Interview with RPGPundit about D&D 5e, Consultantgate and Everything


t. Sgeyerog :DDDDD
10. September 2003

RPGPundit is a pipe enthusiast and freemason who has moved from Canada to Uruguay many years ago. He has written several RPGs (Arrows of Indra, Forward to Adventure, Gnomemurdered and Lords of Olympus), blogs at The RPG Pundit and is the owner of international RPG forum theRPGsite. His latest deed has been a consultant stint for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition.

Hi Pundit, thanks for having taken the time for this interview.
The 400-pound bugbear that everyone is currently most interested in is obviously going to be D&D 5th edition. You had been one of those selected to consult for this new edition, along with such luminaries like Jeff Grubb or S. John Ross.
How do does it feel like to see your name printed side by side with such well-known industry veterans?

It feels like victory.

Is there any part about D&D 5th that you are particularly happy about?

I wouldn't say any specific part; there are certainly many great parts to it. I love the advantage/disadvantage mechanics, I love that you get an appendix with historical deities in the back, I love that there'll be rules for morale in the DMG, and lots of other things. But the main thing is that I love the general attitude of the product: it's run on the philosophy, the 'theory', if you like (but a tested and proven theory!) of the OSR-attitude of "rulings, not rules", and a rejection of the idea of creating a game that only serves a very narrow goal in favor of a very broad game that can effectively encompass a wide variety of playstyles well. Likewise, a serious downplaying of the need for "balance uber alles" or catering to the character-optimization crowd.

One of your central manifestos have been the Landmarks of Gaming Theory.
To quickly paraphrase them:
1. The vast majority of gamers are having fun gaming.
2. The vast majority of gamers are satisfied with the majority of their game as it is played.
3. D&D is the model of what most people define as an RPG, and therefore also the model for a successfully-designed RPG.
4. Games that have a broad spectrum of playstyles (as D&D does) are by definition successful games.
5. The solution to inter-player conflict is not to "Narrow the rules", but to broaden the playstyle of a group to accomodate what the complaining players are missing.
6. Any gaming theory that suggest that the GM should get disproportionately more or less power than they do in D&D in order for a game to be "good" is inherently in violation of the Landmarks.
7. Any gaming theory that tries to divide gamers into specific criteria of "types" must make it clear that this is only a hypothetical model and not an universal truth.
8. Any theory that suggests that its "player types" are mutually exclusionary in gaming groups is in violation of the Landmarks.
How does D&D 5th Edition hold up to those landmarks, especially in comparison to older editions?

D&D 5e reads as though it had used the Landmarks for its entire design structure. Now, I'm not saying that's what actually happened, it's not that I'm claiming Mike Mearls read my landmarks (although no doubt as a reader of my blog he did so, way back when I first wrote them) and consciously made a choice to say "we're going to use the Pundit's idea as our guiding principle" or something like that; the real reason is much simpler: those landmarks are also the guiding principles of old-school gaming, and indeed of most editions of D&D.

The top tier of the RPG market has seen a great shift in the last 5-6 years. During its heyday D&D 3.x was the leading game with hardly any contest.
D&D-like fantasy gaming has since become much more splintered. The former players of D&D 3.x had only partially moved over to D&D 4e - Pathfinder has soaked up large chunks of them on the more new-school end of the spectrum, while on the other hand various old-school games like Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG or Lamentations of the Flaming Princess have greatly gained momentum. And this doesn't even account for players who have just stuck with their old 3.x material, or moved over to even older editions and their retro-clones.
What, if any effect, will 5e have on this splintered market of today?

