The Trouble With Discourse

For as long as tabletop RPGs have existed, people have wanted to talk about them. At the very very beginning we had amateur press associations (APAs), zines, and good old mailing lists; today we have forums, Discord, and Twitter. As our media have changed, so too has how we talk about games and what ends up coming to the forefront of any day’s given discussion. Discussing RPGs is very much like discussing anything else, except the number of people involved is often much smaller. Combine this with the excessive bandwidth of our platforms, and…well, let’s say I could cause way more of an uproar on Twitter with the right mention than anyone ever could have writing an inflammatory letter to Dragon Magazine.

Let me be clear: whatever was happening in RPG discourse around the posting date is unknown to me, and irrelevant for the purposes of this article. The specific content of what people are saying in our hobby is largely irrelevant on a day to day basis, whether or not people get worked up about it. What this article is about is how we talk about RPGs and share ideas. Even since I started getting immersed in the hobby back in 2003, the platforms used to discuss RPGs have changed fairly dramatically. A lot of this has to do with technology; I’m not sure there’s a reason other than nostalgia to think that APAs and getting scattershot content monthly are ‘better’ than Discord and open-source publishing software. But, like anything else, RPG discussions have changed with technology and have both benefited and suffered from it.

The Fracas on Forums

Forums were the core of RPG discussion in the early 2000s, which not coincidentally is when I first got into discussing RPGs online. There are dozens of forums still out there; the proliferation of codebases like phpBB and MyBB made it easy for anyone to break out of Usenet and into the wide world of hypertext. As a result, most modestly popular RPG systems have at least one active forum dedicated to them. Two communities of note from the early 2000s are RPGnet and The Forge. RPGnet came to prominence after the release of D&D Third Edition as a place to discuss RPGs other than D&D; it had an active D&D community as well, but the forum’s choice to split “Tabletop Roleplaying Open” off from its d20-specific subforum helped it stand out in comparison to other large RPG communities like ENWorld which were more D&D-specific. RPGnet is also notable as one of the older RPG forums still active; the site was launched in 1996. By the 2010s, RPGnet was known online more for its historic flame wars and heavy-handed moderation policy than the content of its posts; the site still exists but is no longer considered to be at the forefront of RPG discussion.

The Forge existed roughly from 2001 to 2012, and was at the time the epicenter of indie RPG discussion online. Mentioning The Forge in many RPG discussions today is likely to warrant you eyerolls, in large part due to the fact that what most people know about The Forge comes from Ron Edwards’ idiosyncratic theory articles. Whether or not you think the theory is valuable, The Forge created indie RPGs as we currently know them by creating the discussions which enabled many influential games to happen. Games like Apocalypse World and Blades in the Dark came out of the community which The Forge enabled, which makes it hard to overstate the site’s influence. That said, it’s worth noting that the *other* reason mentioning The Forge in many RPG discussions today will get you eyerolls is that the site has been inactive for nearly a decade, and the continuing value of any of its posts or essays is largely historical.

Looking at The Forge and RPGnet means looking at the two most likely consequences of an online forum existing for a long period of time. The forum either moderates itself out of relevance by trying too hard to accommodate everyone, or the forum, by virtue of being exclusive, eventually renders itself irrelevant. These forums, though, were often the best compromise between broad accessibility and moderation to enable better discussion. One of the reasons The Forge still draws so much ire is that it’s one of the only online RPG communities in the hypertext age (i.e. after Usenet) that actually produced something, and that can’t be denied no matter how insufferable you think the “System Matters” essay is.

Restless Reddit

I joined Reddit in my senior year in college, mostly for the rage comics and the fun and eclectic r/Pittsburgh community. I joined r/RPG pretty much immediately just because I was that kind of gamer, but it was a nascent community at the time (the subreddit was founded in 2008) and I was still reading RPGnet more. Now, though, r/RPG has taken over as the dominant place for non-D&D discussion online (the place for D&D discussion is, unsurprisingly, r/DnD), and boasts more than 1.3 million subscribers at present. r/RPG has a refreshingly broad range of RPG tastes, and searching the subreddit reveals discussions on almost any game you could want to read about. Like other Reddit communities, though, engagement can be difficult; generally topics go stale within hours, and it’s still frustratingly easy to have a post ‘buried’ if someone who engages early on doesn’t like it (which leads to the equally frustrating trend of posters making multiple, similarly worded posts to counter this). While there are other subreddits that have popped up to address niches within the hobby (r/rpgdesign comes to mind), they are all much smaller and as a result don’t filter posts as well. Reddit is a compromise between forums and scrolling media like Twitter, but even though subreddits like r/RPG are much better moderated than Twitter they aren’t great for archiving information. In other hobbies which revolve around sharing information, forums are still preferred; car forums, for example, are often the lifeblood of those hobbyist communities and full of articles and saved posts. Reddit may lack the organizational robustness needed for storing technical information like car DIYs, but r/RPG is still eminently more usable, searchable, and readable than post histories on Twitter.

