DriveThru RPG and the Death of Creativity; or Why Censorship is Bad

This is a long one. As such, I don’t expect it will get read by anyone born this millennium; so for those of short attention span: TLDR: I hate double standards.

Although I can’t believe anyone who reads this blog wouldn’t know this already, DriveThruRPG is one of several sites (through the parent company of OneBookShelf, Inc., or OBS) that make up a huge archive of downloadable and print-on-demand RPGs, miniature games and game aids. In addition to hosting the DM’s Guild (for all things Dungeons & Dragons) the Storyteller Vault (for all World of Darkness stuff), and Wargames Vault (for miniature wargames), DriveThruRPG allows anyone to create, market, publish and sell their own games, and/or in many cases (such as through the Miskatonic Repository) create content for established games, subject to licensing restrictions. Many, many independent creators use DTRPG to market and sell their work, and many of the most creative people in the industry rely on it to make a living. I shop there quite often.

Without question, OBS has a monopoly on electronic RPG sales and distribution. This makes them extremely powerful. Last week, DriveThruRPG has released some new product standards and publisher conduct requirements, and boy, do they suck. These new standards and practices will severely curtail creativity and will almost certainly result in many creators having their content edited, restricted or outright de-platformed based upon vague requirements put in place specifically to limit the use of the site by creators DTRPG doesn’t like. Take a look:

Neither your Work, description, nor any promotional material, including blog posts or press releases, may contain racist, homophobic, discriminatory, or other repugnant views; overt political agendas or views; depictions or descriptions of criminal violence against children; rape or other acts of criminal perversion; or other obscene material without the express written permission of OneBookShelf.

You may be thinking: sounds good! I dislike all those things! They have no place in our hobby! Right? Sure, on the surface. But think about it. Those are some pretty fucking vague product standards. What are “other repugnant views?” What is “other obscene material?” What is the definition of obscene and/or repugnant, and most of all, who decides what meets this criteria?

What if I want to make a US Civil War RPG, or even an adventure for any game that is set during the Civil War? How do I avoid “overt political agendas or views” in that work? How about racism? What about if I set it during the civil rights era? Or the Crusades? I would think racism would be a topic that would figure prominently in those settings. Can my pulp adventure have a Nazi villain? If a gay NPC gets murdered in my Call of Cthulhu investigation, is that homophobic? What about if a kid gets bullied in one of my games? Is that criminal violence against children? Apparently, I need written permission from OBS to even consider including any of these if I hope to sell on their site (which, again, is the only game in town); and I can’t even talk about it on MY OWN FUCKING BLOG.

It gets better:

Hostile Marketing: Our policy regarding potentially offensive content (see Product Standards Guidelines) reported by customers is to deactivate such titles while they are being reviewed. Publishers who deliberately court controversy by making public declarations or accusations of censorship resulting from this process in order to draw attention to their products will be considered to use hostile marketing. 

Publishers who direct or support public accusations of impropriety or censorship toward OneBookShelf when their controversial titles are rejected or removed from our marketplace will also be considered to use hostile marketing. 

This behavior will not be tolerated. We have adopted a strict one-warning policy for those who engage in hostile marketing: The first incident will prompt a warning, and after a second incident, their accounts will be removed from our site permanently and immediately.

In other words, if DTRPG pulls your stuff for review after “reports by customers”, you can’t complain about it publicly. If DTRPG bans your stuff, you can’t tell anyone about it or bitch that it’s unfair, because doing so might draw increased interest to your product, and DTRPG doesn’t want that because they think it’s bad and they don’t want you to sell it. If you think DTRPG’s policies about censorship and their arbitrary enforcement and definition of same are unfair, shut the fuck up and take it; because if you talk about it on DTRPG or anywhere else, like on your personal blog, YouTube channel or Facebook page, they’ll warn you once and then you’re out on your ass. You are officially de-platformed.

Let’s apply an example with DTRPG’s new guidelines in mind. DTRPG makes mention of “potentially offensive content reported by customers”. Let’s say I write an adventure that someone doesn’t like because it contains something they find offensive. Or, better yet: let’s say I write an adventure, and someone who doesn’t like ME (hard to believe, right?) for whatever reason (maybe I fucked their mom) finds out about it. They complain to DTRPG and say my adventure contains “repugnant views”; so DTRPG pulls my adventure for review.