I don't think we'll see a situation where everyone just stops playing any other game in favor of 5e. But we will see a significant reduction in the "splintering" effect in two respects: first, there will be a significant chunk of people who will switch what they were playing before in favor of 5e. Unless they pull some really impressive feat, Pathfinder will see a serious drain to its numbers of players (which were artificially inflated only on account of a visceral rejection of 4e on the part of most D&D fans), as people who would otherwise have been playing D&D will go BACK to playing D&D. There will also be quite a few 4e and 3.x players who'll happily switch over to 5e. I think OSR gamers will not be likely to abandon the OSR, but many of them now feel that 5e is a "new edition they can actually play" (whereas 3.x, 4e, and Pathfinder were not), and so the second effect will be that you'll have a lot of casual players for whom their favorite game will be some other version of D&D, but who will be quite happy to play 5e and take advantage of it's bigger network of players and GMs.

The OSR had begun as an attempt to make exact replicas of classic editions of D&D available again to a broader public, and to enable authors to easily and legally write new material for them. Later, the OSR became more innovative and began to mix and match the good parts of the then current 3rd edition and the older editions of D&D. 4e had largely been ignored by the OSR crowd. Instead, we've got entirely new OSR games that had moved further away from both the old and the current editions of D&D, like DCC RPG with its very different class and magic systems.
5e seems to move a lot of closer to the older editions and to adress a lot of OSR complaints about D&D editions past AD&D. How will the OSR be affected by 5e? Will we see more adaptions of 5e ideas (as has already happened with Backgrounds)? More games like DCC that rely on entirely new ideas to provide unique selling points over existing D&D-like games?

5e is already getting significant support in the OSR (in spite of considerable and understandable caution that was prevalent before 5e's launch). I can call it right now: there'll be a big "O5R" movement of OSR gamers that will convert 5e to be even more old-school, and take 5e ideas to use in OSR games. Assuming WOTC continues to do things right, there will be a big mix of stuff happening there, people using things from OSR games in their 5e campaigns, and taking 5e stuff and running with it in their OSR campaigns.

You have mentioned that you expect the OSR crowd to pick up 5e ideas and vice versa. Are there any 5e ideas in particular that you expect to be of interest to OSR players?

I think the OSR will end up adopting some of the rule elements of 5e; things like advantage, backgrounds, ritual magic, some of the magic items rules, etc. Mind you, most of these have already appeared in some form or another in OSR games. I also expect that future OSR products might have more of a 5e "attitude" or feel to them, in a general sense; but again, this is really a cyclical kind of thing, since a lot of 5e's attitude has been inspired by old-school sentiment.

Something about 5e that particularly bothers our German readers is the current lack of translation plans for 5e.
Having been living and gaming in a non-English-speaking country yourself for a long while, as how important and commercially viable do you gauge translations of foreign RPGs? Should gaming communities in foreign countries rather focus on creating their own RPGs that are rooted in the local language, mindset and interests?

I'd say that this is really two different questions. First, the question of language/mindset/interests. Language may be a factor for some people, certainly. But my own experience living in South America is that there's really no difference in mindset or interests between south american gamers and north american gamers. While I have very occasionally seen people play (and even ran once) a modern-setting game (usually either occult or superhero) set in Montevideo/Uruguay, I have never, ever, met a gamer here who felt that they desperately wanted or needed some kind of "uruguayan RPG". I don't think there's even a conception of what, say, a "uruguayan fantasy RPG" would look like; in fact, it would probably pretty much look like D&D. I think this idea that somehow non-english gamers are somehow feeling all repressed by the 'culture' of RPGs is completely nonsensical. Being Geeks is a much more significant factor in likes and dislikes than being Uruguayan, or Canadian, or (I would hazard to guess) German. Geeks throughout the world like the same geeky stuff.
As for the issue of language, then, while I think translations of D&D would certainly be economically viable (maybe not to WoTC itself, but certainly to third parties), I also know that here in south america pretty much everyone uses the english-language rules. I don't really think that the rpg hobby here will actually grow significantly by virtue of having spanish language 5e books. I'll also note that a badly-made or badly-translated foreign rulebook might actually be counterproductive.

Before we conclude the part on 5e, is there anything left you want to tell us about it?

5e is not something I can take credit for directly speaking, my role in it was not insignificant but was also not nearly as pivotal as the actual designers (or as some people seem to want to credit me with, to praise or blame me or the game). But I can say this: 5e is absolutely the triumph of all my ideas about gaming, what works in gaming, and how gaming should be.

