Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Swimming with Sharks

The internet is a pretty crappy place.

It's not really any kind of surprise that the internet is drenched in negativity, bile and hatred, but sometimes you get fresh reminders of it. This has been one of those weeks, and I blame the ipad. Something like that just naturally generates a storm of nerdfury, and once that storm starts, it drags down the level of discourse pretty much everywhere. Thinking about it like it's weather is comforting, but it ends up creating a comfortable illusion that these individual acts of jackassery aren't actually personal, and the problem is that they are.

The Dresden Files RPG has show up on the pirate sites. In and of itself this is no shock - Fred will send of takedown requests as is appropriate and responsible, but it's fighting the tide. This doesn't upset me much - it's a simple reality of the modern age - but what does get me is this: at this point we've only gotten a few hundred DFRPG pre-orders. That's not a lot, in the grand scheme of things. It means we're still at a point where everyone who has bought the DFRPG has a name and a face. I like this stage, because it feels like we're really making a connection to people, and that's why it's genuinely painful to think that one of these people, these names and faces who I would like nothing more to meet and talk about this game with, is the person who decided to do this to us.

It's a kick in the face.

This is really only the tip of the iceberg, though. There have been some ugly threads on Story Games and that I've no desire to draw attention to directly, and while that's par for the course, the volume is a bit higher than usual. Take it all together, and it's the sort of week that can make you wan tto give up on the internet entirely.

Yet despite all this, I am filled with genuine good cheer. It is possible that I have finally absorbed so much negativity from the internet that I've pulled a Mithradites, and am no longer vulnerable to its poisons, but I doubt I'm quite that lucky. Rather, I think I've trained myself to follow a few rules when dealing with crapstorms that the Internet provides us.

Find the Good (AKA Filter favorably)
- In even the crappiest of situations, there is usually some useful insight to be gleaned, even if it is only to help clarify what upsets assholes enough to get them to rant. One of the recent threads had the truly poisonous topic of why people aren't interested in the DFRPG[1] but for all that there was a lot of good to be gotten out of it. So long as you are confident about your product (especially if you can back up that confidence with sales) It's awesome to have people so upset about your product that they want to talk about it. It's like manure for flowers - it might stink, but it helps with growth. But even beyond that, any and all feedback is useful, especially if you can separate the axe grinding from the real concerns[2]. It's discussion like this that can reveal where misperceptions spring up, and allow you to address them. Once you start looking for the positive, you start realizing that there are good things out there, even in the crappiest of internet-storms.

If it Hurts, Don't do it (AKA Just close the window) - This one shouldn't be hard, but it is. If a forum makes you consistently unhappy, don't go there. If a blogger raises your blood pressure, don't read him. I understand the completest urge to stay on top of everything, but you need to realize that not only is it impossible, you're prioritizing things that harm you over other things in your life. Make the decision. Cut the cord. In large part, that's what drove me to blogging - as much as I like what is good in RPG forums, the bad is just too unpleasant for me. I get angry and frustrated, and I needed to step away from that onto another platform that let me talk about games without starting to hate them.

This especially goes for twitter. Seriously. One of it's benefits is that you can skip reading it any time you like.

Be Accountable (AKA Anonymity is Poisonous)
- I dig handles, and I'm not saying you shouldn't have one, but it shouldn't be a mask. Having a discussion with an anonymous person is like talking with someone who is waving around a loaded gun - maybe they'll never pull the trigger, but who knows. If your words are so important that you have to share them with the entire internet (especially in a venue that is theoretically dedicated to discussion) then think hard about why you're uncomfortable standing behind them. [3]

If you have genuine privacy concerns, then at least try to be consistent in presenting your online identity. It's not a perfect fix. You're still going to come across badly. Anonymity on the web has become too much of a weapon, and the fact that that paints those who have no ill intent with the same brush is terribly unfair, but is simply true. Sorry.

