The Red Room is ending the week in a Grim mood: James Grim Desborough is our guest. We chatted about his upcoming ‘citycrawl’ dark fantasy adventure Wightchester: Prison City of the Damned, the indie tabletop role-playing scene, his writing career, cancel culture, wokescolds, Gamersgate, safety tools in gaming, and other topics.
Welcome to the Red Room, James Desborough
GRIM JIM: British writer, editor, game designer, YouTuber and outspoken left-wing egalitarian discusses his views on cancel culture, the negative impact of safety tools and woke propaganda in role-playing games. We also talked about the worst controversies he has been involved in, his suicide attempts and other cheerful subjects. Tabletopless is also mentioned, so it’s not all that dreary…
Disclaimer: my own game settings are being published by Postmortem Studios, but I wanted to avoid this becoming something like a self-promoting plug. So, I opted for a slightly alternative interview format from what I would usually do: questions are less about what James Desborough does, and more about what he thinks. Since he is quite active on social media, I believe people are interested in knowing a little more about him. We talked a bit about some of his work too, namely Wightchester, a game about a zombie apocalypse, set in England during the Early Modern period, on which Grim Jim has been working lately and which is due for release early next year.
Red Room: Your “cancelling” (most likely in the plural form) is almost legendary in the role-playing scene, but we still must address it and it seems to be the proper way to begin the interview. When, how and why did it all start?
James Desborough: It’s a hard thing to pin down exactly. I suppose my first hint was some time after the release of Hentacle* where a handful of headbangers started in on me on RPGnet. They called this (humorous, if pornographic) card game – amongst other things – ‘fetishised child rape’. I used some of those comments as advertising blurb, but it was demanded I take them down.
The weird part is that by modern standards I did almost everything right. I gave plenty of disclaimers and warnings, the artist was Asian, and a woman, and it was – obviously – sex positive.
That cancelling didn’t really stick, at least not at that point, though resistance to it was worn down over time.
The big issue was my article ‘In Defence of Rape’, which I wrote after the fuss about the ‘sexual threat’ in the Lara Croft reboot trailer. It was, of course, actually a defence of free speech and the right of creative people to use anything – even sexual violence – in their stories.
Nobody, it seems, read past the title and I was shocked, and am still shocked, by the extent to which the industry rolls over for these loonies.
* Hentacle was published in 2004
“The big issue was my article ‘In Defence of Rape’, which I wrote after the fuss about the ‘sexual threat’ in the Lara Croft reboot trailer. It was, of course, actually a defence of free speech and the right of creative people to use anything – even sexual violence – in their stories.”
RR: Was there a moment when you felt you could still surrender to the mob and keep working freely?
JD: No apology, however grovelling, would have been good enough. Nor could I have lived with myself if I made the performative apology and said the magic words they wanted. I couldn’t have lived with myself.
RR: What about self-publishing, did that arise from the need to get your work out there somehow?
JD: Freelancing is hard to get at the best of times, and I was typecast as a comedy writer. It arose out of necessity after I lost my job during the .com crash and couldn’t find any other work for 18 months. So it was a combination of things.
Also I bump up against other people and am anti-authoritarian in my bones.
RR: You frequently dare to touch the subject of men’s rights, which is probably not the best way to make friends at the moment… Why do you find it so important to talk about it: your own personal experience compels you to do it, or you believe you should speak out on behalf of those who can’t (or won’t) voice their own opinion?
JD: I wouldn’t say men’s rights. While I’ve appeared on shows with men’s rights activists and to talk about men’s issues I feel that the modern men’s rights movement has courted the right too much and is making many of the same mistakes as today’s ‘revenge’ feminism.
RR: What would you rather call it, then?
JD: No doubt there are issues around a deficit in men’s rights. Things like the draft, like circumcision, like legal, or at least unpunished and socially licensed, discrimination against men, like the Duluth model, like the woeful lack of support for failing men and boys. Still, I am an egalitarian, and that’s what I would call it. I don’t want to lose sight of the greater context. What we’re supposed to be striving for is equality, for everyone, before the law. My focus is upon men’s issues, solely because they have gone unaddressed for so long, and there is such resistance to considering them.
My mental health issues obviously lead me to talk about the high rate of male suicide, otherwise I think – as an egalitarian – we should address the issues where men are trodden down as much as we do those that affect women. Few people do talk about it, and they’re often cranks. I’m at least articulate and left-wing, might reach more people.
RR: You do talk about politics and social issues often, and you’re particularly eloquent about it, much more so than a great deal of YouTubers, certainly more than most other role-players. Did you have formal education or are you an autodidact?
JD: A bit of both. I dropped out of art-school but kept learning by myself. I do have a reasonably high formal education in history, politics and art however, as well as a big interest in these topics. I find I often know more about these subjects than formal graduates. I think the only thing I missed out on was the social side of university. My family needed me at the time, so no regrets – just wistfulness.