Not everything in the last few weeks has been all daisies and lollipops. Despite having mentioned your consultant job in passing on your old Xanga blog many months ago, the broader internet audience didn't really catch on the fact until your name - and that of Zak S. of "Playing D&D with Pornstars" - appeared in the credits of the 5e Basic Rules this summer. The result was Consultantgate, a massive shitstorm against Zak and you, which stretched across many different internet platforms and in turn incited other people to counter-shitstorm.
Did you expect something like this, on this scale, to happen?

I should note that in fact, most of the people who raised up a stink about me being a Consultant were very well aware of that fact; way back when I made that announcement (when 5e was still in the pre-playtesting stages), Sage Latorra wrote an invective condemning WoTC for the choice (on account of my being opposed to Storygaming); and it was widely circulated and "+1" by almost all of the main players of the later "Consultantgate" thing. So the choice to make a huge deal about it AFTER the rules came out was very clearly not just about me, but about an intentional attempt to create negative publicity for D&D 5th edition and Wizards of the Coast. It was an expression of anger toward an edition that they realized embodied a lot of my ideas about gaming, and rejected the ideas many of these same people had championed (ideas which had proven to be disastrous).
And yes, I was expecting some kind of shit-storm, because that's just what these people do. What I wasn't expecting was the amount of outright lies and slander that took place; I mean boldfaced blatant lies that were very directly contradicted by things I said and publicly stood for, that could not have in any way been a misinterpretation of my beliefs or politics or whatever but were very clearly an attempt at outright character-assassination based on complete fabrications.

One of the things I found personally the most baffling about Consultantgate was the topic of it. It wasn't about gaming theory, or the approach taken towards RPGs, or the Swine criticism, or anything that could have been relevant to the actual consulting job.
Consultantgate very quickly devolved into accusations of anti-feminism, anti-LGBT-ism and a few other anti-isms, framed by claims of weird behaviour like tracking down critics to their home adress and leaving threatening calls in the night.
Did you expect that Consultantgate would take such an angle?

Well, those are precisely the lies I'm talking about, and no, I did not really expect that. Maybe I should have, because this was a group of people who had already demonstrated themselves very eager to lie, and to lie very boldly and shamelessly, before. They did it already to other people in the past. I just wasn't expecting this level of blatant absurdity in the lies. They took it to a new level.
To explain the difference in just how extreme they'd gotten, I could point out that pretty much all the same people who were the chief architects of the "boycott the Pundit and Zak" thing had also, almost exactly one year earlier (it's funny how they always do this around the time of the big gaming cons...), tried to have James Desborough blackballed from the industry, going so far as to threaten to bankrupt Mongoose games if they didn't issue a statement condemning him or something like that. Now, in that case, what they did was take something Desborough really did say (along the lines that "rape in literature can be a valid plot device") and turned it into something he'd never said ("James Desborough advocates rape!") and then went on to make even more false claims ("James Desborough threatened to rape people!"). But in that case, what you saw was a lie based on the manipulation of an actual factual statement.
In this case, they just made claims that were the exact opposite of things I'd said. They took "I, the RPGPundit, wholeheartedly support the inclusive language in the new D&D rules" and said (and kept saying over and over again) "the RPGPundit is opposed to the inclusive language!". They went on to claim that I was homophobic or transphobic, both of which couldn't be further from the truth.
And equally absurd, though by that point totally unsurprising, was just how willing they were to brutally attack actual LGBT people, women, or people of colour who dared to question what they were saying or speak up in defense of me or Zak.

One of the things bothering the "social justice warriors" (or Pseudo-Activist Outrage Brigade) have been illustrations in RPGs - particularly "cheesecakes" and other overtly sexualized pictures. It has come up every now and then, but has become more prominent again with Consultantgate.
What is your stance on this discussion?

