Friday, May 26, 2023

On the Importance of Fandom

[I ask] that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. — John 17:20-21

One of the important principles in Orthodoxy Christianity is the idea that multiplicity is capable of becoming one. Through Christ, the various nations of the earth become one church despite all of the various things that we humans do to try and separate ourselves from each other.

This idea of one and many exists in every order of creation from the most high (God is both One and Three) all the way down to subatomic where electons, protons, and neutrons are gathered together as the building blocks of matter.

I don’t normally lead with such theological musings, but I want make clear the persupposition for why I find such beauty and joy in the idea of fandoms. When a fandom manifests itself properly, the love that each individual has for said franchise, game, hobby, sport, etc. can overcome all kinds of differences we impose upon ourselves and each other. 

For example, the majorty of the folks who read this blog are not Orthodox Christan, and I would venture a good chunk do not even consider themselves Christian. Despite this, we can all gather in this corner of the internet and revel in the love we have for RPGs. That love overcomes the fact that we do not all agree about religion. It can also overcome all kinds of barriers such as language, race, politics, ethnicity, gender, etc.

To put it theologically, the unity that Christ gives us through the Cross, the Resurrection, and His Church manifests itself in a small way through fandoms. Conversly, the unity we find in fandoms demonstrate that the unity promised by Christ is very real.

As a consequence, I firmly believe that the reason our beloved IPs from Star Wars to Indiana Jones, to Star Trek, to Dungeons & Dragons are in such bad shape is the fact that the companies that are in control of these IPs have roundly rejected the fundamental premise of unity from multiplicity and the role fandoms play in overcoming differences.

Companies such as WotC, Disney, Warner, etc. have almost universally adopted ideas found in Critical Race Theory, Intersectional Feminism, and Diversity Equity and Inclusion. At first glance, all of these concepts are laudable. There is no question that various groups of people have suffered at the hands of others throughout history and that trying to fix the various problems that come from this suffering is something I would hope everyone is on board with.

There is one very large however here, though. All of these ideas are based on a dialectic — the Opressed versus the Opressor. As a consequence, every single one of these ideas requires division. Not a single one of these ideas can ever unify humanity because the smallest possible number in a dialectic is always two.

Thus, when the fandom becomes hostile to the direction a company is taking a particular IP, these ideas don’t allow for love to overcome differences of opinion. They don’t allow for fandoms to become part of the solution. Rather, the fandom is moved from the in-group (the Oppressed) into the out-group (the Oppressor). This is why fans have been accused of being bigoted in all kinds of ways over the last several years.

Those of us who participate in RPGs are very fortunate because the OGL was born out of fandom. It was designed in such a way that the love we have of D&D could empower us to produce a plethora of products for this hobby. We have seen the fruits of that love and don’t every want to go back. This is why WotC’s attempts to ditch the OGL has been received with such a pushback from across the entire fandom. At some level, we have come to understand that the unity we find in participating in this hobby at all levels is much more profound and valuable than anything WotC could offer alone as the gatekeeper of everything D&D. 

While RPGs are a different medium than television or film, nonetheless, what has happened in the world of TTRPGs is a blueprint for fandoms to move forward and beyond the dialectic being imposed upon us by the likes of WotC, Disney, etc. We can participate in our fandoms (and make money doing so) in all kinds of ways that don’t involve us giving these corporations a dime.

We have a capacity to be one. They have limited themselves to merely being two.

They need us far more than we need them. 

Saturday, May 13, 2023

The Importance of Presuppositions

In my line of work, I have to be acutely aware of presuppositions (one of the demands of doing theology). Our culture does not do a very good job of exploring or even being aware that we make them all the time. So, a definition is in order: a presupposition is a thing tacitly assumed beforehand at the beginning of a line of argument or course of action.

Let’s explore an element of D&D that is near and dear to my heart, but is widely rejected by those who play: Race-as-Class. I think part of the reason that so many people balk at the idea of Race-as-Class is that they believe it fundamentaly prevents people from playing a particular race the way they want to. Personally, I have a metal figure in my collection that is a dwarven wizard. I love the personality that exudes from the sculpt. Race-as-Class seems to dictate that I can never use that character concept in my favorite versions of the game. 

What this perspective fails to see is the presupposition that must be made in gaming worlds that have no Race-as-Class: since the mechanics of dwarf and human characters are so similar, there isn’t much actual difference between humans and dwarves.

In contrast, Race-as-Class poses siginificant mechanical differences between the two races. The culture that arises from humans as clerics, fighters, magic-users, and thieves is necessarily very different from that of Dwarves. One is mechanically diverse, the other isn’t.

Thus, when I pull out that dwarven wizard figure the machanics of Race-as-Class put far more weight on my choice of class than the versions of D&D that don’t use it. In both cases, I will essentially be playing a human character; however, while the mechanics of a dwarven wizard don’t say a lot about my character, playing a dwarven magic-user that uses the mechanics of a human magic-user says a tremendous amount about the world, the history of my character, and dwarves themselves. In order to become a magic-user, my dwarf has had to reject his culture and his people to the point that mechanically he no longer functions as a dwarf. For all intents and purposed he is a human.