Here’s what happens next: While DTRPG is reviewing my product for undefined “repugnant views”, it’s not available on the site, and it’s not getting sold. If this is in the first week of release, this probably has a catastrophic effect on my profits (most products on DTRPG sell most during their first week of release, when they’re still considered “new”), regardless of whether or not DTRPG eventually decides that it contains “repugnant views” or not. So, that sourcebook or adventure or game I spent the last 6 months or two years or decade writing might turn into wasted time and no money.

DTRPG supposedly reviews it. I have looked, but I can’t find anything anywhere about how long this takes or whether they even have to look it over in a timely manner; so I guess it takes as long as it takes. In the meantime, I can’t complain publicly about how my product was pulled or publicly question why it was pulled. I can’t protest that I’m being targeted or that DTRPG is censoring my content. I can’t even use the fact that it was pulled or rejected as a mark of infamy (i.e. “Banned from DTRPG!”; bad publicity is still publicity) to drive sales elsewhere (even if I’m selling it ON MY OWN SITE). I have to shut the fuck up and take it, or risk being de-platformed forever from the only real market in town.

Quick reminder: this decision is based on feedback as “reported by customers.” Well, let’s imagine for a moment that people are assholes, and that they do asshole things like abuse social media to review-bomb a product and/or service because they dislike the person who owns it or who is responsible for its creation. Never heard of this? Go visit Yelp and take a look around for a few minutes. I’ll wait.

These policies were allegedly created in response to a creator named Venger Satanis, who apparently espouses some right-wing stuff in his work (like anti-abortion views) and supposedly often complains about DTRPG censorship as a way to promote his material (or as DTRPG calls it, engages in “hostile marketing”). Despite him having some degree of fame in the hobby community (certainly more than what little fame I have), I am not familiar with Venger Satanis, nor do I give the smallest shit about his viewpoint on anything; but the brass at OBS seems to lean pretty far left, and thus these “anti-repugnant” policies have supposedly been enacted due, at least in part, to his purported chicanery.

Regardless, this is censorship, plain and simple; and whether Venger Satanis is guilty of what they claim or not, it affects more than just him. It affects every creator (though not equally, see below); but it’s aimed squarely at “problem” creators (like Venger Satanis) and people who write what they want, who don’t feel like they need to hold your hand if you’re an adult and who defend the right of others to do the same; guys like James Edward Raggi IV (Lamentations of the Flame Princess) and “Grim Jim” Desborough (PostMortem Studios), to name but two. Both of these guys recently and immediately took a public stand against these policies, both have a lot to lose by doing so (since criticizing DTRPG publicly is now against the rules), and both have my support and admiration (whatever that’s worth) for standing up and saying that this is bullshit, even at the risk of being excluded entirely from the DTRPG market.

Book-banning and limiting free speech has traditionally been the domain of right-wing, often evangelical assholes (at least for most of my life), but the pendulum has well and truly swung. How about that double standard? Here’s an example that’s getting a lot of traction at the moment. Thirsty Sword Lesbians is a newish game published by Evil Hat Games (creators of Blades in the Dark) about thirsty sword lesbians; and they unequivocally and unapologetically state in their book that there is no such thing as an apolitical game. I certainly agree. All games push an agenda to some extent. It sure seems like the folks at Black Hat are promoting overt political views through this game, and not the conservative, evangelical kind. But it seems they don’t have anything to fear from OBS. No one is censoring Thirsty Sword Lesbians. Why the fuck not? OBS’s new standards state clearly that any work must be free from overt political beliefs or views, and this game isn’t hiding its agenda at all. What would they say if OBS told them they COULDN’T sell Thirsty Sword Lesbians on DTRPG? I’m betting they wouldn’t be happy, and they’d likely rail against the censorship. Guess some overt political views are ok, though. Since OBS’s policy is so fucking vague, make sure to ask their permission first to make sure you hold the right ones.