EDIT: So, some discussion in comments has led to me refining my position somewhat, so here's the new and improved version:

"Anonymity has a price as well as benefits. Acknowledge that, and don't use anonymity as a tool to be a dick. Consider the reasons you stay anonymous thoughtfully, and try to separate genuine need from reflexive introversion. There are real benefits (and prices) to transparency as well."

Listen, Think then Speak (AKA You don't need to be right) - Again, this should be simple, but it's not. We have keyboards and by god we're going to use them because SOMEONE IS WRONG ON THE INTERNET. It's kind of you to step up as the avenging angel for grammar or whatnot, but take a moment before you hit send to think about why you're doing this. First, what are you responding to? I mean, what are you REALLY responding to, not just what do you think you're responding to. Did that guy really just insult your mother, or is it possible you misunderstood? Is the discussion about eggs but you REALLY want to talk about bacon? Make sure you're having the conversation you think you're having. If you're not, but you want to, why not start that conversation somewhere else?

Next, consider why you're writing. Are you trying to prove yourself right to the internet? Are you trying to score points? Are you emotionally worked up and lashing out?

Stop and answer that, as honestly as you can. If you're writing for a reason you can be proud of[4] then carry on. Otherwise, maybe you should take 5 first.

Be Useful (AKA No, really, be useful) - You can be useful to yourself or useful to others, but whatever you're doing, try to make the internet a better place for the footprint you leave. This may mean being more careful about where you leave what kind of footprint, but it's just not that hard.

The internet is a pretty crappy place, but we can make it better.

1 - I don't use poisonous lightly. I don't mind an outright hatred thread (which, luckily, it became) but a thread promoting indifference is toxic to anything. This all comes back to the difference between great and mediocre things. If something is great, people are passionate about it, and that means that hatred is as important to your success as love. If nobody cares, that's a much worse sign for your product.
EDIT TO CLARIFY: The thread itself was actually fine - it's the IDEA of it that bothers me. Discussing why you dislike something is understandable to me, but discussing why you're disinterested in something is...self-contradictory? Genuine disinterest would seem to make it unlikely to bother with a thread, so the presence of such a thread suggests a different motive.

2 - This is surprisingly easy; if the tone of the argument is about how THEY would do it, they're probably axe grinding.

3- Do you know how these networks of gamers and game designers end up forming and excluding you? They do it by identifying themselves so they can actually
talk to one another. Sounds crazy, I know, but you'd be amazed how effective it is.

4 - No, just being right is a reason to *embarrassed* about.


  1. I'm surprised, Rob. I really haven't seen the toxicity you are talking about. That thread on was pretty tame, basically a lot of people responding honestly with a few of the louder individuals being a typical minority.

    I think maybe take a step back. The launch of the Dresden Files RPG is already a big success. The real challenge here is the current state of the RPG hobby, economically speaking, not a bit of negativity on the internet.

    Anyhow, I'm glad to see you are emotionally invested.

    The pirating is totally fucked. Same thing happened with Diaspora. I'm curious as to the thought process that allows someone to do that and their overall awareness. Is it just ignorance? Some kind of ideology? I'm doing some research now and hope to get a podcast interview out of it.

  2. Please don't paint all anonymous people (my real name isn't Biff) with the same brush. Being anonymous is not about being unaccountable. Some of us have very good reasons for keeping our public and private identities separate. Also, people can be poisonous without being anonymous.

    I have pre-ordered and I am happy with my purchase. Thank you all for your hard work.

  3. Rob - All great advice and all advice that I've generally found easy to take for some reason, flitting over the surface of the internet ocean and diving for all the treasure ships that dot its seascape. But then I've never had to contend with someone criticizing, much less stealing any of my creative work.

    I've always admired the way you and Fred conduct yourself on the internet, all that you contribute both on forums and blogs. It's noted and appreciated.

    Oh, and my pre-order is pending; just haven't gotten to it yet. I'm excited to see the latest iteration of one of my favorite RPG systems of all time.

  4. I think a person cannot help but show their true self when they talk, write or do anything that involves some sort of artistic expression.

    The more I got to know the people that were part of those forums, the more I wanted to stay away from them.

