Tuesday, December 28, 2010

On the End of Nerd Culture

I sell games for a living, but that’s not the only thing that gets sold in my store. Far from it, comic books outsell games on a nearly 3-1 basis, but we keep the games center chugging along because it is also making ridiculous amounts of coin for us. One of the things that I am constantly coming up against in comic book culture is “How much do you think this book will be worth in ten years?” My answer, always a disappointment to the customer, is “Cover price, more or less.” That’s because comic books aren’t collectible anymore. If someone tries to sell you a comic book because of it’s collectability, you should kick that person in the junk and burn his or her store down. That person is a jack-off.

Comic books were once collectible because they were rare. Printing used to cost a goddamn fortune. Printing a 22 page book in multiple colors in a huge print run every single month was basically impossible. You could do it, sure, but it was going to cost more than you would ever make back on the books you sold. Companies simply couldn’t afford to put out the insane amount of comic books we have available today because the technology involved was pretty cost prohibitive. The print run on Action Comics #1 was 200,000. That’s not a lot of books, not really. If you got one, you’d be one of a very small group of the population. Having the foresight to keep it in pristine condition would have been even more rare (why would you keep a funny-book looking nice?). So Action Comics #1 is one of the most valuable comic books ever printed.

The first issue of Spawn sold more than 1,700,000 copies, as a point of reference. With some pretty common computer knowledge and two free gigs of space on your hard drive, you can have it and 180 issues that came after it for free. Unless something big happens (and we’re talking big, here; Death of Superman big), the comics you buy this week won’t be worth more than you pay for them.

This same principle applies to all of the stuff I used to geek out about as a kid. Comics, Magic cards, Dungeons & Dragons, the works. Once upon a time, I couldn’t find D&D books to save my life. Comic shops didn’t carry much, game stores were few and far between. We’d have to drive three hours to buy books to feed my obsession with role-playing games. And it was an obsession. I couldn’t wait to get my grubby little paws on something anything D&D. I begged my parents for it, asked for it on Christmas and birthdays, borrowed the meager supplies in the local library. I hungered for more, but it was scarce, and so I treasured every morsel of goodness I could wring from the resources I could find.

If I were to give you a zero dollar budget and a fast internet connection, and gave you a mission: “Find me D&D books!” how many D&D books could you find? All of them? All of the D&D books ever published? Yeah. You could. I spent some time as a pirate, and it’s only gotten easier as the years have trudged on. This is a concept I was introduced to (nearly word for word) via this: a cracked article that doesn't really get the point. The basic idea is that we are living in an era in which all of the information that has ever been dedicated to digital media, be it text or pictures or sound or video or whatever else we come up with in the next few years, is available to you for free if you know how to get it. This is nothing new to me, and isn’t new to anyone who has ever downloaded a song without paying for it. Hell, the web is deep and uncharted, and we have had sites devoted to making you better at finding things on the internet since the internet became a thing.

So we have cheaper printing now. That makes your comics cheaper to buy. You can get your comics for free if you want them. Stealing is cheap as free. You never need hunger for comics again. Hooray!


Well, maybe not so much. See, part of nerd culture is about scarcity. Living in a post-scarcity world means living in a post-nerd-culture world. My jonesing for D&D books can be sated at a whim, now, if I want it to be, which means that I don’t need to wring every drop of value I can from them between now and my next trip to the game store. I’m not as involved. The minutia is less important. I geek over it less, because I have immediate and constant access to it whenever I want. And that, unfortunately, makes me less of a geek.

Patton Oswalt wrote a thing that got published today. Or maybe it got published on a different day, but I’m only seeing it today. He talks about how the things we used to jones for are readily available, and that it’s leading to a corrosion of nerd culture. It used to be that we needed to wait for our injections of nerd culture. They only came at intervals, and the cruel expanses of time between hits was when we would sit around being nerds about it. We recited Monty Python quotes while we weren’t watching Monty Python, because we weren’t watching Monty Python, and we wished we had access to more of it. If there had been a 24/7 Monty Python channel back in the 1990s, I don’t think I would have been half as into it.