In both scenerios, I come to the same basic conclusion: mechanically a dwarven magic-user/wizard is essentially a re-skinned human; however, when one looks at the necessary presuppositions that Race-as-Class demands, I get a much more interesting re-skinned human — one that I don’t think I would have arrived at without Race-as-Class.

I say all this as a preamble, because I did something quite outside my comfort zone this week. Chris Gore of Film Threat is producing a new show on his YouTube channel which seeks to bring Star Wars fans together to discuss whether or not Disney has murdered the franchise. The format is that of a court with those who are on the side of the prosecution and those who are on the defense.

I was asked to be on the first show, because so few people in the sphere of YouTube Star Wars fandom were willing to argue the defense. It was all in good fun and I think the overwhelming consensus is that my side lost the argument (not surprising, since Chris Gore’s audience is largely unhappy with Disney Star Wars). I want to explain why I was willing to be on the Defense and that has to do with presuppositions.

While the language “Disney Murdered Star Wars” is hyberbolic, there is a necesssary presupposition behind that statement: Star Wars fans are beholden to Disney for all things Star Wars. I vehemently disagree. 

The presupposition that I make is one that I believe better reflects reality: Star Wars is part of our culture. It no longer belongs to Disney or George Lucas in any way other than the legal right to produce Star Wars products. We, as the fandom have far more power than Disney thinks we do (or we do, depressingly). The Audience is a vital part of any artistic endeavor, especially when it comes to beloved franchises like Star Wars.

Very few Tolkien fans, for example, would argue that Amazon’s Rings of Power has any real place in the lore of Middle-earth. Likewise, the fans have the ability to embrace or reject anything Star Wars. As an example, few Star Wars fans acknowledge that the Star Wars Christmas Special has any real standing in Star Wars lore. Yes, it is the first appearance of Boba Fett, but does anyone argue that the Mandolorian, or any other Disney product, isn’t following the lore established in the Christmas Special? No, because the fandom doesn’t care about the Christmas Special. It does about the EU and the many ways Disney has contradicted it. Despite the fact that Disney has de-canonized the EU, it still lives on because the fans have embraced it.

The only way that Disney can murder Star Wars, in other words, is if we aid and abett them by rejecting Star Wars as a whole. As long as the fandom exists, Star Wars lives. And, if the fandom wakes up and realizes its own power and importance, we may see a day when the owners of the legal right to produce Star Wars products will listen.

Thursday, May 4, 2023

May the Φος Be With You

The only Star Wars product
I have enjoyed in the last decade

Star Wars taught me a tough but valuable lesson: just because something has a particular label on it, doesn’t mean that it is good. This lesson took a long time for me to understand, however. Star Wars was a huge part of my childhood and a formative experience in my life. One of my favorite RPG campaigns of all time was played with d6 Star Wars. One of my favorite computer franchises of all time is the X-Wing/Tie-Fighter series. I was all in.

I couldn’t bring myself to understand that the emotion I was feeling after watching Episode I at a midnight showing on opening day was disappointment. I spent hours and a lot of money watching Phantom Menace trying to convince myself that it was good. Then I saw Episode II in theaters at a matinee a couple of weeks after it opened and came to terms with the idea that Star Wars was no longer a brand I could trust. 

I had hope that Disney could turn things around. So, when my kids wanted to see Episode VII in the theaters, I went. I walked out of the movie with a feeling I was familiar with and now was accustomed to: disappointment. This time, however, I refused to spend another dime.

I suppose that is why I was so adamant to ditch WotC when they put their “warning” labels on legacy products. The disappointment I had when realizing WotC saw me as a racist simply for buying and playing one of the most important games in my lifetime was similar to what I was feeling walking out of Phantom Menace. So, I didn’t spend another dime, despite several legacy products being released in POD that I would have otherwise snatched up in a second.

The last several months have proven my instincts correct. WotC has rendered the label “Dungeons & Dragons” worthless. It seems that the shenanigans Hasbro has pulled have finally woken some people up to the fact that WotC and Hasbro are run by people who care nothing about gamers or the games we play.

I realize I am a small voice in the wilderness, but I not only encourage everyone to stop buying something simply because it has the label “Dungeons & Dragons” on it, but to create your own systems, adventures, and worlds. I can almost guarantee that whatever you produce is going to be a whole lot better than whatever WotC has put the label "Dungeons & Dragons" on.

BTW for those interested, the title of this post comes from the fond memories of an alum of my seminary who went to my school in the 70s. In response to the popularity of Star Wars and the Force, which from an Orthodox Christian POV is a dualistic heresy, one of the bishops printed up a bunch of T-Shirts that said, “May the Φος Be With You.” In Greek, φος (phos as in phosphorescence) means “light” as in John 8:12, “Again Jesus spoke to them, saying,  ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’”

Ever since May 4th became a thing where Star Wars fans say, “May the Force Be With You” I have gently corrected their spelling…