I consider most "cheesecake art" in RPGs to be unnecessary and stupid. If it's gratuitous titillation for its own sake, I think that it brings down the quality of an RPG product.
That said, I should note that for a lot of the Outrage Brigade, what they'd define as "inappropriate art" is very different from what a sane, normal human being would use as a definition. There's the famous case of one individual's tirade against the classic image of Aleena the Cleric, an early D&D-iconic character who was dressed head to toe in full armor and was showing no skin aside from her face, and was a sympathetic and heroic character who bravely confronted evil.
There's also a double-standard involved. The same person that tried to imply that Aleena was somehow sexist had no problem at all with a bikini-wearing Red Sonja image, mainly because the latter was done by someone they approved of, while the former was an image from Old School D&D. As in most cases, this is more about personal agendas and gaming-ideology that is just gratuitously making use of (abuse of, I'd say) real social issues.

Personally, as far as RPG illustrations go I am less bothered by too much or too little sexualization, then by too little utility. Many RPG illustrations are rather generic than descriptive of the setting and the activities of the game - and in many gaming groups, are mostly seen by the GM.
How could utility of illustrations - and access of players to useful illustrations - be improved? What would be good or bad examples of RPGs with useful illustrations?

I have no problem with some books having interesting art for it's own sake, but it is good if art is illustrative of the setting (or the "implied setting"), expressing things that the PCs might see or situations similar to those the PCs would experience.

In German forae there Consultantgate took a different spin. Anti-ism accusations didn't crop up so much, as accusations that you (and Zak) haven't been picked so much for your design crecedentials, but to create controversy and stir up buzz.
Do you think that Consultantgate has in the end been more beneficial than harmful for D&D 5e, from a commercial POV?

Mike Mearls actually explained why Zak and I were picked: because we are both capable and well-known RPG critics who he knew would be direct, honest, even ruthless in our analysis of the rules, and would not be so dazzled by the situation or intimidated by desire to curry favor with Mearls or WoTC that we wouldn't say exactly what we thought. We were anti-yes-men. In my own case, Mike Mearls had been reading my blog, and had at times commented on my old blog, and had several email interactions with me for many years now, even since well before he started working for WoTC. And I think it's likely that they knew choosing us would help provide reassurances to the Old-school crowd, who were inevitably going to be very distrustful of anything WoTC was working on, so this mitigated that somewhat. I don't think the choice was ever meant to be to "generate controversy", and I doubt that Mearls/WoTC expected the level of sheer vitriol (and outright libel) directed against us or them by the Pseudo-activists.
I think that in the larger scale, the impact of 'consultantgate' on D&D 5e's performance was largely negligible; the outrage brigade didn't convince anyone who wasn't already predisposed to hating 5e and wouldn't buy it anyways. The Old-schoolers and other fans of me or Zak were perhaps more mobilized to be supportive of 5e than they would otherwise have been, but these groups were going to end up liking 5e regardless (the old-schoolers and regular gamers have hugely embraced the new edition once they actually got to see that it was as great as I was saying all along).
If there was any real effect for WoTC, it was just that it galvanized some of the important bloggers and regular game designers in a show of support.

Now that is mostly over, is there anything positive to Consultantgate in hindsight? Any positive surprises, any interesting revelations, anything?

