Now More Than Ever, The Role-Playing Game Community Needs Its Harlan Ellison
My interweb buddy Rob Schwalb, author of the fantasy game Shadow of the Demon Lord made a salient point over on Facebook. To paraphrase, he said "pay what you like" is bullshit, to value your work. I agree, and I was motivated to quote Harlan Ellison who wrote (and stated) "Pay the God-rammed writer!". And, of course, Ellison is right. Whether it's twenty five people, twenty-five hundred people or twenty-five thousand people, if you have an audience willing to pay you should get paid.
But this isn't just about my opinion or agreement with Rob Schwalb, or Harlan Ellison. I thought about Ellison's perspectives on writing, what it is to work in an industry that is fundamentally a con game, within (we make up books about elves and dragons), and without: we do what we do convinced that we're making a huge mark on the hobby, that we might be the Next Hot Thing.
Now Ellison is one of those people you either love or hate but regardless of which it is, when he talks about writing, about the business of writing, of the ins and outs of the whole Damn mess of turning fanciful things into your bread and butter, Ellison is almost always fundamentally correct: Google his "pay the writer" piece. Especially if you do write. If you write, you fucking well deserve to be paid for it.
Words with sharp teeth, from the documentary Dreams With Sharp Teeth.
You may hate Ellison personally; the man surrounds himself with controversy, and for all I know Ellison hates Role-Playing Games, but when you read that, and most anything else he has to say about "the business", he's right.
So to bring this back around...if you think about it, our hobby and our hobby-as-business needs its Harlan Ellison, and we don't have it. It's not me, God no that's not where I'm going. But this mess of elfgames and let's pretend needs someone to come along and succinctly remind us not when we're taking ourselves too seriously but rather when we're not taking ourselves seriously enough.
Our hobby is beset by pearl clutching Carrie Nation types who're cut from the same cloth as the PMRC in the 80s and BADD in the 70s, except they're disguised as righters of social wrongs. Catpissmen of the same ilk who threw vomit on Ellison's pal perennial nice guy of the sf lit world Alan Dean Foster run amok (and always have: look at the letters section in any RPG magazine of note and compare with the letters section from SF publications; they're virtually identical in tone in many cases of the more irate), publishers who'd rob you blind while your eyes were shut, and their fellow-travelers, the folksy aw-shucks-we-were-just-making-up-games types who act as though they're entitled to prostrate throngs of worshipers.
Our hobby desperately needs someone to step forward and grab us by the collar and shake us both as fans and especially as creators. Until we're willing to step forward and lean into that backhanded slap that only someone who has the balls to say "No, I won't appear on a special comments section of a DVD for free," or, rather, with our hobby "No, I won't consult on your RPG product for free just because I post on a forum a lot." or "No, I won't release a module for free just because whatever your justification that you should have it for free from me is." then we're stuck, permanently, grousing at each other on webforums, paying $2 for 50000 words, and accepting the nth Edition of The Biggest RPG every six years whether we want or not.
And one last note I would make...whomever wants to step forward and say "It's me, it's me! I'm the messiah you seek! I'm the Ellison! The RPG hobby's Hunter S. Thompson! It's me!" should be studiously ignored. As I said, it's certainly not me, and I'm not offering up any candidates. If, God willing, we get someone smart enough, acid enough, someone willing to step up and call us all out on our bullshit, we'll know who it is. It'll feel right. It'll sound right. I hope it happens soon, and if we don't have the guts to listen then we'll get the embarrassing slide into obscurity we'll so richly deserve at that point.