    Today, like you, I have a Blog. It is a much, much better experience overall.

  5. @WalkerP Just edited to clarify - the thread itself was fine. I actually really dug it. But the *idea* of it bothers me a lot. I am totally happy with criticism, almost as much as I am with praise, but calculated disinterest and its ilk are much harder for me to countenance.

    On one hand, it just rings false. 'I don't care so much I'm going to start a thread about how much I don't care' is pretty clearly a flag for some other motive, which might be malicious or it might be merely childish, but whatever it is, it's a bad start.

    I also feel uncomfortably like it violates the contract of reasonable discussion. A while back RPGPundit reviewed Grey Ranks, but because he really hated it, he reviewed it without ever mentioning the name of the game. See, he had grown saavy to why we, as people whose games he'd hate, were happy to have him review them. It helped us because the clear negatives are as important to a product as the positives, and the only bad response is indifference.

    I like to think that people in the community are, in general, maturing enough to be able to distinguish the validity and utility of bad feedback, but I also think that has been poisonous to the handful of genuinely bad actors - the ones who gave bad feedback to be hurtful to malicious. I feel like they've realized they've got less cover in their old methods, and are now moving on to cultured indifference as the most effective way to be hurtful.

    Realistically, I doubt that thread was actually started out of that kind of malice. Given that it turned into a more traditional 'dislike' thread, I suspect it was just a bad choice of words. But all the same, there was a sharp intake of breath on my part because the last thing I need is evidence of saavy trolls.

    @biff There was no sarcasm in my apology to people who get painted with the brush. I completely and genuinely understand that a real need for privacy can exist, but since there's no way for anyone to distinguish the genuine from the false, it all ends up looking the same. That sucks, and paradoxically, it's why I'm a big proponent of avoiding anonymity unless you must. In an ideal world, only folks who needed to be anonymous would be, and we would know to take anonymity as a *meaningful* signal with a reason behind it. But that is, I concede, pie-in-the-sky thinking.

  6. Rob, thanks for the clarification. I understand a lot better where you are coming from now. Yes, that is mildly disturbing. It's amazing the kind of emotional place such negativity must be coming from. I mean you are a part of the community, but you have active strategies to tear down other's success?! Ah, humans. I read that review of Grey Ranks and never cottoned to that nasty little trick.

    My own internet anonymity is purely out of caution for identity theft and keeping certain sectors of my life private. If you follow the podcasts, you get to know me pretty well (I put my picture up on the About page and that was a big nervous step for me) and I've started to meet some 'names' at cons in person, so I hope that people recognize me as a real human.

  7. I usually avoid for just this reason. I really don't require it to think the things I think about games, and usually it just makes me cranky, or at the least, offers me little value for my time.

    Great post. As always!

    -- c.

  8. Hi, Rob! More than half of humanity has a difficult choice in presenting on the internet: if you admit to being female, or being younger than 20, and probably to other stuff like being named Ahmad or Jose, you get blown off much more frequently regardless of what you're saying or how you're saying it. At best.

    People who demand ties to meat identities, those for whom a well-fleshed handle isn't good enough, probably aren't doing it to stack the deck in favor of the current power heirarchy... But that's the result.

    -Madeline F

  9. @ZD If there's a suitable alternative, I'm all ears for it.

    In practice, consistency is enough for me - if someone needs to use a handle and are willing to commit to using that handle (barring disaster) then it certainly mitigates things. I might not know who bob13 is, but if he's always bob13, then that at least allows establishing some sort of rapport.

    But for all that, I'll still be wary. Again, I regret that it's unkind and unfair, but the nature of anonymity is such that that's a necessary tradeoff. I hope that anyone who makes the choice to remain anonymous does so with full knowledge of that - if they do so with the expectation that their anonymity should impact nothing then I worry about their perception of other people.

    That said, the power dynamic issue is an interesting one, but I need to chew on it. One one hand, I can see the case that transparency can be used to carry forward existing biases, but on the other hand it's an easy argument to morph into secrets of convenience and other arguments for deception.