There are a few things I consider positive about the whole thing, not that it's a situation I'd much care to live through again, but there are a few things that can be rescued from the whole nonsense of it all.
First, I think that the Pseudo-activist Outrage Brigade (others call them 'social justice warriors' but I think that's far too kind and too inaccurate a description of what they're really about) have totally discredited themselves. It became so, so very obvious that their whole assault was based on lies, and that this was all about a) personal vendettas and b) hobby-ideologies, and NOT at all about actual social justice (just how eager they were to brutalize countless individuals from the very groups they claimed to defend if it served their goals proved that), that it would be very, very hard for them to be able to effectively do this to anyone again.
I don't doubt that they'll try, but there'll be a wealth of evidence to be shown against them, and the memory of all this, and I think they're just a laughing stock now.
Second, while not discounting that the hobby's culture is far from perfect and has a lot of room for improvement in terms of inclusivity, I think that all this nonsense put the lie to the claims the Pseudo-activists love to bandy about that the entire hobby is somehow 'rotten to the core', or that the vast majority of gamers are terrible racists, sexists, or homophobes; because what became very clear as this went on is that just about everyone in that part of the hobby that heard about all this brou-ha-ha were entirely in support of the hobby being a very inclusive place.
Here's what DIDN'T happen: you did not see huge masses of unwashed redneck gamers charging forth to make vicious sexist, racist or homophobic attacks against the brave warriors for social change. That never happened. In fact, outside of one or two lunatics who speak for no one, the only people I saw AS A GROUP who attacked any women, people of color, or LGBT-people in all this were actually the Outrage Brigade itself!
Instead, what DID happen is that you had a bunch of people speak up to point out that in fact they support the hobby being inclusive, and that both myself and Zak have been radically in support of the hobby being inclusive (Zak runs a gaming group where, if I'm not mistaken, all the players are women, and there are disabled people, people of colour, and LGBT people among the players; I've had women, people of colour, and LGBT people in my games for decades now, my current gaming groups (3 of them) are about 25% female, not to mention about 90% latino, my last two RPGs have featured LGBT references and characters with an inclusive tone, and my latest RPG Arrows of Indra was entirely dedicated to a carefully-researched and respectful presentation of a non-european culture, history and mythology, AND featured what appears to be the very first case of a Transgender character on the cover of an RPG rulebook).
In retrospect, their big mistake was going after people who were very clearly not racists, sexists, or homophobes. That was a disastrous move for the outrage brigade, because it was almost inevitably going to lead to their fundamental argument, their raison d'etre as to why they should get to be the gatekeepers of the hobby, being proven to be total bullshit.
In addition, I think that another consequence of the whole consultantgate thing was that it wrested away control of the conversation from the pseudo-activists. And it's a very important conversation to be having, about just what and how we should go about making the hobby more open and welcoming to a variety of people; they used to demand ownership over that conversation, and now they don't get to anymore. This is a very good thing, because their whole schtick demands that there be no good solutions within the hobby, and thus as long as they were the ones who got to control that conversation it would go nowhere (or, at least, nowhere good). Now regular gamers are in charge of that conversation, they realize that the people claiming 'expertise' were actually highly partisan charlatans, and that these assholes are not needed for this conversation to be had, and were actually counterproductive for it. Instead, it's become something that will be resolved by people who actually love the hobby, and who will resolve the conversation by actually DOING things, rather than by meaningless posturing.
Finally, I can't deny that the consultantgate thing ended up being a huge net positive for me, personally. My blog readership doubled, sales of my existing RPGs rose significantly, and I've been offered more work in the hobby (both in Consulting and in RPG-writing) than I can actually handle. I get to be more selective, and thus more in demand than ever. Activity on theRPGsite went up, I got sent more products for review (I now have two huge piles of books right by my desk that all need reviewing, and more coming in every week)... in short, the biggest result of the Outrage Brigade's actions as far as concerns me personally is that they made me much more famous, much more popular, and very LITERALLY MADE ME MONEY in writing gigs, book sales, consulting gigs, and advertising sales on theRPGsite.

So far, you have written four different games: Arrows of Indra (AoI), Forward... to Adventure! (FtA), Gnomemurdered and Lords of Olympus (LoO). Can you tell us a bit about them?

Forward... to Adventure!: along with the "Forward... to Adventure! Gamemaster's Notebook!" (FtA!GN!), this was my first RPG, written on a lark and based on a dream. It's an old-school style kitchen-sink RPG. I quite like the setting in FtA!GN! and there's also a lot of stuff in both books that are still highly usable, though I do think that my skill in design overall has improved quite a lot since the time of having written this.