Evil Hat Games goes on to say that if you don’t like their politics, don’t buy their games. Once again, I agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment. This is exactly how I would handle material made by creators who espouse beliefs I find repugnant, or people I can’t abide. I won’t support them by turning my money into their money. But I am not in favor of censoring them–that’s someone else deciding for me.

To be clear, I’m not calling for anyone to censor Thirsty Sword Lesbians. This is not an indictment or criticism of that particular game (I’ve never played it, so how can I criticize it?) or its creators, or their agenda. I won’t buy that game (or games like Monster Hearts, Tales of Equestria or Mouse Guard) because I have zero interest in playing it; not because I disagree with Evil Hat’s political views. I have nothing against lesbians, be they of the thirsty sword variety or otherwise, but neither am I interested in roleplaying a swashbuckling lesbian. I don’t disagree with Evil Hat’s political views, I disagree with OBS’s selective enforcement of their own rules to promote a one-sided agenda and exclude creators who may not agree with it.

I am all for the creation and development of independent and small press games. I think it’s a good thing that diversity, inclusion and BiPOC and LGBTQ issues (and players) are enjoying more and better representation in our shared hobby. It’s long overdue; and I should know, because I’m fucking old; but even if I disagreed with the political views of the game’s creators (which, one again, I don’t), it doesn’t mean I think the game should be censored. Who the fuck am I to say that?

Here’s what I think should be censored: anything defined as illegal; and anything that spreads misinformation that is a clear danger to society, like saying that bleach injections are a good way to fight COVID and not an absolutely certain way to kill yourself. That’s clear. That’s not vague or arbitrary. That consideration should go both ways; but that overt double standard is there, and it is hypocritical, as all double standards are. (Certain people have been trying to run Lamentations of the Flame Princess out of business for years, using actual hostile marketing, not that bullshit DTRPG defines as hostile marketing; but that’s another story that you can look up, if you want.)

Like I said, I don’t know Venger Satanis or his work; but if he’s really that far to the right in his views I likely have nothing in common with him other than the fact that we both play games. Just because I’m liberal-minded doesn’t mean I think only those of like mind should have the right to publish creative works that must reflect similar views; and just because DTRPG seems to lean the same way I do doesn’t make what they’re doing right. Censorship is the death of creativity, and arbitrary censorship is the nail in the coffin; which is something I said in a recent YouTube comment and something I firmly believe.

Would saying these things get me banned over at DTRPG? Maybe so, because someone will be offended that, although I’m supportive of “their” cause, I’m not supportive enough. Yeah, I consider myself pretty liberal; but there are fucking limits. Just because all orcs are evil in my D&D game doesn’t mean I’m a racist. That’s the stupidest fucking thing I’ve ever heard. Why? Because, at the risk of offending orcs everywhere, orcs don’t actually exist. I don’t equate fictional monsters with real-life racial groups, because THAT would be racist. Just because I would rather play Lamentations of the Flame Princess than Monster Hearts doesn’t make me anti-queer; it means I like OSR games and don’t particularly like Powered by the Apocalypse games; and that I’d rather play a gritty character like Solomon Kane than play an angst-ridden, sexually-conflicted teenager who has no control over who or what turns him on (and no, that’s not an ignorant stereotype of queer people, that’s an actual fucking game mechanic in Monster Hearts). Just because I don’t find men (other than Roger) sexually attractive does not make me homophobic, it makes me (mostly) heterosexual.

I lean pretty far to the left, sure; but everything is so polarized nowadays, you are the enemy unless you are completely on-board with someone’s viewpoint, regardless of any other common ground you may share. Example: after I posted this, a hobbyist whose work I (still) greatly admire sent me an immediate email in response. He said if I actually believe that stuff really happened as it was shown on TV, he couldn’t help me. He also said that because of my views he would never visit my blog again, despite, up until then, finding my blog entertaining and enjoying my work.

Naturally, I was devastated and cried for weeks. (Not really.) In truth, I got annoyed (it doesn’t take much) and thought: go fuck yourself, you pompous, patronizing asshole. I never asked for your help. Yes, I believe it really happened as it was shown on TV, because I have eyes. A year and a half later we’re finally having hearings about it and it was way worse than most people thought. Of course, you likely watch nothing but Fox News; so you probably don’t even know there are hearings going on. Pay attention instead to the slow death of sports due to transgender athletes and rail against the injustice of it all, because that’s the really important stuff. (And yes, because someone out there will be offended because they think that I think that transgender athletes are more important than the death of Democracy, that last sentence was fucking sarcasm.)

