Monday, November 6, 2023

Be a Creator, Not a Consumer

To say that I was a Star Wars fan during my childhood is something of an understatement. Children are, by nature, given to intense enthusiasms of all sorts, whether for dinosaurs or the planets or ancient Egypt – all of which I was, at various times, as utterly devoted as I was to George Lucas's 1977 space fantasy. During the period between 1977 and the release of The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, I lived and breathed Star Wars. I saw both movies in the theater multiple times, read every newspaper and magazine article about them that I could find, and (of course!) owned a disturbingly large amount of Star Wars-related merchandise. If I hadn't discovered Dungeons & Dragons, I daresay my zeal for the galaxy far, far away would likely have continued unabated well into the next decade.

Looking back on my youthful ardor from the vantage point of jaded middle age, I can't help but feel mildly embarrassed, though, as I already noted, such devotion is in the nature of children. And, to be fair, Star Wars enjoyed a cultural moment of the sort that doesn't happen everyday, so I hope I can be forgiven for being caught up in it. Furthermore, Star Wars was a genuinely good movie, one that simultaneously had a strong connection to earlier storytelling and did things that had never been done before, especially in the field of visual effects. In retrospect, I think it would been more remarkable if I hadn't become a fan of it.

I'm no longer much of a Star Wars fan. Aside from DVDs of the original movies, which I don't think I've actually watched in more than a decade, I don't think there's a single piece of Star Wars merchandise or memorabilia in my home. That's not out of dislike so much as disinterest. I still retain a residual affection for the 1977–1983 films, as I do for many other things I adored as a child, but I no longer devote much mental space – let alone closet space – to Star Wars. Were I to gain the ability to travel back in time and reveal this state of affairs to my younger self, I doubt he would believe me, so important was Star Wars to me as a child.
Even during those three or four years of my childhood, Star Wars wasn't my only interest, but it certainly occupied a pride of place that was immediately evident to anyone who spent more than a few minutes talking to me. Dungeons & Dragons – and roleplaying games more generally – eventually displaced it and indeed surpassed it in staying power. More than four decades after I first cracked open my beloved Holmes Basic Set, I'm still playing RPGs, whereas Star Wars (and lots of other childhood enthusiasms) are now very much in the rearview mirror. 

Allow me to reiterate: this isn't because of dislike on my part, let alone hatred, but largely because of disinterest. I simply don't find Star Wars all that compelling anymore and I suspect it has to do with the way that it's become little more than a brand rather than a vehicle for telling rollicking space fantasy adventures. Arguably, that's always been the case, as evidenced by the large number of Star Wars-branded products available for purchase as soon as the movie was released – a great many of which I proudly owned and displayed. Like a lot of children in the late 1970s, I demonstrated that I was a fan of Star Wars by owning a lot of Star Wars products.

I recall that, at the time, there were critics who complained that George Lucas had "ruined" cinema with the blockbuster success of Star Wars. In their opinion, movie studios would now prioritize crowd-pleasing spectacle over the more serious films that had characterized the early part of the decade. It's an old – and recurring – line of attack that isn't completely without merit. Nowadays, though, I tend to think that the true "sin" of Star Wars is not that it ushered in an era of "dumb" movies, but that it demonstrated just how lucrative merchandising it could be. 
One of the best things about roleplaying games is that, at base, they are vehicles for creating your own rollicking adventures with your friends. I sometimes think we don't recognize just how powerful a thing Gygax and Arneson unleashed upon the world almost half a century ago. There's a reason Greg Stafford likened RPGs to Pandora's Box in the dedication of RuneQuest. After the appearance of D&D, the world was forever changed, in ways both big and small. 

Roleplaying games gave their players the tools to make their own imaginary worlds. Once you had learned their rules, you had everything you could ever need to keep on creating for the rest of your life. This fact has long vexed RPG publishers who, understandably, want to keep selling products, but the truth is that there's absolutely no need to ever purchase anything else. That hasn't stopped game companies from trying to convince you otherwise, of course. If they couldn't get you to buy an adventure or a supplement or a rules expansion, then how about this T-shirt, maquette, or beach towel? Let's equate your hobby with your personal identity to make money!

It's a predictable script, one very similar to that employed by Star Wars merchandising over the years. While there's nothing inherently wrong with this – everyone needs to make a living somehow – it doesn't hold much attraction for me. Been there, done that, literally bought the T-shirt. From my perspective, this hobby is at its best when it's about creating, not simply consuming. If you're a roleplayer, then play – imagine a new setting, generate a character, write up an adventure. That's what makes this pastime so uniquely compelling, especially in a world that seems increasingly hostile to the liberation of the human spirit. Give free rein to your imagination and fight on.