Gnomemurdered: This is the only game I've done which is not meant to be a game for big long-term campaign play, but is rather almost more of a party game. It's very comedic, has a ridiculously simple mechanic (where any time you actually have to roll a test you will either succeed or your character will be murdered by evil gnomes), and its the sort of thing a group of people can play for an evening's fun even if most of the people here have never played RPGs. It pokes serious fun at storygamers, but that's mostly between the lines. It also has some truly awesome materials, lore, random tables, crazy funny stuff, equipment, etc. which could be used in other games, as long as said other games were ones where you wanted to introduce a group of evil murderous little people.

Lords of Olympus: A diceless RPG where you play the children of the Greek Gods in a 'multiverse' setting, where characters have semi-divine levels of power (including the ability to travel to different universes and alter the fundamental laws of reality), and where most of the emphasis of roleplay is on the dysfunctional family soap-opera of violence, sex, and conspiracy that is the Greek Pantheon. The book probably has the best written and most complete set of information (taking up half the book) about Greek Mythology, detailed information about just about every god in the pantheon (including very obscure ones), plus monsters, places, etc.

Arrows of Indra: this is an OSR rpg, an old-school D&D-inspired game set in the Epic India of mythology, in the period of the Mahabharata. It has significant setting detail on the culture, background history, mythology, religion, magic items, a complete section on monsters, etc. all based on actual Indian sources, plus a set of tables for generating cavern complexes in the Patala Underworld, the real and original "underark" of Indian Mythology. It's exotic, but at the same time very approachable to anyone used to playing D&D, the actual play is still the same, the goals mostly the same too, and so its very easy to get into (you don't need a degree in history, anthropology or linguistics, or even any previous knowledge of Indian myth outside the book itself).

AoI and FtA are two games that obviously follow the D&D model of RPGs very closely.
Is there any innovation in 5e that you wish you could have had included in those two games of yours?

Well, keep in mind that when I wrote FtA!, there wasn't even a "4th edition" yet! It was really one of the earliest Old-school games (too early, in fact, to have been able to benefit from the OSR). In any case, FtA! is a lot less similar to D&D than Arrows of Indra, which is an actual OGL game that is mechanically compatible with other OSR games.
But as for stuff I'd be potentially inclined to include in future works, I think that Arrows Of Indra had its own version of "backgrounds" in the form of the caste, family and background skill rules; but it's likely that in the future that will be something that I and others will end up putting more emphasis on in old-school games.
Advantage and disadvantage rules are something else that I expect quite a few games will end up making use of, and it's possible it might be used in some future book of mine, who knows?

FtA has a special connection to this place. Aktion Abenteuer used to host a forum for it (its remainders now found here). Of particular interest were the plans to distribute the Spanish edition in magazine format via South-American kiosks.
Are there still any plans to do so, or to do something with it but the existing books?

Unfortunately not; at the time those plans failed to come to pass because there were just too many logistical and bureaucratic hurdles here (in this very bureaucratic very socialist country) for me to be able to do it in such a way that all the investment, risk and effort would be worth it.
Since that time, however, there's been an increasing awareness of RPGs here, and interest in RPG design, and there are now a couple of RPGs made in Uruguay, in spanish, that are trying to distribute themselves. Not in the way I had envisioned but through the geek/hobby networks of stores, clubs, groups, and forums.
I don't think that it's something I'll be doing myself, in any case, because really there are now native Uruguayans who are starting to do a good job of it and that was always the real point: to create more local interest in the hobby.

It is news to me that Uruguay has begun to develop its own RPGs. What kinds of RPGs have cropped up? Any that stand out of the crowd? How well do they manage to sell and receive play locally, compared to the big international competition like D&D, Pathfinder or Savage Worlds?

To be honest I haven't myself been able to get a good look at these just yet; I know that there is a zombie game, and a fantasy RPG named Pharsalia (with a kind of classical-history setting) that has been doing a lot of marketing at the local cons (the local government at both municipal and federal level has been sponsoring some geek/gaming cons lately as part of its 'youth program'). Pharsalia seems in particular to have made some effort at production values and marketing, but like I said, I haven't really gotten a good look at it yet.
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