Sorry. Got off on a bit of a tangent there. That’s been simmering for a while. Of course, that guy doesn’t come here anymore, so he won’t see it. (Right.)

Anyway…folks may say that DTRPG is not a guaranteed free-speech forum, it’s a private company, and they can do whatever they want. They’re right. Just like Chick-fil-A and Hobby Lobby can (and do) support anti-LGBTQ legislation, as is their right. If you don’t like their politics (I sure don’t), don’t give them your money. There are other places to buy a fucking chicken sandwich and a box of crayons. In this case, though, OBS is pretty much the only game in town if you want electronic distribution for your gaming product, or if you want to buy digital RPG content. There’s no significant competitor, and they are a site whose entire business model is based upon soliciting the creativity of gamers and game designers. Now they’re saying “feel free to create, but only create what we’re ok with. We won’t concretely define what that is, so ask us first to make sure it’s ok. Make sure you don’t offend us, and God forbid you complain about us anywhere.”

They can do that, because they’re a private company. But they’re also pretty much a monopoly. They ARE the market for electronic and community-created gaming content. If you want to sell your stuff successfully, you’re gonna have to deal with them, and kiss the fucking ring.

That’s kind of bullshit.

UPDATE: So, it’s already starting. Miguel Ribeiro, a talented game creator and reviewer from Portugal and co-host of The Red Room YouTube channel has had one of his products removed from DTRPG already, because it received ONE complaint “from a customer”. Someone doesn’t like the title and/or content of his game; but they had to really go looking for it to find it in the first place, as it’s labeled as adult content already. More likely, they don’t like Miguel, as he’s a pretty opinionated guy who…surprise!…doesn’t tow the line.

He has posted this video about the DTRPG situation, and he’s effectively breaking their rules by talking about it at all. Nonetheless, he has my wholehearted support for doing so. Fair warning: Miguel may be a gifted and prolific game designer; but he needs to reign it in as a broadcaster. He has the SUPREMELY ANNOYING habit of interrupting and talking over his co-host all the time. Don’t let his message get lost.

8 thoughts on “DriveThru RPG and the Death of Creativity; or Why Censorship is Bad

  1. Dave Stone

    It’s times like these that I wish the mother ship would come and take me home !
    At the end of the day, these are GAMES, now whether you agree with the agendas and politics inside, is down to the individual, personally I’d rather just play the game, I may play Space Marines, or Chaos, or have a Star Wars Empire army but I’m not trying to subjugate the whole world/ Universe to my ideals like they do. So to censor these titles under vague guidelines would be narrow minded, as to complaining they’ve pulled the products, nobody listens to me, and my social media presence is so small no one would notice ! LOL
    To me it sounds like a form of tyranny, just in a new shiney wrapper.

    1. The Angry Piper Post author

      The simple version is that censorship is wrong, especially in creative endeavors, no matter who is holding the black Sharpie. Once upon a time it was the other side holding it. But now, it’s my side. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. The more things change, the more they stay the same. And that’s bullshit, man.

  2. Dick Garrison

    I love it when you go off on one of these rants, mainly because I always totally agree with you, and that’s not just because apart from my wife, you are the only person to find me attractive! (actually I’m not sure she does to be honest!).

    I can see the need for censorship, I mean if someone released a game called “Jihad, learn to kill infidel westerners!” I feel that could do with being pulled likewise “Crusade, smash the Muslim empire!” but surely any monkey could see the problem with these titles, and any sane person wouldn’t buy the bloody things! This is a very grey area, as Wargamer/Roleplayers or gamers in general we have long been the object of political correctness (just look at the last series of “Stranger things”, to see this). this is not a “woke” hobby (I hate that word), we play games that deal with death and some of the most racially or sexually inappropriate moments in history, does that make us racist or sexual deviants, I like to hope not, just better informed . take Luke (IRO) who is currently working on his “Rorke’s Drift” project, white people defeating black people!! does this make him racist! I think not, but by the rules you outline above, I could call him out on it.

