Wednesday, October 9, 2019

It's Official: We're the Cool Kids, Now

I don't know exactly when it happened; maybe sometime last year, around the middle of the summer, but there was a gigantic clicking sound that knocked my vinyl glow-in-the-dark Cthulhu piggy bank right off of my shelf. By the time I'd picked it up, the world had changed.

No, I'm not talking about The Snappening. This wasn't Thanos doing his infinity-gauntlet-beatnik-hand jive. But someone somewhere did something. Maybe it was a tipping point. Maybe it was Joe Manganiello making some talk show appearance in a Tomb of Horrors shirt. Maybe it was Stephen Colbert getting to play D&D for charity with Matt Mercer and geeking out about it. I don't know what, but we aren't a sub-culture any more. Hell, we're not even popular culture. D&D and tabletop gaming are officially mainstream now. And I can prove it with math.

1+1=Pandering 2U
The first salvo was quiet, and you like as not didn't hear it unless you're deep into The Nerdist, Monte Cook, and the Amazon series Carnival Row, one of Amazon Prime's new exclusive series set in alternate history steampunk Victorian London and starring Orlando Bloom. Yeah, I know, I'm practically ovulating just typing those words in sequence.

The series is okay to great, depending largely on where you come down on the topic of alternate history steampunk Victorian London television series starring Orlando Bloom. But it seems that Legendary used its relationship with the Nerdist to do a little demographic mining by getting Monte Cook (yes, THAT Monte Cook) to whip up a splat book for his Cypher System set in the Carnival Row Universe.

This isn't a half-assed effort, either; they put what appears to be production art (though it could well be original material) and stills from the show into this detailed setting designed to get you steampunking with all due expediency. If this sounds like something you'd dig, you can get it for free right here.

If you didn't hear about this, no worries. It's cool, and surprisingly fast (though having the inside track certainly helps with the timing), but the real indicator that we are across the Rubicon is the newest tabletop RPG from Wendy's.

Yep. Wendy's.

I don't know who did it (there is no writing credits listed) but I can very well guess why. Gamers eat fast food, and many of them drive to games every week, and I'm sure a great many of those folks pass by a Wendy's and maybe even swing into the drive-thru lane for a quick burger and fries on their way to thwart evil. I mean, I'm sure of it; I have no real numbers, and neither does Wendy's, for that matter. But someone is clearly (forgive me) rolling the dice that they are achieving heavy market saturation by putting out a complete, full-color role-playing game, available as a free downloadable pdf (and they even did a small print run for New York ComicCon), complete with branded dice (again, at the convention), in the desperate hope of looking cool to their customer base.

The premise of Feast of Legends is simple: you are part of the Kingdom of Wendy's Trademarked realm, which involves flames and fresh meats. Your enemies live in a deep freeze, where their meats are frozen and bear passing resemblances to Wendy's real-world fast food competitors and their somewhat concurrent brand mascots. You resist the powers of cold and ice by belonging to one of the Orders of Wendy's Trademarked Menu Items, which gives you different powers and abilities.

Are you getting this? See, it's a role-playing game! You like those, right? Only, we've cleverly inserted all of our registered trademark shit into it. But you still want to play it, right, because we're subverting expectations by taking pot-shots at our competition, even though the very same battle is being waged daily on Twitter in 280 characters or less.  So it's clever, right?! But we're not trying to be, you know, which is why we paid at least three people to design this game system, do full-color artwork and fifth edition-style layouts, and package this into the most expensive, and yet also most legit-looking freebie in the history of happy meals.

I haven't felt this conflicted since I first saw the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon in 1983. On one hand, I knew that something significant had happened, and on the other hand, I felt like (for the first time, and most certainly not the last) like they had completely missed the point. A little yoda-like old man, called the Dungeon Master? Uni the Unicorn? This was not my world. I didn't know who this was for, really; the younger siblings of the older kids who were actually playing AD&D?

That's how Feast of Legends makes me feel. Only with much better artwork.

The tone of the game is somewhere to the left of tongue-in-cheek, and to the right of outright parody. They play it straight, but the very idea that I can be a character belonging to the Order of the Chicken Nugget is absurd, and that may be what they were aiming for. I don't know.

The game itself is beer and pretzel fare; good for a few hours, and best used in the hands of an expert seat-of-the-pants game master with a quick wit and a penchant for punnery. This, then, becomes a performance piece as your group attempts to out-funny one another, and oh, yeah, the monster is attacking, roll to hit, while you're at it. I can't see playing it more than once under those conditions.

I mean, to make it work right, you'd really need to re-write the enemies so that there's no doubt as to who your players are fighting. And I'd make more of them, too; a horde for every shitty fast food company out there. And of course, the navy is controlled by Long John Silver, who can't stay on deck because he's constantly slinking off to the poop deck, which is, let's be honest, what LJS makes everyone do; shit like a goose). Get it? He's pooping on the poop deck! I got a million of them!

This almost works as a pocket universe to get your existing group sucked into, and play it straight until they figure it all out. Again, one or two nights only. They put a lot of background material in the book, and it's still not enough. To do anything to it would require more effort than the task is worth.

Content-wise, the setting is designed to riff on A Game of Thrones ("you kids are still watching that show, right? About the blonde with the dragons? What's her name again?")  It's too bad that the twitter bots didn't do a pass over the manuscript, because the parodies of the other fast food places don't go nearly far enough. But you can see McDonald's if you squint. It's just not that funny.

So, from a cultural standpoint, this is the Hardware Wars of the 21st century. It gets some stuff right, but it gets a lot more wrong. But this is the place it occupies in the zeitgeist at the moment, a kind of Well-What-Do-You-Know-About-That that's more of a sociological signifier for the uninitiated than the faithful. But they still want you to play the game. And, you know, maybe stream it, with hashtags. Because that's what the cool kids are doing.

And speaking of streaming, the folks I feel the most sorry for are the Critical Role cast. They had to do a dog and pony show with this rule set (I think it was a charity event, but still...). That's not even a double-edged sword. That's a good old-fashioned dagger in the back ("Dance, you circus freaks! Dance for your corporate overlords! Ah Hah Hah HAH HAH HAH!"). This cannot possibly be what Matt Mercer envisioned for himself, nor anyone else on the show, for that matter. It's one thing to be a working voice-over actor in L.A. with a side gig that gets you more likes than your day job; it's quite another to be so good at the side gig that you are courted by the very people who would not put you in one of their commercials. Queen Wendy, indeed.

Well, it's already made the news cycle, and generated a crushing wave of publicity for Wendy's when they most needed it. You can expect that we'll see more things like this in the next 2-3 years. The flood of products and games and pandering is only just beginning. Now we are a demographic, and they have identified a dollar amount that they can reasonably expect to extract from us, like squeezing a naval orange. It's only a matter of time. What form will the Destructor take? No idea. Your only hope is to clear your mind. Don't think of anything. Please...

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