Plumbing the RPG Blog Depths

The tabletop role-playing game has been around for nearly fifty years, and role-playing discourse arguably longer than that. While in recent years we’ve been blessed to see books recording RPG history from the likes of Jon Peterson, Shannon Appelcline, and Ben Riggs, histories of how the RPG player base has evolved are thinner on the ground and indeed more difficult to capture than those chronicling the evolution of game designers.

To give credit where credit is due, Jon Peterson’s books do focus on the player evolution that happened early in the hobby’s history; Playing at the World spends a lot of time discussing how the wargaming hobby birthed RPGs through Braunsteins and Chainmail, while The Elusive Shift examines the first decade or so of RPG evolution through APAs and other fan correspondence. Where things start to get really tricky is in the 1990s, thanks in large part to the stratification caused by this little technology called the internet.

While the 1990s may seem like a very early time for the internet to be impacting the hobby, a lot of the discourse and discussion still cited today started on Usenet, in groups like Usenet gave way to blogs and forums, which in turn gave way to Facebook and Google Plus, which in turn gave way to Discord and Twitter. While discussion of RPGs has evolved in many ways (often best evidenced by how games themselves have evolved), access to these discussions has become more difficult. A lot of the modern discussions are either gated into private Discord servers where they’re inaccessible, or happen on Twitter, where ever finding them again is completely dependent on either the vagaries of the site’s search function or, more recently, the ego of Elon Musk.

In terms of some of the more aged discussion, the main access restrictions are only time and research ability. The Usenet groups are still accessible, though you’ll need to put a little effort into it; there are also good summaries of major groups which already exist. Similarly, older forums are for the most part still online and the archives still accessible; the issue there becomes simply how to find what you’re looking for. As the hobby does seem to relitigate many discursive issues, it can actually be easier to search a defunct forum than an active one, though you may be less likely to find what you want.

This brings us to blogs. The term ‘weblog’ was coined in 1997, and while diary-style websites existed before then, web products like Blogger and LiveJournal made ‘blogging’ accessible to people of any technical ability by the year 2000. Unsurprisingly, of the blogs that started popping up in the late 90s and early 2000s there were plenty about RPGs, among other nerd hobbies of course. Anyone can start a blog, that was the appeal and why it was kind of a ‘thing’ in the 2000s. That means that there are tons of blogs out there, some of which are still updated and many of which are just simply floating, not even generating enough traffic to be worth deleting. And some of these, especially knowing what we know now, are worth reading.

When it comes to ‘worth reading’, I have to confess that I did not attempt to deep dive into random Blogger sites from 20 years ago. There’s a whole lot of stuff on the internet these days, and a lot of it, even if it’s still there, is made hard to find by services who would prefer that you direct your eyeballs to them (Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc). What I did do is find two sources of still remarkably old RPG material that are easy to get to and, if you have some time, well worth reading. While it can be really difficult to find an old defunct blog without a URL, it’s a lot easier to find active blogs, and some of these authors never stopped. There are a few active RPG commentators and designers whose blog archives go back 10, 15, or even 20 years. And while I can’t recommend clicking around at random for defunct blogs, the archive of the RPGnet ‘Columns’ section has several dozen of them, dating back to the turn of the century, indexed and ready for your consumption.

Long Tail Blogs

Some people never stop writing. When I think of long tail blogs the first that comes to mind is The Alexandrian. The most recent post as I’m checking this is yesterday, November 29th, 2022. Justin Alexander started his blog, though, in July of 2005, with a brief biography explaining how he got started by writing supplements for Heavy Gear. The blog picked up from there, with his post ‘The Three Clue Rule’, written in 2008, becoming one of his earliest RPG advice mainstays. Justin’s resume has expanded a bit since 2005, he’s currently the lead RPG developer for Atlas Games and has added a Youtube channel to his blogging efforts. And while The Alexandrian is certainly still worth reading on its own merits (Justin beat us out in the Online Content category for the ENnies in 2019 and is deserving of that recognition), the 15+ year backlog is where the historical value is; another mainstay of his, ‘Don’t Prep Plots’, is from 2009.

Another long tail is The Walking Mind, blog of Rob Donoghue. Rob is one of the co-founders of Evil Hat Productions, and has been more active on Twitter in recent years; his blog only has two entries in 2022. Still, there are some really hefty, well done posts in the archive; I was pointed to one simply called ‘Risks’ from 2018. If you keep going you can see back to well before the release of Fate Core; Rob’s archive is almost as long as Justin’s and goes back to 2007. Adding to the fifteen year club is Ben Robbins. While I gave his ‘West Marches’ posts an entire article of their own, it’s worth noting that they’re from 2007 and Ben has written a lot since then. The archives of his blog, ars ludi, also serve as a reminder that his game Microscope is over a decade old, a veritable eternity in indie terms.