    I think that's a bigger issue than internet discussion boards because if you open that up, you need to open up the whole issue of transparency and the impact of a transparent society. Is the problem anonymity, or is it asymmetric anonymity? Is there a point where things could be opened up enough that the new problems are less bad than the old problems?

    I dunno. Lots of thick books on the topic, no real answers. But I'm willing to tune my position as follows.

    "Anonymity has a price as well as benefits. Acknowledge that, and don't use anonymity as a tool to be a dick. Consider the reasons you stay anonymous thoughtfully, and try to separate genuine need from reflexive introversion. There are real benefits (and prices) to transparency as well."

  10. I understand how you feel Rob. However, your posts on the iPad & Dresden helped me a)figure out how to better download pdfs to my new iPad b)introduced me to & c)let me know about your guy's policy of preorders at my store, so now I've used (with Fred's help, of course) & have presold 3 copies of each volume & distributed pdfs to those customers.
    My point, I hope the good you've shared with me & mine can help to counterbalance the bad.
    I'm grateful for Evil Hat's foresight & TRUSTING me & my stores. Thank you.

    Sunsword AKA Mark Craddock

  11. There's the other issue with anonymity - because the internet remembers you ten years ago when you were a jerk, you can't reinvent yourself without some of that. Archived are my old Usenet posts when I freely acknowledged myself as a Flame King (aka Troll) but the fact that I grew up and now take more responsibility? Might not be as easy to find on Google.

  12. I'm sorry someone thought so little of all the hard work everyone has put into Dresden Files to share it on torrent sites on the net. You all seriously deserve to be paid. Here's hoping for 500 pre-orders.

    I quit several years ago because of the toxic level of discourse over there. Trashing games sight-unseen is par for the course.

  13. "It is advantageous to an author that his book should be attacked as well as praised. Fame is a shuttlecock. If it be struck only at one end of the room, it will soon fall to the ground. To keep it up, it must be struck at both ends." -- Dr. Samuel Johnson

  14. I know you've already appended and it seems there's been resolution, but I wanted to chime in on the anonymity issue and share this article with you guys:

    Basically he posits that accountability is more important than not being anonymous in order to maintain civility. [Full disclosure: a friend wrote this article.]

    From my experience that's true. The forums at are extremely friendly and flame-free. This is because of good moderators who pay attention and clear and consistent consequences to people who violate the forum rules.

    Retroactively applying the "You don't need to be right" rule:
    I think I am responding to the discussion of anonymity and contributing usefully to the conversation by providing a researched article in addition to my own opinion. Did it work?

  15. @Sam that totally contributes, except insofar as you are overshadowed by the Sam in Carl's post!

  16. There is no need to *hope* for 500 preorders. We have that, as of this morning.

  17. Despite the fact that I know nothing about The Dresden Files (is it a series of novels, a movie or a TV show?) You guys and your enthusiastic work make me *want* to be interested. Despite that I've not preordered it.

    Here's the thing about piracy, I freely admit I routinely carry out copyright violations and I'm not ashamed of it. I do it with games too however there are certain principles associated with this.
    I live in a relatively remote area, there is 0% chance of any store within 500 miles stocking any game product on a shelf that isn't mainstream White Wolf or D&D (and in those cases the likelihood rises to around 2% - usually due to a special order that wasn't picked up). That means I don't get to leaf through a game book to decide if I like it before I buy so I instead use pirated PDF's to do this instead. Even with a laptop I find it very difficult to run a game off of a pdf, and laser or inkjet printing is sometimes more expensive than a dead-tree published book, so generally if I have any inclination of ever attempting to run a game I've bought the book. This trend of Pirate-then-purchase I've done with Cthulhutech and Starblazer Adventures. There's a game called Anima - Beyond Fantasy that I found through a torrent that is among the most beautiful game books I'd ever seen. I went to the store to order it and found out that it would be $95.00 and Amazon and the bookstore's other commercial suppliers didn't have it in-stock, so the wait time was unspecific. No Sale.
    -Continued next comment

  18. Continued from previous...
    On the other-hand, games that are already on my radar that are available for a reasonable price on DrivethruRPG I've purchased many times for this same purpose as well. Spirit of the Century and Diaspora, I've purchased like this.