RR: Now for a sensitive subject, obviously connected to the previous questions. You have frequently talked about your suicide attempt, so I feel there’s no problem in bringing that up. What brought you to that point?
JD: There have been multiple attempts. The most public one was related to feeling utterly cut adrift during the Gamergate controversy. I was absolutely horrified about the way in which so many people I had previously respected did no independent research, didn’t trust me – their colleague and friend – and instead went with a false narrative, blindly and obediently.
It wasn’t Gamergate itself, but the ground shifting under me and releasing people who had done the right thing so often in the past had changed too much to keep doing so.
RR: Something I find interesting is that you do not give up on explaining about Socialism, Marxism and Communism to the American audience. You still hope you’ll get the message through about differences in those concepts?
JD: I’m fighting against 70 years of propaganda, so I don’t think I can make much of a dent. I just can’t let it lie! I would say my highest value is truth, I just can’t let people lie or be wrong when I know that’s what is happening.
“I was absolutely horrified about the way in which so many people I had previously respected did no independent research, didn’t trust me – their colleague and friend – and instead went with a false narrative, blindly and obediently.”
RR: Don’t you get tired of debating – not just this – but several other things over and over on social media? As you know I follow you in several networking sites and I sometimes get tired of just glancing over all the drama!
JD: I do, but it’s such a core value I can’t leave it. It feels like a hopeless, Sisyphean task, but it’s in my nature.
RR: Is there something nasty you haven’t been accused of on social media yet?
JD: Murder? Maybe?
RR: Yeah, it’s not too late for that, though… I will not mention again that one blog article whose title keeps coming up out of context but, other than that, which was the worst controversy you got caught up on?
JD: Possibly the one time I genuinely did something wrong and referred to a transperson as ‘it’. In my defence they were a horrible person who soon after got accused of sexual misconduct, were being a dick, didn’t have pronouns in their bio and was listed as both male and female online. Also, I apologised. Still, that got people in a tizzy.
RR: And since that came up, you recently got involved in all the drama surrounding TSR3, partly taking their side, as you felt some issues should have been brought up against them, other than the fake transphobia outrage. Have those other topics been already addressed?
JD: I didn’t take their side so much as the side of the truth, my core value. I was disgusted that they were being hung drawn and quartered over a lie, while points of genuine concern were left unaddressed. They mostly still haven’t been.
RR: Safety tools are a frequent subject of yours and you find their use, as most people probably know, disparaging. In what ways has that trend damaged the hobby?
JD: They’ve created the idea that games could ever be unsafe, for one. They’ve created a big divide in camps of players and have hobbled the capacity to properly do horror games, to surprise or shock players or to take risks with storylines.
RR: In Actual Fucking Monsters Companion you proposed something called the M-Card (M for Mature) as an alternative to X-Cards and such. Do you think something like that is viable?
JD: It’s slightly tongue-in cheek, a simple reversal. It seems easier to me to label your game as unsuitable for those of a particular disposition, rather than to negotiate your way through a series of almost random, catastrophised preferences from 4-6 other people.
The people who demand safety tools, X-cards etc. seem – to me – to be rather surface level thinkers. They don’t reason through the impact of their demands and requirements and the negative effect they can have on stories and drama, on plot, how disrespectful they are to the other players and the Games Master. For better or worse I am cursed with a fretful mind that almost cannot help but consider these issues.
I look at the massively negative impact these things have had already, and how they simply do not work. From allowing for the social lynching of players and Games Masters, to not preventing problems as they have with streamed games. The whole effort seems pointless and worse than useless, an empty gesture of performative conformity and fear.
Better then, as I say, to advertise that the game you are running is ‘not for you’. Then, at least in theory, you don’t have to worry.
“The people who demand safety tools, X-cards etc. seem – to me – to be rather surface level thinkers. They don’t reason through the impact of their demands and requirements and the negative effect they can have on stories and drama, on plot, how disrespectful they are to the other players and the Games Master.“
RR: I’ve decided to translate Orpheum Lofts after a few online discussions about Monte Cook’s Consent in Gaming. It made me want to put something “unsafe” out there so, in my case, the safety tools had the opposite effect. Do you feel there’s enough of a struggle against their use from the community?
JD: There is in the rank and file, there isn’t from conventions, stores and publishers.
RR: Do you think there will be a winner to the role-playing “culture wars”, or are we all doomed to lose?
JD: We all lose. Woke people are creating insufferable and insipid games and are turning crowdfunding into confession. They’ve also made games that tackle ‘progressive’ topics from a non-propagandist stance hard to publish. Equally edgy content, the interesting stuff frankly, has a lot to overcome.