Going further to the indie side for a moment, Lowell Francis has run the Age of Ravens blog since 2009. Age of Ravens includes several long and comprehensive RPG History lists, which attempt to go over ‘every’ game released in the genres being covered. If you’re interested in more recent posts Age of Ravens has relocated; Lowell also continues writing over at The Gauntlet where he is a community manager and designer.

A final blogger to note is Vincent Baker, designer of Apocalypse World. Starting in 2015, Vincent moved his blogging over to Patreon, though some posts are still public. Even so, on his site he’s compiled a list of favorite posts about RPG theory back to 2009 as well as a complete archive which goes back to 2005. Vincent’s commentary on the indie movement (and yes, PbtA) is invaluable, especially if you don’t want to go traipsing around the archives of The Forge.

RPGnet Columns

Around the same time the ‘blog’ began to enter common parlance, RPGnet decided they wanted to get in on the action. RPGnet columns actually date back as far as the term blog itself, 1997, and they cover a wide range of topics. There are 16 columns listed as ‘current’ on RPGnet, though out of those only four have a post from this year (and only half of those one from this month). What I find more interesting, though, is the long list of ‘archived’ columns which go back a long way. There are some historical oddities: Want to read a post on online publishing from 2002, or on gaming online from 1999? Those are there. There are some real gems for those who understand their origins: Robin Laws wrote a short-lived column about the inside baseball at Pelgrane Press, and Jenna Moran (still using the pen name R. Sean Borgstrom) wrote a somewhat longer column which, among a couple other things, provided some deep dives into Nobilis, one of her best known and best regarded games.

One of my favorites (and also one of the archived columns with the deepest bench, post-wise) is ‘Close to the Edit’, written by Ross Winn. For those of you who don’t know, Ross is a freelance designer who is likely most well known for his work on Cyberpunk 2020, including Home of the Brave, NeoTribes, Listen Up You Primitive Screwheads, and many others. Ross wrote over 50 entries in his column from 2003 to 2009, doing a random walk fairly similar to my own; thinking about RPG theory, new indie releases and what they meant for the hobby, surveying a few pet genres (yeah, cyberpunk) in years when they weren’t in popular conversation, and of course just thinking about how to run fun games. In addition to being my favorite archived column, Close to the Edit provides some of the greatest examples of the revolving door of RPG discourse. In the last few years there’s been a lot more discussion about the racial implications of D&D, mostly looking at implied racism in the game. In one of his last columns Ross discussed the fact that D&D was written by white guys in Wisconsin and that we needed to cast a critical eye to that. He also discussed the pushback he received from the white reactionary base of the hobby which, let’s be real, was larger in 2009 than it is now. While this is a revolving door example, I think of it less of an example of stagnant discourse and more an example of the fact that smart people have known this hobby sheltered racist thinking for decades. We know it, we’ve been talking about it. And like a lot of other things that are perhaps less important to the health of the hobby, we’ve mostly been ignoring it.

Ross Winn’s penultimate column provides a clear example of why reading what has been written in the past matters. It is instructive, and often sobering, to see how much has changed in the past decade or two, and the same is true when it comes to seeing how much has not. While I understand a lot of the anxiety around Twitter’s degradation, especially for those using it to sell, as far as discourse is concerned it’s remarkably difficult to see what’s going to be lost. We have been having versions of the conversations we’re having now for years, both the vitally important ones and a lot of the stupid ones. We will figure out whatever the next public forum is, either when Elon finally gives up or when a better site actually comes out of the woodwork, ready for it too to be ruined by financiers.

In the interim, I have one thing to say to those who think they can or are influencing discussion around TTRPGs: if you don’t have one already, start a blog. Not only does a blog sidestep some of the format issues that make Twitter and Facebook pretty awful (and affected Google Plus too), but using a blog host like WordPress or Blogger that isn’t trying to be ‘a community’ (Tumblr still has this issue) also means you can back up your work and move it elsewhere. The fact that Seamus was able to pick up and move his entire Mad Adventurers archive to this site was a massive boon, especially as the Mad Adventurers’ Society is an example of a blog that has been completely deleted.

RPG blogs represent a substantial font of information from the times before, during, and potentially after the shift of RPG discourse onto social media. Longer-form writing has always been a more potent platform to express complex ideas, and the last six years have not dissuaded me of that. The blogs which came about in the late 90s, early 2000s, and into the 2010s and 2020s are all going to be more resilient ways to carry on the discussion of the hobby (and a lot of other discussions) than social media ever was or could have been. There is still more waiting in the wilds of the internet…before blogs, before social media, even before the ‘web’ itself, there was Usenet. And a lot of things happened on Usenet. That, as they say, is going to be a story for another day.

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