Now, I fire up my YouTube, and I have as much Monty Python as my little brain can handle. I haven’t watched Monty Python on YouTube for a very long time, and I only realized it as I was typing that sentence. This is what Mr. Oswalt is talking about, the idea that when we have a glut of pop culture, we value it less, we geek on it less, and so the “culture” part of it lessens. Instead, we have a revolving door of memes to keep us occupied, and when we’ve had our fill of one, another will take its place.

Mr. Oswalt suggests that this will result in us having access to Everything That Ever Was – Available Forever. At some point, we’re going to have every pop culture thing that has ever existed available to us all at once. All of pop culture, at your fingertips. And it is his suggestion that this will engender a breakdown of pop culture in its entirety, that pop culture (and by proxy nerd culture) will implode under the weight of it’s own availability.

I understand that Mr. Oswalt is a comedian by profession, and I will assume that his apocalyptic notion of a pop-culture meltdown is mostly hyperbole. But he raises some interesting points regarding the nature of nerdity that I think merit further discussion. I mean, in a world where I can download every episode of the Thundercats, how do I value the time I spent yearning for Saturdays so I could catch up with Lion-O and his faithful followers and friends? Having done it, I can honestly say that repeating the experience didn’t live up to my nostalgia’s expectations of it. Is that just because the Thundercats actually sucked, and I remembered them being great because I was a little kid? Or is it because having immediate access to this thing I once had meted out to me in spoonfuls made the experience somehow less intoxicating? Perhaps a mixture of the two? I don’t know.

I don’t think that pop culture is going to implode. I think it’s changing, evolving into something very different from what it once was. I think that the concept of “pop culture” is a modern one, but we don’t live in a modern world anymore. We live in a post-post(post?)modern world, a world in which ideas and information are constantly and consistently available to us with the click of a few buttons. This is not a world in which geekery can survive, honestly. Where there is no scarcity, there is no yearning, and where there is no yearning, there is no nerd.

That isn’t to say there won’t still be outcasts and weirdos out there, with fascinations and hobbies beyond the ken of our ONE and ZERO. The way I figure it, the outcasts will be the ones doing things. They’ll be the people who are putting cars together, not because they have any special love for driving, but because they capture that yearning between “I need this part,” and “Woo! I got that part I was waiting for!” They will be the people who go hiking, not because they want to be at the top of a mountain, but because they want to desire being at the top of a mountain, and because getting to the top of a mountain can’t be done at light speed. There are preparations involved, waiting for the right time, the right conditions, before you can even think about getting to the top of that mountain. That is where the last vestiges of nerdity will live, in the things you actually need to wait for, the things you can’t have right away.

At least, until someone invents the Transporter and the Replicator. Then we’re all fucked.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Being a Dick, 101

Siobhan came to me with a problem a few weeks back that I thought I had a pretty elegant solution for. One of her players, in a session, wanted to hide the somatic component of a spell in Pathfinder. That player’s character doesn’t have Still Spell, which is the normal way one gets around such pesky business, but instead wanted to fake it. He was suggesting a Stealth skill check, but I figure Sleight of Hand works a little better, as you’re trying to hide what it is your hands are doing.

In my own games, this would normally be accompanied by a few other rolls. See, I like to reward my players for doing stuff that rocks. You want to jump off a cliff spinning like a maniac, tossing grenades around yourself before landing on the giant’s eye, plunging your sword deep into his hideous cornea? Fucking sweet, here’s your plus five Sweet Shit bonus, and a small round of applause. You, sir or madam, are a goddamned hero. But when you want to do stuff that eschews heroism for the sake of your own hit points, you’re probably just being a scaredy douche. Too much of that sort of play, and any time you do want to do something awesome and heroic, you’re going to have to make a check against your own fear, Chicken-person.

