Critique and Review and Workshop

Critique and Review and Workshop

May 29, 2023

Or, Critiquing the Critical Review Scene in TTRPG, a Workshop Protocol #

Lord help me. #

I’m going to blame it on one literary criticism course I took nigh-on twenty years ago, but as discussions and feelings swirl around the topic of building a culture of critique into the small-press and independent tabletop role playing game community, a thing I see consistently cropping up in the discussion is a misunderstanding between the reviewer and the reviewed (and, usually, the review reader) due to a lack of shared context. What I remember from that course is: to critically read a text, you’ve gotta be reading it in the context of something and that backdrop should be crystal clear. Am I reading it from a historical and colonial perspective? Am I applying a feminist critique? Am I assessing an Asteriskpunk book for markers of the genre? And if the genre is “punk,” which era? Which continent? Which comparison points? This stuff is important as table setting so the critic, the author, and the reader are meeting each other in the same context, even if that context isn’t one the original author intended.

“Hey Jason, you boysenberry,” I imagine a straw-person saying. “That ivory tower foofaraw is all well and good, but what about an objective review?” I have thoughts on three of the words in your question, dear straw-dude, but I think this is another complication in the conversation. A review, a plain-language description of a given text, is a similar but different thing to the kind of criticism described above. One thinks about a movie or music or game or restaurant review, where there’s less of a focus on the historical context of eggplant parmesan and more of a focus on how good it is. Now, you don’t need me to tell you that objectivity is a sham, and anyone writing a review is bringing in their own biases and comparisons and lived experiences. At some point, the good-ness of the eggplant parm is going to be matched against the one the reviewer had in Emilia-Romagna or in Fort Worth or in mom’s kitchen or in their head after seeing it on the menu. The context exists, but it doesn’t always make it to the page, leaving the review reader and the author of the original text to try to figure it out if they can and maybe wonder how the reviewer could have gotten it so wrong.

What am I doing nobody needs this. #

To move away from theoretical eggplants and half-remembered upper-division English classes, there are ways for both of these sorts of textual analysis more consistently into the world of TTRPG secondary texts. And that’s just, like, say where you’re coming from. Accept your positionality. Acknowledge that you’re taking part in a conversation and yours is not the only voice. There is room to write a criticism of a text that is insensitive or misguided: cite your sources and provide as much context as you can. And unless you have reason to believe otherwise (i.e. textual evidence, even if it’s tenuously implied!) try to not assume ill-intentions. And then write all of that in your critique. If you can establish where you’re coming from, that should help remove confusion and avoid hurt feelings (at least a little; as writers and artists, we can often have an abundance of them).

This can provide an opening for contextual reviews in a way we don’t often see. I am emphatically not a solo gamer, but could I see value in a blog that exclusively reviews texts based on their soloability? Hell yeah. There’s a world of difference between a review of “this text is not soloable” and “this is how this text works when used for a solo game.” In the former, the hidden context is the reviewer wanted it to be soloable. In the latter, the clear context is the reviewer is applying a solo-game framework to a text where that may or may not have been the original intent. In the former, the author might think: “Well, um… It wasn’t supposed to be?” In the latter, the author might think, “That’s not what I intended, but it’s interesting they tried to use my work in a different way.” The former is a dead end, as useful as “there’s too much whitespace.” The latter is a conversation, and one which could find major purchase in a large scene of soloists (cite this blog if this term takes off, please). Let’s see transformative reviews that apply new contexts to existing works!

I shouldn’t still be typing. #

Somewhere else in there is a little bit of, “Why isn’t my work getting reviewed or critiqued?” It should be a major creative undertaking to conduct a thoughtful review or critique, but still, releasing something into the void, watching the community copies disappear, and getting back a handful of five-star (but textless) reviews can feel like a backhanded compliment. I recently took part in the Deepest Valley “Secret Savage” review-swap experiment, wherein writers were asked to submit finished pieces of work and then anonymously identify flaws and oversights in someone else’s. It was neat, and I appreciate where Casper is coming from, but is this a review? Is it a critique? The experience felt, to me, much more like a workshop.

Even further back than the criticism course, I took part in a creative writing workshop class. For each of three projects, we distributed copies of our work to everyone in the class, everyone wrote anonymous notes to everyone else, and then we discussed it in person. If one wanted to keep their thoughts anonymous, they could, or they could turn it into a live conversation. The very best part was when it was our turn to receive feedback, we just had to listen. No interjections, no clarifications, nothing. Our work was what our classmates were interacting with our work, not with us directly, and that work had to (for a time) stand on its own. We could chime in at the end to say “Thanks!” or to ask for clarification, but otherwise we were observers. In the recent review exchange, I felt this aspect of it, but what I missed was the conversation and the opportunity for follow-up. Also, can we maybe lose the word “savage?”

I was assigned a text designed for solo play, and did my best to look at it from a soloist perspective, but because I was anonymous and just reviewing “the text” my positionality was erased. Having a room of people to bounce individuality off of, to triangulate a bigger picture than any one of us could draw: this is something that doesn’t exist (formally) in the scene. There are plenty of ad hoc groups of friends and collaborators, there are editors-for-hire, and there are spaces on discord servers where work can be put on display for feedback, but these all miss a sense of established good-faith standards. This would take a ton of work on the part of a facilitator (or, really, a group of them), but I got more insight out of that one semester of workshopping than I have in any review since. Anyone game?

Shameless. #

I think one reason people want to see their work reviewed is visibility. Even a bad review drives people to the work, at least a little (well, aside from the time I was ten-foot-poled, but that’s between me and my therapist). So how about a little visibility?

I just started a Big Cartel storefront for the little zines and things I have printed from time to time. Right now, the only thing in the shop is my Bastards. edition of THE DUNGEON NEAR THE SHADOW, but you shouldn’t let that stop you from checking it out! Right now, this is the only spot to buy a copy in the US, but it’s coming soon to Monkey’s Paw Games, if you’re more Canadianly inclined.