out and looking for the most outrageous things you can possibly think of saying in order to piss people off.  Rebuttal?

A: This isn't provocation or deliberately seeking anything. I have been sensitised to the degree of outrage nonsense going on and I feel compelled to be a countering voice to it.
People post this stuff without thinking, investigating or even reading what is actually said. By retweeting etc they feel they're accomplishing something but, in reality, all they're doing - much of the time - is perpetuating an online lynching.
Dawkins' statement was - as is typical - taken out of context and stripped of the nuance and meaning of what he was saying. That blog speaks to that.
The Harley Quinn thing I felt, was something I might actually be listened to on, being a depressive with suicidal episodes. Again, that blog speaks to that.
I found the Social Justice league thing funny, so I shared it, much as one might a particularly amusing 'lolcat'.
I agree with Penny Arcade's attitude to a lot of the flak they've been getting and feel that, like Dawkins, they could say 'I like pie' and someone would find a way to fault them for it.
I think the death of anyone is a tragedy, I gave my reasons there as well for why I felt that way.
I do find the backlash encouraging because it suggests some sort of change is happening and a happy middle might eventually be found.
The poem doesn't so much make 'fun' of the fat as just present a comedy poem. I went out of my way to find an image to go with it that I felt wasn't shaming and just showed a big dude having a good time.
The Atheism post was about the 'Block Bot' rather than forums etc, and yes, I'm an advocate for 'strong' language as I am for all other language and forms of expression.

I am not 'seeking it out', but there is a neverending supply of stupid and - having been sensitised to it and its consequences I think dissenting voices have become more important.

The problems aren't limited to the RPG sphere. They appear in Atheism, hacker circles etc. If I were a more paranoid individual I'd think it was coordinated and targeted against vulnerable subcultures who are sensitive about their gender/racial/whatever makeup and easy marks.

So no. I'm not seeking it out. It finds me in the hobbies, interests and pastimes that I love and I want to defend them.

Not so different to you, but a different outlook perhaps.

Q: So you do agree that you go out of your way to post about this stuff, though? You "feel compelled".  I'm a guy who sometimes courts controversy too, of course; but I find our methods different.  I think I have some kind of sense of restraint on certain topics, and a more measured approach. In your case it looks like sometimes you don't have a sense of timing or consideration of how to score a win.  You're not fighting in a war; you're just lashing out.  Do you see how that can be a liability as you continue to be used as a negative example, granting ammunition to the very people you seek to oppose?

A: I don't know that I agree there. Timing perhaps, but then I think in today's world the earlier you get in the better. If you wait too long the lies have spread and the truth has zero chance of ever catching up.
Some of it's cathartic, sure. I lose my temper sometimes, yes. I'm only human.
I'd say generally speaking my concern is what's true and - perhaps naively - hope that truth can eventually carry the day over rhetoric.
I think the kind of people on the 'other' side (and honestly I agree with some of their social concerns, just not their reach, method or the extremism they go to) aren't going to slow down either way, so I might as well say my piece and have it out there.

Q:  Do you care, though? About stopping them? Or do you only care about saying what you want when you want?

A: The one necessitates the other.

Q:  Not necessarily.  There might be times when not shooting off the first stupid thing that comes to your head and thinking about what kind of message it projects to others could be useful.  For example, if someone else were to make an argument that Ariel Castro's suicide was "tragic", they might be vehicles for starting a discussion.  When you say it, you come off as a guy who's feeling sad for a guy who kidnapped three women and sexually tortured them for years and defending that guy, and maybe even what he did. I know you might think that's not fair, but its a simple reality of the effectiveness of your haters' campaign against you COUPLED with your own inability to stop saying things that give them ammunition.  Can you see how that's then a problem other people trying to oppose the same people you oppose, because they trot you out as a poster-child for "rape apologism"?

A:  Or not. I think the statements speak for themselves. The death of anyone I regard as a waste and a tragedy. In the case of Castro because he was getting off easy and denying us the capability to learn from what he had done to avoid it in the future. Which I made clear. That's far from defending the guy.

Haters are going to hate, as the saying goes. They'll find ammunition in anything. I think there's good to be had - in the face of that - in simply being honest and forthright.

People who bother to check, regretfully that's not as many as it could be, inevitably find out that the SJ mob are full of it.

