Now You’re Playing With Power!

Tabletop RPGs and my ongoing beef with social media’s corrupted version of progressivism

I’m not much into tabletop role-playing games, but my fiancé is, so I’ve seen quite a few videos on YouTube about Candela Obscura.

As I understand it, it’s the first game based on a system the designers made in conjunction with Critical Role, a popular group of actors who’ve spent years running their mostly-Dungeons & Dragons campaigns as web series. (And, among other spin-off projects, adapted their campaigns to an ongoing animated series on Amazon Prime). Again as I understand it, they were interested in developing a new system that could go beyond established D&D settings, and also would favor narrative more than mechanics, to be better suited to the type of content they were making.

There seems to be no shortage of videos on YouTube critical of Candela Obscura, most of them with hyperbolic titles calling out its inexcusable sins against the very fundamentals of RPGs. Along with accusations that they “ripped off” the game Blades in the Dark, the game is insensitive to marginalized groups or the neurodivergent, etc. Many of these are, of course, just clickbait looking for attention. YouTube’s gonna YouTube, after all. But some of them seem earnestly upset.

And even if I were invested in this genre of game, I would have no problem with people criticizing it, of course. Where I get annoyed is when the complaints are, invariably, presented as speaking Truth to Power.

After all, Critical Role is easily the most successful and well-recognized (i.e. I’ve heard of it) group doing what they do. Not only have they managed to turn their friendly games into a content creation and publishing business, but they’ve got tons of devoted fans. Which means they clearly need to be taken down a peg or two, I presume?

I know that when I think of high-and-mighty fat cats who are so rich that they’ve lost touch with the common man, I think of two groups: independent tabletop RPG creators, and voice-over artists. Maybe when they’re not lounging around in their mansions, or swimming in their money bins, they could deign to lower themselves to hear some honest and necessary feedback for once.

This stuff frustrates me, because it’s like watching an inevitable train wreck that’s playing out excruciatingly slowly over the course of several years. There’s this tainted version of “progressivism” that thrives on social media, pushing the sociopathic world view that all interactions between human beings are a power struggle. It’s what brought the repulsive terms “punching up” and “punching down” into popular use, as if they were perfectly healthy and normal ways to think of dealing with people, instead of just ways to self-justify who you’re allowed to treat like an asshole.

There’s a real arrogance in assuming that your own perception of any power dynamic is the correct one. A lot of the time, the people you assume to be “higher” in Privilege Order are the ones who consider themselves to be the scrappy underdogs. And most of the time, the people who are most guilty of abusing their power are the ones carefully staying out of your field of vision while they furiously work to make you miserable. You probably don’t even know all their names.

For decades, we’ve been watching the American and British right wing stirring up a transparently manipulative, ongoing culture war. They believe that if they get us angry at and/or afraid of each other, it’ll distract from what they’re doing. It seems to be depressingly effective. And for all the progress we’ve made — and it’d be absurd to claim that we haven’t made real, significant progress, just over the last 10-15 years even — there are still too many of us claiming we’re fighting for social justice by aiming at the lowest targets. And then disingenuously acting surprised when they object to being called out, and then wondering how did our politics get so divisive?

None of it is all that complicated, which is why it’s so frustrating to see the same cycles repeating over and over. It seems ridiculous to start with a world view that focuses more on people’s differences than on what we have in common with each other, and then expect anything other than division.

Especially since it’s an election year, people are going to go into overdrive to convince us that we’re on the brink of disaster and societal collapse. When there are so many attempts to undo the progress we’ve made, it’s important to take a step back and realize that we have made real progress. And I feel like all the progress that I’ve made personally has come not from thinking in terms of power struggles, but just from an increasing understanding that people who seem different from me aren’t actually all that different when it comes to the basics.