Thursday, January 19, 2023

Guest Poster - James Raggi IV - On Potential Inclusivity/Morality Clauses in RPG Licenses (OGL, ORC, etc)

I woke this morning to a Facebook PM from James, and after I responded he asked if I had the time to read the following text, the script, if you will, of his video planned for today (linked here and below). I read it out loud, so I could get Rach's reaction, and we both agree it was damn near perfect. I told James such, but I insisted that he also share a text version of it, to get it to the widest audience possible. I am honored that James chose The Tavern for this purpose. Tenkar

Hello. My name is James Edward Raggi IV, I am the creator and publisher of Lamentations of the Flame Princess, a tabletop role-playing game.

I'm here to talk to you about declared or possible inclusivity clauses (also referred to as morality clauses, or political exclusion clauses) as part of upcoming game licenses. Specifically, I'm here to tell you why they are a bad idea for creators of the licenses, publishers who will use the licenses, and for the fans and customers of the games using the licenses, even if you agree with all of the positions the clauses would promote.

I know that proponents of inclusivity clauses mean well. They want to create an environment where good people, and good things, can thrive, without the pressures and stresses of having to deal with the bad things, and the bad people.

But things aren't so simple.

If you're not familiar, I recommend you research the Hays code governing motion pictures from 1934 to 1968, and the comics code which governed the comics industry from 1954 to 2011, and the TSR writing guidelines of the 1980s and 1990s in roleplaying. All of those codes were, like inclusivity clauses today, designed to promote what were at the time thought of as good values in creative work, and prevent bad things from being disseminated through the creative work governed by their codes. (for shits and giggles, let's also consider the Book of Erotic Fantasy controversy of 2003 I think it was)

How are any of those codes looked at in hindsight? Do you think they helped progress the art forms they administered? Or did they retard them? Do you think they helped marginalized people find and express their voices? Or did they help to silence them?

Do you really think such a code or clause made today will in the future be judged any differently? Do you? Sure, you might think you're smarter than the people of the past, but what about the people in the future? Is your inclusivity clause going to ultimately be seen as a good thing, when all of these previous efforts to accomplish the same great and good things have failed?

Because there is one complication that will make future perceptions very important. The current controversies and conversations about gaming licenses involve whether licenses are perpetual, whether they are revokable. How are you going to convince people to adopt a new license to invest all their creativity and their business investment and livelihood in, without addressing whether the license is revokable?

And if you do what is largely right now considered the good thing and make your new license irrevokable, then whatever you specify in any inclusivity or morality clause, that's forever. Are you really up to the task of defining that, not even for all time, but even for the next five, ten, twenty years, to be more realistic about it?

You don't know which way the winds are going to blow, not in the halls of power and influence in our culture, and not on the ground amongst the people. The New Deal era gave way to McCarthyism, which gave way to the free love 60s, which gave way to the recessionary and inflationary 70s, which gave way to the Reagan/Thatcher 80s, which gave way to the Clinton years, which gave way to the Bush years, which gave way to the Obama years, which gave way to Trump. Now we're two years into the Biden years. What's next? 

What do you do if Ron DeSantis, with his "stop woke" policies and his "ok groomer" supporters, wins the next US election? What happens to your license and its administration if not only political power, but the cultural zeitgeist becomes more conservative? How would you feel if your inclusivity clauses in your irrevocable licenses are used to protect the sensibilities of the most white, Christian, regressive class, and the majority of your customers support this? Do you really think such a thing is impossible over just a few years time, given the history of the last century? 

And while Wizards of the Coast will have to wholly own their Open Gaming License, this new ORC thing is being put together by a consortium of publishers, and last I heard the plan was that the license would be owned and administered by a third party. So whatever controversies and conflicts arise surrounding that license, it will still forever be associated with the companies and people that created it, but who will not control it. 

You might think that's fine, you're in good with the people who will administer the license... but things change. It doesn't even take a cultural shift. Just imagine some rich person who wants to rid their precious gaming hobby of "wokeness." You don't think there's an Elon Musk type out there willing to burn a fortune to "fix" gaming the way Musk wanted to with Twitter? What happens to your relationships, those connections, when someone is buying companies, buying influence, with millions or even billions of dollars? Do you really think such a thing is impossible, given the history of just this past year?

Do you think the presence of an inclusivity or morality clause in a license is more or less likely to trigger such a situation?