    One thing I regularly do is share my PDF's. Not on a pirate site, but among gamers I know. Maybe they're playing in my game and the more sets of rules passed around, the better, or maybe I just want to show them a product they would find interesting. I don't see this as wrong at all because it's promoting interest in a game that otherwise would never have been known about.

    I would also like to mention that I wouldn't share a PDF that's been made available for sale on a pirate site, but depending on my time and passion for the product I may scan and post one that isn't available normally to pirate. I would have done this with the Exalted supplement Dreams of the First Age if someone hadn't beaten me to it. (DotFA was retarded, I hounded my bookstore for 2 months, to get it in and she had to very nearly conduct the book-equivelant of a back-alley drug deal at gun point to get it in. She hit up 3 of her irregular suppliers - none of the regular ones had it - and 1 copy arrived. White Wolf never released a PDF even though they announced a week before the release date that the set was sold out from preorders).

    So Rob, maybe this might just sound like an douche trying to justify his illegal and immoral actions whatever way he can, but from where I sit maybe the piracy of the Dresden Files isn't such a bad thing? I've heard more than once that offering a product online for free has stimulated legitimate sales and I'll bet there are gamers still out there that frequent torrent and pirate sites but have never heard of DrivethruRPG. Not to say you shouldn't send out takedown orders, you should certainly excercise your legal rights to make the illegal distribution of your product harder, but maybe the person who posted it is like me... drumming up interest for a product that's not out yet the only way he knows how. Maybe it's not a slap in the face after-all.

    (As a caveat I will say that I have no problem with you feeling however you see fit about the whole DFRPG piracy thing, it's your product, your money, your time and effort, your passion and I respect both you and Fred enough to never presume to tell you how to feel about your work. I'm just offering an alternate perspective that might make you feel a bit better.)

  19. The suitable alternative is acknowledging the distinction between pseudonimity (the use of a consistent handle) and anonymity (no sig at all). Pseudonimity is the best you're likely to get anyway: is Ben Mardukas who is too poor to go to a con but talks well about gaming online a girl named Shaniqua? Who can say?

    I've been in too many discussions where Bad Horse can say "it's BS to say that women in a gaming group distract the real gamers" but Megan Donoghue can't. I suppose if I cared to talk to the sorts of people who don't grok the power inequities involved, I would talk to them as Ben Mardukas.

  20. @helmsman I'm actually pretty copacetic about the piracy itself. There's a lot of legitimate questions about whether or not it's a net loss or gain in terms of publicity vs. lost sales, and I genuinely don't get too worked up over the actual act. And sharing among a group? We've been doing that with real books for ages. I don't see much difference.

    Naturally, we take steps to protect our IP because we have certain obligations, but that's just business.

    However, there are two things here that go beyond it. First, this isn't just our stuff, this is Jim's stuff, and Jim is a friend who has been nothing but awesome to us despite things like an infinitely long production schedule. It's the Dabel Brother's stuff, who generously allowed us use of art assets from the Dresden comic book at no cost, something that saved us money and (I think) really paid off in the look of the final product.

    So while I might be a bit blase about someone pirating our stuff, pirating stuff of people who have done us a solid? That's a whole other matter.

    But even beyond that, I acknowledge that piracy is inevitable, and I'd be less troubled if it happened after we actually released the game. I mean, we give away the PDF free with purchase. When the book goes on sale we'll be selling the PDF at a reasonable price. We dont' use DRM or put any restrictions on the files we put out (and, in fact, we go out of our way to make sure the PDFs are high quality) and beyond that we're big supporters of open content, and everything we can successfully separate from Jim's IP is open. Shit. We give gamestores access to the PDF files so they can burn CDs for pre-ordering customers based purely on the fact that we trust them not to abuse it.