The Tempest of Twitter

Twitter is good for getting news quickly about anything. If you follow a game designer on Twitter, you will definitely know when their next Kickstarter launches. If you follow a blog (like us, @HungryHalfling) you will definitely know when their next article goes live. You will also then get exposed to not only the opinions held by the owners of the accounts you follow, but every opinion they react to and a whole bunch of opinions then fed to you via Twitter’s algorithm. When you’re talking about a relatively niche hobby like tabletop RPGs, where the number of accounts that influences daily discussion is, generously, in the dozens, you get a content ouroboros; the snake is continuously eating its tail. Those product announcements and nuggets of insight you probably originally started following the accounts for get buried in subtweets, grandstanding, and sometimes just yelling about whatever happened that day. It doesn’t matter what that thing is. Stay on Twitter long enough and you’ll notice that while some days the community stands up to call out actual injustice, it does so with the same energy used against someone who says something dumb or mildly obnoxious. Then, weeks later, the same basic conversation with the particulars slightly changed will occur. Some of these conversations will be about why the conversations repeat themselves. I’m certainly not immune to this, but as a smart computer once said, “the only winning move is not to play”. If you follow me on Twitter you will get posts about articles going live, and a very small trickle of tweets and retweets. If you’re lucky, you might catch me talking about my bicycles, but that’s it. I’m not too proud to admit it wasn’t always this way.

As much as Twitter leads to toxic communication, it’s where a lot of good information comes out, even though the 280 character limit makes the platform rather terrible for substantive discussion. When you combine this with the fact that most of the RPG world’s most active tweeters (twitterers? twits?) are freelancers, you get this undercurrent of FOMO that pervades for anyone who wants to “participate in game design”. The psychology of Twitter is perniciously effective, it’s why Jack Dorsey is significantly richer than you or I. That said, while I won’t deny that there can be interesting and useful stuff to read on Twitter, the best word for how to incorporate it into your RPG media diet is ‘moderation’. Scrolling media can suck you in, and it’s really best to limit not only how often you respond and retweet, but also how often you read. You won’t miss anything important; the ouroboros will continue.

Disquieting Discords

Discord was designed to be Slack for video gamers. As anyone who has used Slack in a workplace context knows, the chat software’s simple but flexible design makes it a potent collaboration tool. Discord quickly spread from its target audience to the internet at large thanks to its similar usability to Slack and more competitive price (i.e. free). Now, anyone can set up a Discord server with a functionally unlimited number of different rooms and voice channels, and it costs nothing to do so unless you want to ‘boost’ the server with extra features. This has resulted in a number of official Discords which when moderated well are like forums on steroids, but also smaller and more tightly controlled discussion groups of no more than a couple dozen like-minded people.

If this is sounding like the RPGnet/Forge dichotomy again, it’s because it is. From a technology perspective Discord is incredibly appealing to participants, as it makes it easy to get in and start chatting. A publisher can create a different room for each of their games and, thanks to the mention tools, community managers can generally moderate the whole thing quickly and easily. Unlike forums, though, these Discords are only discoverable if the people running it want it to be. There are social benefits to having communities online where you actually know who’s on the other side of the screen; I’m in a couple of these small Discords and the conversation that occurs is more respectful and generally more on-topic. That said, if people thought the groupthink in The Forge was bad, having a hundred small islands for game design discussion is arguably even worse. The one balance to that is that it’s unlikely any of these groups will ever become all that influential, but that’s a negative consequence as well.

I’m trying my best not to sound like an old fogey here, but neither the firehose of Twitter nor the moderated insularity of Discord is the best solution for maintaining a hobby community online. Forums are slowly dying, it’s not only RPGnet that’s seeing less and less activity. Blogrolls are an artifact of intransigent people; while tools like Feedly exist the discontinuation of Google Reader tells you all you need to know about the popularity of curating your own RSS feeds. Google Plus is dead, though its benefits over other scrolling platforms were small and amplified by rose-colored glasses. What we have, for the most part, is either the waterfall of Twitter or the lagoon of Reddit.

Ultimately the hobby and the community continues, even if it looks like it’s shouting and repeating itself these days. If you want to read Twitter, go ahead, but remember that scrolling media is designed to engage you and therefore remember to disengage. If you want to join a 20-person Discord go ahead, but remember that moderation to avoid groupthink is much more difficult than moderation to kick out racists and harassers. All of these things either were (I don’t read RPG forums much anymore) or are part of my media diet, so actually telling you to *avoid* them would be the height of hypocrisy. Still, the technology which brings information to us is shaping not only that information but how we react to it. We need to build healthy media habits accordingly, not just for RPGs but for all of our hobbies and interests. RPG discourse wasn’t better in the good old days of APAs or Usenet…but I empathize with the nostalgic idea that it was.

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7 thoughts on “The Trouble With Discourse”

  1. Really great article, and helpful for people new to the scene.

    Ironically I thought this would be about the Discourse forum software used by places such as OSR Pit and The Gauntlet.


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