But even without cultural shifts, or billionaires enforcing their will, I believe these clauses will be publicity and administrative nightmares for anyone implementing them.

If you implement these inclusivity/morality clauses, you are setting yourself up to be the arbiter of what exactly is racist. What is sexist. What is transphobic. You get to tell activists "no we don't think that is really racist," or you get to tell publishers to destroy their work because they've done a bad thing. And you get to do that over, and over, and over, and over, forever.

Because these arguments are out there. If you're putting this license together, you've seen the arguments. And obviously if you're wanting to implement such a license, you want to prevent your work from being used to facilitate racism, sexism, transphobia, whatever -isms and -phobias are out there now or will become a thing in the future.

But you know, you absolutely know, that there are people out there who have definitions of these things that are far more expansive than that of the general public. Or more expansive than your personal definition. What are you going to do when these people come to you demanding the cancellation of someone's license? What exactly do you think is going to happen when you say no? You are going to have to say no to these complaints at some point or another, aren't you?

Is this a mess you really want to deal with?

Or what about the other side, the people who will get their licenses cancelled, or will have to go through the hardships of destroying work they believe in and have invested in? You don't think they're going to make noise? You don't think there will be a loud and active community to take their side? What do you do if the good and progressive thing to enforce is contrary to what the larger community thinks is OK?

Are classic conceptions of elves and dwarves and evil orcs and such evidence of white supremacy and bio-essentialism, or are they classic fantasy tropes that all should be able to employ?

You want to own the final say on that controversy?

I don't know what any potential morality clause in ORC would look like as far as administration and appeals processes, but the OGL 1.1 that leaked from Wizards of the Coast states that they have unilateral power to decide such things, but that they are open to being convinced they made a wrong choice based on "community pushback and bad PR." They're inviting twitter mobs to influence them.

Why would anyone think this is a good idea?

And it only gets more complicated the more you look at it.

A lack of diversity in a work is sometimes cited as racist, sexist, etc. all on its own. But writing outside your demographic can be considered insensitive or appropriation. You know this is a thing. And you know by implementing an inclusivity/morality clause, you are inviting people to use you to enforce their thinking on the matter. How much of this do you really think is your job to decide on, for everyone else?

How will your inclusivity clause work for statements or actions outside of the actual products? If someone says something against popular opinion on Twitter, if despicable statements five, ten, twenty years ago are unearthed, if someone takes a picture with a person deeply unpopular with much of the community... what are you going to do when people come to you with this proof of transgression against inclusivity and demand you do something with their license? How do you judge this? And again, is all the blowback from every individual judgment directed at you something that is productive for you to deal with?

What do you do if there's another competing license out there with an inclusivity clause, and they decide to enforce something that you've passed on. Do you want the publicity of not fighting racism etc. as well as your competitor? How do you navigate that without your hand being forced?

What about retroactivity? I'm going to give a ridiculous example but I'm sure you'll get my gist. Let's say some lauded RPG writer goes all Kanye West tomorrow. And they make part of their new Hitler-loving brand their little pet pug dog. Let's say that pugs become the new dogwhistle (if you will) for the bad people class because of it. Sure, you may want to police new instances of pug-related gaming material for your license... but what happens when people start complaining about prior pug material released under your license? Or released not under your license by someone now using your license? How are you going to enforce that, or not enforce that, with a minimum of uproar and headache?

We're starting to get ridiculous now, but the point is there are an infinite number of edge cases for people to get very invested in, and very invested in you, as license manager, being on their side. There is no way for you to maneuver through these controversies in a way that doesn't get their shit all over you. This is what inclusivity clauses will get you.

Again, even if you somehow perfectly craft and word it for today's cultural environment, the only constant about the cultural environment is that it changes.

Nevermind who exactly the person will be that is in charge of making these decisions. I would think nobody in their right mind would want that responsibility once all the edge cases show up in their inbox. And I wouldn't trust anyone who really wants the job.

Would you?

And then there's one final argument, the one that I think will be least sympathetic to the people putting these licenses together, but I think it is a useful practical argument.