    Anyway I’m rambling on here, as you say let people be their own censor’s, if you don’t like something, don’t do/play/watch it, OK if something is REALLY bad and you get multiple complaints then yes take a look at it and if so pull it. I think part of the problem these days is companies are so desperate to appeal to their target audience and not upset anyone, they jump onto the woke or right-wing bandwagons.

    I like to think I’m not a racist, but take the “Music of Black Origin” awards, to me this is racist, if we had a “Music just of White Origin a Awards” there would be an outcry.

    Likewise I have no problem with the LBGTQ community but if we had a “Straight Pride” rally it would be considered homophobic.

    OK both these examples are OTT, but people are being spoon-fed what they should believe to be correct, and I worry that more and more people actually have no real opinion of their own and only believe what they are told is right. And this censorship is another thing indicative of this. “You are too stupid to be able to see how this is subverting you, so we’ll remove it from you, just say thank you”.

    Cheers Roger.

    1. The Angry Piper Post author

      You know, TBH, I was just checking to see if you’d read that far, Roger.

      I get your point. Surely, there are some ideologies and viewpoints that are fucking vile, but rather than not list any criteria at all, DTRPG should call them out. Name and shame. If DTRPG doesn’t want any Nazi propaganda on their site, for example, they should say so. Then, feel free to ban anyone who wants to publish a pro-Nazi game on your site. But they don’t do that. They’re intentionally vague about everything, so they can selectively target what and who they want. The old “I know obscenity when I see it” argument.

      A few years ago, a bunch of fucking pathetic racist Nazi assholes marched through Charlottesville carrying tiki torches they bought at Home Depot and chanting anti-Semitic bullshit. I remember thinking of my grandfather, who fought in the Pacific theatre in WWII. My grandfather was not what I’d call a liberal guy. He held some prejudices that many of his generation did. But let me assure you, he would have been appalled to find there were Nazis marching in American city streets. But he must have been spinning in his grave when our president went on national television and declared there were good people on both sides of that little fascist parade. In America, those racist assholes have the right to assemble and march, fucked up as that may be. BUT society also has the right to react to that. So, when Nazi Bob gets his face plastered all over national television and then goes home, back to his job and gets FIRED because his company doesn’t want him representing them, too fucking bad. Say what you want, but live with the consequences. That’s why so many of these dickheads wear masks nowadays.

      Now, if those assholes has decided to, oh, I don’t know, storm a government building or attack police (never happen); then that would be a criminal act. That would be illegal. That is clearly prohibited. My point is, say (or write) what you want, as long as it’s not illegal. Of course, you get to deal with the consequences, too. Don’t cry about it if everyone hates what you have to say.

      Again, we’re just talking about games here, not society’s problems at large (right?). But for DTRPG to basically put out a blanket statement with vague criteria and selective reinforcement, which is pretty much saying “we’re not gonna spell out what you can and can’t do, we just know it when we see it.”

  3. Matt

    Good rant, sir.

    I think this has more to do with the site overreacting to one dickhead more than anything else. As you say, he puts right-wing views in his work, the site reacts, and he goes full MAGA snowflake and starts screaming about leftie censorship to rile up others and publicize his stuff. Hostile marketing is actually a thing — Fox News basically lives on it, as do Republican cretins in Congress — and if DTRPG takes offence, or if it’s against their terms of service, they’re well within their rights as to tell him to eff off. Unfortunately it seems they’ve gone scorched-earth and applied it to everyone, which is totally the wrong thing to do.

    I’m guessing DTRPG is viewing this decision as a way it hopes will stop the slippery slope effect. An anti-abortion stance is one thing (and I’m struggling to see how you’d get that into a game anyway) but as we’ve seen over the past seven years, you give these right-wing twats an inch and they’ll attempt to overturn an election. If nothing’s done about the anti-abortion stuff, I pretty much guarantee he’d try to up the ante to racism, misogyny and Christ knows what else. Doing something reprehensible and then acting butthurt and screaming about censorship when it’s pointed out that you’re reprehensible is the right’s bread and butter these days.