  1. Great to have you back. It's amazing how closely this hits home to me- I was crazy about Star Wars (although I pretty much only cared about the toys) after the first movie came out, but what put the nail in the coffin for me was Christmas of 81 when I got the Moldvay Basic Set and the Atari 2600. I really loved D&D for about 5-6 years after that, but computer gaming ended up totally eclipsing it for me until I started DMing for my kids/nephews about 4 years ago. I watched the Mandalorian and while it was probably my favorite Star Wars non-book property since the original trilogy, all the Disney drama has drained my interest. The other thing that comes to mind when I see your picture of the decked out bedroom is my parents giving my younger brother and I basically the same treatment (curtains, bedspreads, blankets, sheets, and towels) but from the movie The Black Hole (what a stinkburger that was). At the time we didn't think anything about it but now that I remember it I am sure they got it on some sort of major clearance.

  2. "Aside from DVDs of the original movies, which I don't think I've actually watched in more than a decade, I don't think there's a single piece of Star Wars merchandise or memorabilia in my home."

    Watch them! :)

  3. Ah, but you might not realize that not everyone is good with imagining. I am kinda dull, so having someone prepackage their dreams is a value proposition for me. Yoon Suin is not something I would have come up with on my own.

    That said; your point is taken, consumerism is fun but out of control, at least for me anyway. Too many toys.

  4. Great message, the best for the RPG hobby. In the end, we are a bunch of nerds daydreaming about spaceships, dragons, elfs and adventures... And that's the best thing of all! We don't need to sell our imagination...

  5. I love it when you wax nostalgic because every time it is a stroll down memory lane for me. I had the same experience in 77 when I was 10 growing up in Herndon, VA, and had it not been for AD&D two years later, I may have continued being the consummate consumer. Like you, I have been an advocate for things like D&D that develop one's imagination. Keeping writing about those earlier years of playing D&D, going to the game store in the mall, and hitting the spinner racks at 7-11. Great stuff!

  6. Hasbro's monetization of D&D has had some demonstrable negative effects on the IP over the last couple of years. Our FLGS had been ordering 5e books in the triple digits up until 2021-ish, when the sales numbers suddenly started to dip, a process that's accelerated sharply with various scandals. These days he's down below 15 copies of new books and even those don't sell out immediately, which would have been pathetic even in the 3e and 4e days, much less during the supposed 5e boom.

    Some of that's due to people buying elsewhere as Big Box retailers stock 5e, but not all of it - and D&D Next or whatever the current name is looks to be facing a stiff headwind.

  7. I was never a fan of Star Wars, even back in the day, though I do get why fans hold The Empire Strikes Back in high regard. (Of course, Lucas didn't direct that film, and Lucas had always been the problem with Star Wars.) And while I do think that Lucas contributed to the downfall of the cinema's golden age in the '70s, your point about merchandising is well taken.

  8. Side-note, regarding Star Wars: I still like the original trilogy (but not the prequels and sequels), and think the recent-ish Disney/Star Wars series are actually quite good (and far better than the sequels/prequels).

    Also: Good to have you back, I really enjoy the posts.


  9. Star Wars introduced film merchandising that would become the standard; however, for me, the title of "crowd-pleasing spectacle" that "ruined cinema forever" belongs to Tim Burton's Batman film from 1999. The plot of that film eludes intelligible summation, yet no one seemed to see through the style and eye candy to notice.

  10. “If you're a roleplayer, then play – imagine a new setting, generate a character, write up an adventure.”
    That’s pretty easy to say, but the reality is ‘play with who?’. I just had a Star Trek RPG group blow up because the GM just quit. I offered to GM alternatively, but that wasn’t good enough keep the group together. Plus none of the other players wanted to play more than once a month anyway. So much for the ‘long campaign’ theory.

    On another note, I just heard a podcast today where an author of Star Trek novels said that one of his ideas was from his Star Trek roleplaying campaign. So the fan creating stories *becomes* the creator of consumer goods! Nice work if you can get it!

    1. My experience with TTRPGs reflects this. People who share my tastes in RPGs and who have schedules that work with mine may not exist.

  11. Welcome back. Good title for the post and worth reflecting on. If I recall my route to rpg it started with my friend Darren and me drawing maps and mazes on our maths jotters when we were nine. I've always enjoyed the creative aspect and reading WD, Dragon or the modules was much more to see how others approached it than it was to play. That reason would be why I still enjoy people's blogs and Dragonsfoot posts today.

    RPG are a ridiculously cheap and social hobby. It should be encouraged!

  12. Nothing like returning with some pointless navel gazing.

  13. I was making my own silly little comics when I got into comics as a kid, and I always spent more time in the arts and crafts isle of any store than anywhere else. When I discovered RPGs, I instantly started making stuff up! This medium not only encourages creativity, it demands it. And I love it for that reason above all else.