Q:  I just want to clarify for readers that "SJ mob" means "Social Justice mob", as in "social justice crusaders", or what I call Pseudo-activists on this blog.  So do you feel like you want to try to disabuse readers of any of the possible claims the Pseudo-activists have made against you?  Do you believe that the portrayal of women being raped, abused or denigrated in an RPG product is always acceptable?  Or is there some situation in which it wouldn't be?
On a related note, I've received a review copy, but not yet given a serious look at (there's other games waiting on the queue ahead of it, and I have to play fair) of Machinations of the Space Princess, one of your latest works.  Is there anything in there that you think the Pseudoactivists can use (or already have!) to criticize you?

A: My argument is and always has been that creators should be free to create and to be subject to criticism, but not to censorship. The mob will argue that they're not censoring but given their focus on trying to deny people work, force self-censorship, boycott etc I think it's a valid criticism. Censorship is not limited to the public sphere (government) and in this interconnected age private censorship is far, far more of a concern. The trouble with trying to set any particular limit on when and where such material should or shouldn't be used or to say it should only be done 'well' is that these are wildly subjective and thus not a criteria we can reliably judge on.

As a rule of thumb I'd go with age appropriate, and appropriate to the material/project in question.

I don't think there's much in MotSP that the pseuds can use as ammunition, though I got a bit of nasty flak based on presumption and the fact I was working with the brilliant and lovely Satine on it. That said I'm sure someone will find something to object to, perhaps the crumbling empire of the implied setting - which is a feudalistic and totalitarian matriarchy. Perhaps some of the art they won't like. I don't know really, it's more of a toolkit RPG so there's not a lot for them to really get their teeth into. That said it's based on B-movie sci-fi and the Euro-American erotic-fantasy comics of the 70s and 80s (Metal Hurlant etc) so maybe they'll object on principle because I haven't gone out of my way to knock the 'rough edges' off the source material. I would think that's betraying the source though and it's something I wrinkle my nose at when other designers sanitise history or the sources they're drawing on.

Q:  Can you tell us more about who Satine is, for the readership? Did she do all your illustrations?

A: Satine Phoenix is an illustrator who worked on MotSP with me - and it still working with me (the stretch goals aren't all complete yet). She was on I Hit it With My Axe, D&D With Pornstars (she used to be one) and so on. Which is the salient point from the point of view of the critics I suppose. She's a brilliant artist with a unique style and a joy to work with. She has an enthusiasm for gaming, and life, that got me through some rough patches on the project. She's the kind of person we genuinely do need more of in the hobby.

Q:  So is Machinations your current project? What else are you doing?

A: Well I no longer work for myself, now that I'm part of Chronicle City so unfortunately I can't talk that much about what I'm doing. Part NDAs, part that we're having a policy of not announcing things until we're ready. Long lead times are frustrating for everybody and we don't want delayed pre-orders or frustration to set in. We have a variety of projects on the go and as part of third-party support I've been consulting with a few people and helping with their projects.

Machinations is complete, but for the time being I'll probably - in my spare time - tinker with some bits and pieces for that. I intend to keep Postmortem Studios going as a side project. My next release under that label is likely to be an adventure for MotSP.

Q:  How often do you actually game?

A: It varies wildly, but living out in the sticks my options are fairly limited. I have a weekend of gaming (Friday to Sunday) every month and a half or so and another weekend of gaming (Friday to Saturday) about once a month. Sporadic gaming in between and go to Indiecon every year.

I've found online gaming over hangouts, chatrooms etc to be problematic because of being in the UK timezone - less options - and because players treat online games as less of a big deal to not turn up to.

So I don't get to game as much as I'd like to, but when I do get to game I get a lot of time for it.
Q:  are there women in your gaming group?
A: One of them has morphed over time to become a 'guys night' with people escaping their various spouses etc. The other group does and con games typically do. Historically my groups have always had women in them and I was involved in WoD LARP for a long time, which was sometimes 50/50.
And, you know, I met my wife through gaming :)
I decided to leave the interview there as a good end note.  I came out of it with no more conclusions than when I started, but it was certainly an interesting experience.  Maybe it won't be the last interview the Pundit gives, who knows?
Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti Solitario Poker + H&H Beverwyck

(originally posted September 13, 2013)

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