    I know almost every argument in the pirate's repertoire, and if we haven't addressed one in our demonstrated commitment to our product and customers, I'll punch myself in the head.

    But I understand that those arguments are mostly justification, and I'd still be emotionally ok with it if it happened down the line, when publisher and audience were a bit more abstract, but right now, they're not.

    For SOTC, I sat down and filled in the numbers of hundreds of Century Club membership cards, by hand, because it was such a pleasure to know we had people who cared enough about the product to pre-order. I look at this initial wave of Dresden pre-orders and it brings back the same feeling. It makes me _proud_. It reminds me why I love this hobby.

    Thinking that it's one of those people who did this? It makes me sick to my stomach. It's not the piracy. It's what it says about what they think of us and our product.

    Are we entitled to better? We are not. It's an ugly world, and people are going to take a shit on things you think are beautiful, no matter what you do. I'm an adult, and I can deal with that.

    But I don't have to like it.

    -Rob D.

  21. So my interpretation is that you're upset because of the violation of trust. I think that's it. You guys provide a PDF early to those who preorder the game as a gesture of trust to those who are enthusiastic enough about it to preorder. This is something I understand. Betrayal of trust is probably one of the most painful emotional experiences a person can endure. The sad thing is that the more people you set out to trust, the more likely it becomes that trust will be betrayed. I agree, it's shit but (at the risk of sounding sycophantic) the fact that you seem to feel like you've let down the people who provided the IP through these pirates actions makes you seem that much more exceptional.

  22. Firstly many of my fiction author friends don't read reviews. Well, they try not to, but usually fail. It's kind of like a car crash on the side of the road. You know you are going to look. And it's never really worth it. Even if there is the rare honest good review, that just seems to attract even more flame bait. After all it's easier for humans to destroy than create. And criticise before they critique.

    Secondly, given the presumed vehemency of the threads (I don't because I find the forums as a rule to be rather caustic and so don't even bother to waste my time there, and instead rely on people such as yourself to go "hey look over there, he's trying to pull a rabbit out of his hat." Even if it's just a name you casually drop from your Dreamation trip expecting everyone to be already in the know about it), and tyhe rather early release of the pirate version, are you sure it's not an intentional release into the wilds of the internet to try to damage you, not just an unthinking act of casual piracy. There is a qualitative difference here, which may help you feel better when you think about it. [You'll still be angry, but have a more defined target.]

    Thirdly, most of the people who pirate stuff wouldn't have bought the product anyway, but may help spread word about it. The remainder I find to be rather disingenuous as to the reasons they contribute to it.

    But it's a sad fact that it's probably going to happen and should be built into the business model in this digitally connected age. [This is also the reason I'm in favour of cheap PDFs, because then people will be tempted to buy the product rather than pirate it, but that's not going to happen when you consider them to be related media in competition with physical books.] But I feel that the artist is worthy of his hire. Because if you, don't, they may not be around to be hired in the future.

    Although I agree that it is rather demoralizing to discover the work you have laboured so hard on is now being given away for free, especially since it seems like you have betrayed the trust Jim and others have put in you.

    But it's not your fault.

    Lastly, tradition of the nom-de-plume goes back well before the invention of the Internets, and for much the same reasons. There are many authors who cannot be associated directly with the corpus of their work, because of the fact they are female or have a social position to worry about, or even because it allows you to present a consistent persona for the voice for your work.

    [Mine own current use of one hails from before the Internet gained popularity, as I originally used it for a magazine column. When I needed a username for LJ none of my standard usernames were available, so I ressurected this, expecting I'd be writing much the same stuff. I didn't end up doing so, but that's another story entirely. But I do at least try to be consistent within these related media. And yes, I do have others, which I keep separate. I am a role-player, after all <grin>]

  23. So here's another possible helper for the net:

    When you're always pissed, you aren't helping.

    I recently left Storygames. Not because it was notably bad, but because I realized I was making it worse. When I got to the point everything was pissing me off, I realized I'd hit the point where I was part of the problem.


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