Satire ridicules. It debases its target’s staid and serious nature, shows the buffoonish or contemptible side of the lofty and mighty, drags the idealized down from its heights and back to earth with the rest of us.
But satire isn’t pure invective. It requires an element of humor, even if its humor is so tongue-in-cheek that you can blink and miss it.
Dog Eat Dog, for example, is invective in its political theme and ironic in its tone, but it is serious and not satirical. Like a satire, it attacks ideology, but it does so directly rather than through the funhouse mirror of derisive humor.
This post examines three self-reflexive satires—games and game-adjacent materials that target the design of and the culture around The Dragon Game. All three focus on figuratively and literally “cutting down” this megalithic structure so we can gain some perspective on it and its influence.
Here Is Some Fucking D&D
Christopher Green, et al
“I love gaming at bars and micro RPGs work well in that setting. Unfortunately, I never really found a micro RPG that had the crunch vs. simplicity mix just right. Then a few years ago I came across HSFD&D. … I rebuilt the fucker in InDesign and fixed the shit that bugged me.”Christopher Green
HISFD&D exemplifies the indie-DIY approach of hacking a system to eliminate the bits you don’t like and generally build a better gaming experience. As the designer’s statement of purpose says, this micro-system strips The Dragon Game down to its high-fantasy foundation and then rebuilds it using light mechanics for bricks and a whole lot of fuckwords for mortar.
The text is strongly reminiscent of South Park’s first season, which satirized wholesome and sentimental depictions of childhood such as Peanuts. At its inception, South Park traded heavily on filthy language and general ribaldry. Was it particularly sophisticated? No. Was it fun? Hell yeah. (Well, middle-school me thought so.)
Is HISFD&D fun? I don’t know. I haven’t played it. I’m a busy man. But I have read it a few times, and each time, it still delivers plenty of big laughs. The humor comes from its approach of taking a game that that strives to be as whitebread as possible so it can capture (well, retain) a supermajority market share, and then twisting the presentation in the opposite direction with snark, profanity, and your-mom jokes. Perfect for a night at the bar.
Sigma Bandits sets its (their?) sights not on D&D but on indie gamer culture’s reaction to D&D as a colonialist fantasy rooted in (as the designer puts it in an unrelated blog post) the “endless pursuit of dungeons to fuck.”
It’s not hard to see (and perhaps hard to not see) colonialist patterns in D&D, especially in its earliest and simplest “gilded hole” iteration: find a dungeon full of monsters (exploitable others) and murder them so you can steal their treasure (material wealth and resources).
The designer explains in a thread how the community has reacted against this pattern by adopting an outlaw ethos of stealing from The Dragon Game and redeploying what they pilfer to different ends. But in so doing, she argues, they’re only engaging in a faux anti-capitalist struggle that substitutes a petit bourgeois fantasy for the colonialist one without excising the latter.
Well, why not give the people the fantasy they want? Sigma Bandits encourages us to play by our own rules. In fact, it refuses to provide any rules for us to abide by, which would (in both cases) be totally un-Sigma.
Sigma bandits buck the system—but that means they still need a system to buck. Luckily, the unholy abundance of community copies gives us all carte blanche to be punk as fuck and rebel against the market by taking a free copy … just like everyone else. And once we’ve done so, Sigma Bandits consistently reassures us of how cool we are.
Actually, that’s pretty much all the booklet does. The only mechanical component is a table replacing clerics’ ability to turn undead with the ability to shoot sunshine out of our assholes.
Well played, Sigma Bandit Prime. Well played.
A Dragon Game
Chris Bissette (Loot the Room)
This isn’t The Dragon Game. It’s just A Dragon Game. But it may be the only Dragon Game you really need.
Whereas HISFD&D and Sigma Bandits wear their satire on their sleeves, A Dragon Game wears its satire in its title. Beyond that, its approach is more subtle. But this subtlety in no way detracts from its argument’s force.
To illustrate: there is no Combat section in this ruleset. There is, however, a Violence section reminding us that our characters are little more than easily bled meat. The departure from common rulebook nomenclature, coupled with the bluntly graphic description, implicitly call out The Dragon Game as much for whitewashing violence as “combat” as for normalizing it as a primary problem-solving technique.
In The Dragon Game—any edition—combat mechanics constitute a substantial, even focal portion of the ruleset. In A Dragon Game, they do not. In fact, nothing is particularly hefty or cumbersome. The Race and Class sections together fit on a single page (and are clever jabs in their own rights). Only the magic system takes up two pages; every other segment is presented on less than one.
A Dragon Game’s liberal, even austere layouts emphasize its focus on concision and clarity. Lush illustration, elaborate trade dress, flavor text, examples of play—none of these are intrinsic to rulebooks any more than elaborate mechanics are necessary for well-designed systems. A Dragon Game’s visual presentation serves to re-emphasize its fundamental argument: look how simple and clean this can all be.
But the crown jewel of A Dragon Game’s critique is its suggested price: $5.55. Triple fives, one for each of the three core 5e books. The act of purchase—an almost universally peripheral concern detached from games themselves—participates in A Dragon Game’s satire by reminding us how much money we’re saving in comparison.
And in so doing, it also foreshadows how much time we’ll save by playing A Dragon Game instead of doing the math homework and taking the deep dives into rules we’d be forced to endure if we were playing The Dragon Game.
Satire doesn’t poke fun at its target just for the sake of laughs. It is always goal oriented, seeking to incite some kind of change.
While most satire can only facilitate change, ludic satire can take its mission a step further. Because HISFD&D, Sigma Bandits, and A Dragon Game are all self-reflexive—taking game mechanics and culture as the targets of satire deployed through game materials—they’re actually able to implement change.
HISFD&D’s attitude isn’t antagonistic so much as it is “fuck it”—the verbiage is right there in the title, after all, and pervasive in the text. That text, though, still addresses its target problem by providing a light, playable ruleset that substantively and stylistically fits the intended festive atmosphere of play.
Sigma Bandits is more overtly antagonistic but takes a similar, explicit approach, and the “fuck it” attitude extends beyond the style and into the substance where it actually (purposefully) occludes any real playability. This covertly solves the problem it satirizes by removing the structure through which the eponymous in-game banditry could occur, thereby underscoring its own pointlessness and implicitly transferring that pointlessness back onto the object of its critique.
A Dragon Game, like HISFD&D, directly implements change in the form of a playable system. This game has, as of the time this post was written, been distributed only digitally, but it’s meant to be played analog. Its target, on the other hand, purports to be an analog game but has moved into the digital realm because hypermedial implementation is the best solution to managing its complexity—short of, you know, actually revising it to be more user friendly.
We all know that’s not going to happen. Why not give your energy and money to better games instead? At the very least, go steal them.
Have you played—or written—a satirical game? Tell me about it, and maybe I’ll do a follow up post.