    On top of that, look at the flak with which Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Instagram and other online platforms have been hit for hosting what amounts to hate content. I doubt very much that DTRPG wants to be lumped in with those or seen as a platform for hate. DRPRG is a private company and can set its own rules and if a creator doesn’t like those rules they’re welcome to go somewhere else; if the site’s users don’t like it, they can vote with their wallets and clicks.

    What’ll really show that DTRPG is serious is if they kick out a left-leaning creator for political reasons, but the problem there is that it isn’t left-leaning Americans who are sending death threats to Trump staffers appearing in front of the Jan 6 committee, and it sure as shit wasn’t lefties storming the Capitol no matter what Tucker Carlson wants people to think.

    I don’t know if this made sense LOL! It might sound harsh on my part, but I am absolutely bloody done with these fuckers shredding societal norms with impunity and being treated with kid gloves because we think they’re rational and can be debated with when in reality they need to be fired into the fucking sun. But I can see where you’re coming from.

    And good on your granddad; mine spent six years in the Royal Navy including serving on Atlantic convoys, the evacuation of Norway, Operation Torch, D-Day, Operation Dragoon, the siege of Malta and Christ knows what else. I only know this because I have his service record and medals, as he never really talked about it. He’d have thought the same as your granddad.

    1. The Angry Piper Post author

      Thanks, Matt. I agree with everything you say. My problem is with the obvious double standard here. DTRPG states it will censor anything with overt political views; but they clearly only mean views they don’t like. Rather than put out general and vague standards, say what you mean. Put out only things that promote or espouse the same beliefs that we as a company believe, then define those beliefs concretely. It doesn’t matter that I personally agree with most of DTRPG’s obviously progressive and liberal agenda; I hate censorship. Especially hypocritical censorship. It’s why I rarely ever visit The Miniatures Page nowadays; aside from the constant drama, the place has turned into a cesspool of the worst alt-right shit. I used to go there to talk about miniatures. Now it’s become another place that says politics are against the rules, but really only enforces its rules when and against whom it wants.

  4. Jez

    Another company bowing down to the pressure and “nannying” it’s customers, as we’re obviously NOT intelligent enough to make our own minds up. What a load of crap. Are the steaming services going to start removing content deemed ‘problematic’, as it was made at a time when views were different and reflects that era of history? Possibly – which is further censorship. The problem with pandering to a minority, just because they make the most noise, means that we all suffer. From the sounds of it, if one overly-sensitive person complains, that product gets pulled. Try whinging about WOTC products on DTRPG and I’ll guarantee that they won’t get pulled.

    As for not being able to express your views on your own FUCKING platform, that’s just bullshit. I’ve stated this many times on my own blog – it’s my blog and I’ll post what I want, when I want. If you don’t like it, go elsewhere. I blog for my own personal pleasure, not to garner ‘folowers’ or ‘likes’. If you’ve got nothing better to do than complain about someone else’s content because it doesn’t match your own particular world view, then maybe it’s time to put down your electronic filter that tells you what’s right or wrong, open your FUCKING eyes and THINK FOR YOURSELF.

    Sorry, supportive rant over.

    1. The Angry Piper Post author

      Follow our rules even off our platform. We don’t like what you say, so don’t say it anywhere, or else.
      And yes, streaming services are already doing that. Right now, you can watch the entire series “Community” on Netflix, except for one episode that was removed because Ken Jeong appears in blackface. I’m certainly not advocating for blackface. Putting aside the obvious “What the fuck were they thinking?”, why can’t Netflix just make the episode available with a bunch of disclaimers? Because unless they remove it completely, someone will bitch that Netflix likes blackface.
      Don’t get me started on Mel Brooks movies…should we censor those, too?
      DTRPG already has disclaimers, such as “this product contains adult content.” Individual creators often put trigger-warnings in their product descriptions, lest anyone be discomfited in the slightest.. (Don’t get me started on those. That’s a whole other post.) What more do they need to do?
      Apparently, ban more stuff. That’s bullshit.
      If you don’t like someone’s viewpoint, don’t buy their shit. If you really don’t like it, feel free to take to the Internet and decry it, AS I AM DOING RIGHT NOW. Censorship sucks.

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