Still, done is done. Dude wanted to roll a stealth check to hide his invisibility spell, and Siobhan let him after some arguing. Normally, I’d just leave it at that. Whenever I have a rules question at my own table and I don’t know the answer, or the answer is vague (as so often happens with role-playing games), I’ll declare “It’ll work like this for now, but we’ll look up the real rules after the game.” Then we look up the real rules after the game and decide what we’re going to do from there. But this guy decided that being able to hide his silent spell without the benefit of a feat wasn’t good enough. He figured he’d be able to get the spell off before initiative.

Or, at least, he figures that combat doesn’t start until after he’s flung his spell. Pathfinder is deliciously vague as to when a group should roll initiative. “When combat begins…” seems like it would be good enough, but when some guy is prepping a Fireball spell that can take out half my village, is that the beginning of combat? Or does it have to be after he’s actually cast the damned thing? Because I don’t know about you, when I see someone getting ready to cast a spell, I get a little uppity.

Now, I don’t know if these two arguments are related, but for the sake of a fluid argument, let’s assume they are. “I don’t want to have to take Still Spell to change the somatic component of my spell, and I think I should be able to cast that spell before initiative starts. Basically, I want to start every combat with Invisibility on.” This sort of douchery breaks games.

So just outlaw it. When people are being dickbags about vague rules, don’t let them. Hell, when people are being dickbags, punish them for it. Don’t let them get away with that sort of shit. You’re the DM. You are the final arbiter of all rules questions. The books do not supersede your rulings. Your players sure as shit don’t supersede your rulings. Gaaahhh!

Anyway. Siobhan’s a nice girl. She doesn’t want to have to retcon the little insta-invisibility from the game, and she doesn’t want to be unduly mean to one of her players, and I totally get that. She was looking for a different solution. This is what I came up with:

No one can cast spells from behind their back. Seriously. The somatic components of spells are set in stone; they are the way they are so that you can channel the arcane energy you’re calling forth and shape it into the spell you’re looking to create. When you try and do that backwards, you are probably going to fuck it up. I mean, your fingers aren’t even in the same places they should be. So to cast a spell behind your back is a hell of a thing. If anyone saw you do that, there would be talk. Rumors. Heresay. If a wizard saw you do that, there would be some ruckus, inquisition, questions to the highest powers of magic in the realm. Which is pretty much exactly what has happened.

Mr. McWizard had an audience, tossing his spells around from behind his back, and in that audience was a wizard. No one hugely powerful, no one you’d need to concern yourself with. But he’s talked. And the people he’s talked to have talked. And the people they’ve talked to have brought questions to some very powerful creatures, the most prominent of which is an ancient silver dragon called Grougaloragran (I stole the name from Wakfu; go watch it, it’s amazing). Grougaloragran is something of a geek. He collects things. In particular, he collects magical oddities, the sorts of things that just should not exist. He likes to figure out how they work. He wants to know how to do what they do. Think of him as the Sylar of the D&D world. He wants to cut open your brain and figure out what makes you tick. Grougaloragran is now very, very interested in Mr. McWizard, and wants the young (level five) dude to teach him how it works. Commence ridiculous skill-challenge with insanely high DCs.

Now, Grougaloragran is unimpressed. He came a really long way to find this young man, and he has turned out to be such a disappointment. He may just have to eat the little blighter… But wait! Maybe there’s a better use for tenacious young prodigies like Mr. McWizard. Maybe, instead of having to go and fetch the magical oddities himself, Grougaloragran will send this horribly disappointing little douche to do the work for him. And if he won’t, well, I guess Grougaloragran might just eat him after all…

The best way to deal with dicks at your table is to be a dick back. Don’t let your players get away with shit like this. Shut them down when they come up with ways to do things that rely on niggly little rules vagaries. Or, let them get away with it, but only if the NPCs get to do it, too. Or, worst case scenario, let them know they’re being unreasonable by getting unreasonable with them. Is a level 35 silver dragon too intense for such a low-level character to deal with? Well, a wizard who can cast his spells behind his back before initiative starts is a touch too intense for such a low-level campaign…