Varg Vikernes is the perfect bogeyman for both gaming and heavy metal. He's not an edge case, there is no question that his views and his actions are reprehensible. Yet here he is, in the shadows of two scenes I care very much about. I'm afraid of taking up knitting for fear of finding out he's into it, ya know? But he's published a role-playing game. Can any of you say, off the top of your head, without looking it up, whether or not he used any sort of license in publishing his game? OGL, Creative Commons, Nazi Free-Use License, any damn thing. Do you know?

If you don't know if the actual worst verifiable example has used a license, what in the world is any of this about?

If he has used a license... how has that fact affected anyone? Anyone at all? Is anyone associating him right now with anyone that created or uses that license? Is anyone currently using the OGL somehow bound or associated with anyone else also using the OGL? I don't get the purpose of this at all.

If he hasn't used a license... well, how has that stopped him from doing exactly what he wants to do? Has any victory over racism or racists been won because he is using a different way of rolling the dice in his game than you use in yours? What exactly is trying to be accomplished through an inclusivity license?

So then, to wrap up, I will again state that I expect any inclusivity or moralities clauses will have no practical benefits for anyone implementing or using them, but they will create conflict and controversies.

Are these controversies being connected to your companies, having created these clauses, going to improve the performance of your businesses? Are they going to facilitate a welcoming atmosphere for potential new players or customers, or in convincing new publishers to use the license? Are they going to improve the quality of conversations online? 

Are these controversies going to do anything to protect the people these clauses are in place to protect in the first place?

I think the answer to all of these questions is no.

I think we should leave political and moral questions about creative content to the individual creators to navigate with the public, and not create choke points for some to enforce their views upon others.

Thank you for listening.

And now for a more personal note concerning all of this. This is pure speculation, more imagination, but imagination is what we are supposed to be doing around here, instead of... this license stuff. It isn't out of the realm of possibility that an OGL or potential ORC inclusivity or morals clause becomes widely adopted. What if it became the wide industry standard? Sort of the way ratings dominate the movie and video game industries.

In that way I'm sort of putting myself in the place of EC Comics right before the Comics Code took over. It's not good.

And... let me talk about this book (Blood in the Chocolate). It was released in December 2016, and in the summer of 2017 it won a gold Ennie award. A little ol' Lamentations of the Flame Princess publication won in a public vote over offerings from Chaosium, Pelgrane, and Green Ronin. Holy shit, right?

Three years later, another publisher refuses to enter the ennies because of this win, claiming it's all sorts of bad things. The author of the book even denounced his own award-winning creation. Just last week in January 2023 somebody described it as a Nazi entry point into the hobby. I still think of it the same way I did when it won the award.

You think you're doing the right thing. You think you're going to continue to do so, and you're going to have the good and popular responses to whatever comes.

Well good luck to you. Because I know how fast things can turn.

Be very careful what you set into legal stone.

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  1. One thing I might suggest: the ORC license could include a clause that that requests content shared be uncredited. So if, say, Paizo or any other creator were concerned that their SRD or other open content might be used for purposes they did not approve, they say that their open content must be credited anonymously. (Open content and whatever ORC calls product identity would still need to be differentiated, but your company was worried about your credited Open Content resulting in blow back when someone uses it to publish Slave Girls of Gore under the SRD, then you have a statement "X material is anonymous open content (AC) under ORC. You may use it freely but may not credit its source as other than AC." Or some such. I wonder if that might work?

  2. It's a sorry state of affairs when James has to be the voice of reason, but given his treatment by One Book Shelf / DriveThruRPG, he's probably the most qualified voice we have.

  3. "A lack of diversity in a work is sometimes cited as racist, sexist, etc. all on its own. But writing outside your demographic can be considered insensitive or appropriation. You know this is a thing. And you know by implementing an inclusivity/morality clause, you are inviting people to use you to enforce their thinking on the matter. How much of this do you really think is your job to decide on, for everyone else?"


  4. Artists and creators used to be the biggest opponents of censorship.

  5. It's my understanding ORC won't have a morality clause.

  6. I wish we could just get back to good ol gaming without people projecting their own insecurities and personal agendas into an imaginative realm of fiction. Talk about killing the hobby.

  7. If somebody wants to play a transgendered owlbear in a wheelchair, I'm all for it but dont say the hobby or a publisher isnt inclusive because they dont make it an available class. Power on James!!

  8. He's right, but Blood on the Chocolate was still both bad and transparently fetishy. I have no idea how THAT'S the LotFP adventure that won an award and not one of the many better ones.


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