Discourse: Tabletop Version

Synxiec slowly turns toward the camera with an inquisitive look.

There’s a lot of things that have been said about discourse over the last few months and while most of what I’m about to write could easily apply to so many things, these observations are about tabletop games.

On the bird app, I read “I was told not to engage discourse” and found myself irritated. I’ve also seen many sentiments like it.

“Discourse is a distraction.”
“Focus on your audience and ignore discourse.”
“Discourse is exhausting.”

The last one, I can understand, but most of this? I just… How are we supposed to progress? How? If we don’t talk about things, we’re subject to systems that make us miserable. Everything that has moved in any form of a positive direction has done so preceded by a lot of loud voices saying one thing.

Engaging in discourse can be exhausting, but ultimately the idea is: we talk about the ideas that we bring into games and the systems we’ve built around them and that, by sharing our knowledge and experiences, we make the systems better for everyone involved.

That is to say, if we’re doing it correctly, there should be better understanding of what games are and can be, minds should be more open to what gets created, knowledge should be passed on that makes this easier to market, to sell (if we want to). We should come out of the discourse with things to do better and when the discourse comes back around, we should be able to go “OK, so what did we learn since the last time we were here?”

* * *

Maybe I’m an idealist. Maybe I’m also painfully aware, as a black man, of what happens when things don’t get talked about or when the noise goes unmade for so long.

However, when I get online and I see that someone says, “Oh, here’s the discourse… again” all I can think is, so we’ve moved, but we haven’t learned anything. You’re tired of talking about Orcs being racist in most of their portrayals. Tired of arguing about d12s. Tired of arguing about whether or not problematic games should still be played or retired. Tired of arguing about whether or not playtesting is important or needed or useful.

I get it, but also? We’re asking the wrong questions and we’re also asking the wrong people.

A Caveat

Much of what regularly appears in discourse on tabletop things also means we have to talk about the actual world we live in and that part, as it stands, it ancestrally exhausting.

It’s having to talk about how capitalism, cultural appropriation, colonialism, sexism, classism, racism, LGBTQIA+ phobia has ruined so much that we love and how we fight that by creating and hoping that what we create isn’t constantly stolen from us. That we aren’t being colonized still.

When it comes to that, take the time you need. That particular exhaustion is valid and you can take the time you need with that. Let’s continue.

The Questions

When I say we’re asking the wrong questions, I don’t mean marketing or publishing platforms or how to best format the work you are making, but rather when we ask our questions, are we asking things we already know?

We know what the problematic stuff is. We know who the bad players are for the most part. In the moments we aren’t, the discourse we have with each other is where we can make space for people to learn and be accountable. A lot of the exhaustion I observe on the very notion of discourse is because the place for learning and accountability are hijacked by people who aren’t here for either.

Are we sharing with people who may not know and are receptive to our knowledge and experience? If not, why are we talking to them?! Is it validation? If so, let me tell you now: you’re enough in this space. You don’t need validation from people who are bad actors, exhaust people with bad faith arguments, and aren’t moving our praxis as a community forward.

The discourse here isn’t “is this good or bad?” nor is it “should we do or not do it?” but rather “here’s when I’ve found it helpful/not helpful to me and you can use that to guide your own decisions!” or “here are some methods of playtesting if you find it useful otherwise, publish it and flourish!”

Why isn’t this happening more often? Well…

The People

Let’s use playtesting as an example. When we’re talking about things like things like playtesting, we use words like importance, but that’s the wrong term. The term we should be using is relevance. Is it useful to you, in your context to playtest?

And as I look at the landscape of how that question went, I just look at the people being asked or being allowed the space they occupy and go “Why are we expecting answers to come from this place?”

Every. Single. Time. → “I see that there is some level of privilege I came from that tempered this response and it has hurt a lot of people. I’m open to listening/discussing…” via DM (or not).

This isn’t a 50% or a 85%, but rather damn near 100% of the time from people who only speak from their experience and are conditioned by society around them to believe that if they speak something, it is the only truth available to the community of us at large.

I’m talking people who are arguing the 101 of whether or not something clearly racist is racist or not and demanding proof and not googling. I’m talking people who tell you that not playing games with d20s isn’t valid because they refuse to see the rest of the games around that exist.

Meanwhile, all of us are right here having published games of a single die and a single page. Maybe no die at all and cards instead. None of it being whatever the status quo is because the status quo doesn’t progress, create, or build in a way that improves with time. It makes no additional room for us and others who follow.

Additionally, for people who make these statements, they are in positions where maintaining that status quo benefits them. We see this in so many ways in our world. We see the Matrix for what it is, so why do we stay?

So what now?

This isn’t my question to answer. That’s our question to answer and that’s the point here.

If I come into this behaving as if my experience is the only one or the only one people should heed for whatever reason instead of recognizing that my experience is one of many and indicating what has worked for me is just one path of many, you shouldn’t be listening to me.

And if I do come correct in how I present my experiences, you shouldn’t be listening to just me. We should all be sharing and speaking and learning from each other in turn and things should be progressing.

Maybe if we were, discourse wouldn’t be so exhausting. Maybe.