The Fallacy of Punk

Lukas’ comment on Jonathan’s blog made me think about this yet again. People talk about “being punk” with making role-playing games. It’s used to talk about the DIY aesthetic, which I can dig on. I was involved in the Ashcan Front’s first year, and have done my own bookbinding. I loves me getting hands on.

But that said, “punk” is a word people use in order to exclude others or belittle the efforts of others. The punk ideal of “you don’t need the man” is all fine and good…until you start becoming an authority telling new creators how to act. Then you’re suddenly in the position of being “the man telling other people they don’t need the man.”

So, people who keep throwing this word around: tell me what the hell you mean. Because it’s sounding like a lot of exclusionary, ghettoized talk I have heard before. It’s not a word used nearly as often positively as it is negatively.

Because of that, I find it all to be a load of crap. What is “being punk” anyway? Not being edited? Selling out of your backpack? Telling people who have years of experience and like talking about a craft to go fuck off? Seriously, what is this thing you’re talking about? Or is it just “being the thing I want you to be”?

[Edit: Better stated a million times by this comment about sexual identity.]

– Ryan

P.S.: And I think the analogy falls apart when you suddenly realize that music is consumed entirely differently than media meant to be interpreted and played. Because everyone knows how to use a CD or MP3, but not everyone knows how to use your game unless you make that possible. I’m all for grungy-looking things, but my brain is the media player, and it needs to be formatted for my brain. Once you’ve got that, do whatever presentation you want. Rock out with your cock out, as it were.


10 Responses to The Fallacy of Punk

  1. Lukas says:

    Hey Ryan,

    I responded to your comment over on Jonathan’s blog already, but I just wanted to clarify my statement: I don’t actually think that punk is a very good descriptor for what most (though not all) small-press game designers/publishers are doing either. My statement was about how being involved in the actual DIY punk music scene affects my perception of luxury consumer goods, including RPGs.


    • Lukas says:

      Here’s what I said over there:

      Ryan: Totally!

      If I’m reading you right, then we’re pretty much in complete agreement: how you design and publish your product is determined by the audience with which you are trying to connect.

      Where I feel the disconnect comes in is that these discussions (for whatever reason) tend to make people feel like they have to do everything necessary to connect with the widest possible audience, and if they’re not, they’re somehow cheating those people who are outside their intended audience who end up purchasing their product anyway.

  2. Burrowowl says:

    The “punk” appellation runs into most of the problems that other self-identifying cultural movements do. It appears particularly foolish for its general air of fighting external conformity while imposing strict internal conformity. You couldn’t swing a dead cat by its tail at a 1990’s punk concert without hitting three or four black sweatshirts.

  3. Tim says:

    Last I heard, DIY is metal, not punk. *shrug* I suppose it depends on who you ask.

    My interpretation of “punk” is all about throwing inhibition to the wind and putting yourself out there. “I have a message and you’re damn well going to hear it, if you stop to listen.” I consider my podcast and some of my other creative endeavors (to-date) to be punk in that sense – I’m an average speaker, I’m not an objective expert, but I have ideas and I’m going to put them out without regard to others’ opinions on content or quality.

    That said, I’m also a sucker for people saying nice things about stuff I make. So I’m also not punk at all. Oh well.

  4. Jason says:

    Ryan my lad, let me tell you an instructive fable from the true life living of JDCorley.

    Once upon a time in the days when the world was young and Drivethrurpg was just “rpgnow.com”, I purchased for around $3 a product I have adored ever since. It is around 150 pages of campaign notes that someone clearly typed up in Microsoft Word, importing a few images scanned, Trapper Keeper style, here and there (there are blue lines on one of them, no shit!), absolutely unedited, no table of contents, no organizational style, just 150 pages of talking about this fantasy world of flying ships, air piracy, monster ecology and characters from a campaign that was only half-glimpsed out of the corner of the eye as it went whizzing past. It was a sublime mess in every possible way, a total disaster as a product, and as un-edited a document as has ever landed on my desk. (Yet, accidentally, it managed to avoid many horrible mistakes that many e-publishers continue to cheerfully make, like the two-column page-up/page-down monstrosity.) In the intervening years I have returned and returned to this product many times. I have USED the shit out of it. The four pages of nothing but ship names, the weird fantasy country, the extensive discussion of wizard and sorcerer training, all of it. I’ve used more of it than I will probably ever use of much objectively better-organized and better-produced RPG material.

    Let us now ponder this marvelous thing I stumbled across way back then.

    * Would an editor have improved it? Yes.
    * Would it be worth more money to a customer to have that improvement? Yes.
    * Would it be more useful if it had been edited? Yes.
    * Does this mean it should have had an editor? Well…

    We live in the world as it is, not as we imagine it might be. So let us evaluate these decisions.

    * Can I imagine myself in the shoes of this author making the decisions he made in creating and releasing this game? Absolutely. I’m just some dude with Microsoft Word and an Export to PDF button who thinks his campaign is cool. “Mote it harm none, bro, let’s do this thing.” I say, turn my baseball cap around backwards and start typing.

    * Can I envision goals for this game that would not be furthered by the time/effort/money invested in editing (and believe me, you would not want to edit this jumbled mess for free)? Of course. I am not motivated by aspirations to greatness, or a coherent artistic presentation, or by filthy lucre, I just think it would be fun to share this stuff and maybe make beer money back on it.

    * Is there an audience for this game that can be satisfied without editing, or getting good art, or even thinking about organizing the thing in some way other than clicking “Shrink to Fit” on the Print Preview screen of Microsoft Word? Obviously. That JDCorley guy!

    I return to my earthly form. Now, would I, Jason, feel the same love for this stuff if I’d paid $30 for the game? Well…maybe. It did hit right in my wheelhouse. $50? No, probably not that much.

    But I’ve paid $40 for extremely well-edited and extremely well-presented game material that I haven’t gotten five bucks of use out of. That’s not to begrudge the creator of that material any kind of recognition or to blame them in any way, nobody put a gun to my head and demanded I buy it. But there are a lot of different roads from the inside of a designer’s head to use at someone’s game table.

    And let us remember and celebrate that love is the real motivation here. To be wise and love exceeds man’s might.

  5. @Jason: link, man.

  6. Jason says:



    This is not a joke, people. There really is a geocities webpage.