“Woke people are creating insufferable and insipid games and are turning crowdfunding into confession. They’ve also made games that tackle ‘progressive’ topics from a non-propagandist stance hard to publish.”
RR: That’s an interesting point, the propagandist tone of woke game designers. The ones on the “wrong side of History” seem to have avoided propaganda in their gaming contents, haven’t they?
JD: Yes. There is a somewhat valid argument that you cannot help but influence your writing and games from your viewpoint, but the unwoke (the slept?) manage to avoid propagandising.
You’ll find common threads in my work, anti-authoritarianism, dangerous ideas, the importance of sexuality, contrarianism, second and third-order effects of SF and fantasy elements, the idea of affecting the world around you. You’ll also find shades of my personal philosophies and personal outlooks, but also things that I hate and find appalling. Their presence doesn’t mean I advocate for them, any more than writing a villain means I endorse their atrocities. It’s a bizarre way to interpret fiction, to see everything as a deep probing insight into the mentality of the creator. Some aspects of the argument are valid, but they take it too far, into the realm of parody.
Even the games that avoid propagandising now tend to include all sorts of disclaimers, and telling all sorts of people that their game is ‘not for them’. For me that’s a tell, tracing back to the disclaimers that used to be de rigeur for games during and after the Satanic Panic, underlining that the games are not real, and that you shouldn’t do anything based on what was in them.
Absurd, of course, just like all the other panics.
Speaking for myself, an alt-right gamer’s money spends as well as anyone else’s, and if they want to pay for a Left-Anarchist game designer’s lifestyle, I find that oddly fitting – and quite funny.
RR: Tell us about your most important references and influences as a writer, of both fiction and role playing games.
JD: I devour pop culture, so it’s hard to pin down anything super specific. I would say, however, that my major influences stem from the paperback Science Fiction of the 60s, 70s and 80s. When 50,000 words was good enough for a novel, short stories were valid and people played around with ideas more. Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions still excite and challenge, even today.
“You’ll find common threads in my work, anti-authoritarianism, dangerous ideas, the importance of sexuality, contrarianism, second and third-order effects of SF and fantasy elements, the idea of affecting the world around you.”
To drop a few names… Ted ‘Theodore’ Sturgeon, Bill S Burroughs (esquire), Phillip K Dick, Silverberg, Poul Anderson, Phillip Jose Farmer, Bloch, Aldiss, Niven, Pournelle and a bunch more. Fantasy is not so much my bag, save the classics that made the genre. Horror-wise my taste is more 80s, Barker, Herbert, Hutson – not so much King, much as I respect his cocaine-fuelled work ethic.
A lot of more modern fiction leaves me cold, but John Courtney Grimwood, China Mieville, Joe Abercrombie, Richard Morgan, Max Barry, Stephenson, Peter F Hamilton. People who experiment and play around with ideas the way the New Wave did.
Comics are a big influence. Moore (obviously), Mills, Ellis, Gaiman.
Art too, oddly perhaps. Tim White and Jim Burns stand out in particular.
RR: You published a few works of fiction, but much less than role-playing content. Why was that?
IJD: It’s a lot more work for a lot less reward, and agents and houses aren’t interested in my kind of writing. Plus I can’t stick to a single genre and prefer short stories. Much like my Youtube channel, I do it wrong.
RR: I think I remember you mentioning you once wanted to be an artist. What went wrong (or right)?
JD: I did one year of art college (Salisbury), which was meant primarily to be a prep time to get a portfolio together to get into a degree course. The teachers were awful. I was interested in illustration, anime, comics, science-fiction and fantasy. They were interested in fine art. Once again, I simply didn’t fit what was wanted.
I attended interviews around various universities, but the interviewers were obviously hostile to what I wanted to do. There was one course that was appealing, but it was in Salford and looking at the area around the university I didn’t much fancy it. My parents had divorced a year or two before and I was needed at home. Don’t regret it. Much.
RR: How hard (pun intended) is game mastering porn stars for Tabletopless games?
JD: It’s tricky in some ways. I have to turn away when the sexy stuff comes to the fore or I’ll be too distracted to run the game. We have to balance sexytime stuff, performance and our own preference for presenting a more realistic game (in other ways) than something like Critical Role. It helps that everyone’s into the game and the story as well though, and we allow viewers to buy in and shift events. So it keeps me on my toes.
RR: How did that start? Has anything like that ever been done before?
JD: Anna and Richard had tried before with a different group and GM, but it didn’t really work out. There was ‘D&D with Pornstars’ with Zak Smith and Satine Phoenix amongst others, but they didn’t combine the two in the way we do. I think we’re the first to really make it work in terms of a combined experience, and others are coming up in our wake.
RR: You do it mostly for the money, am I correct?
JD: Hah! It’s nice to have a regular paycheque for a day or two’s work a week, and the knock on sales, and it pays better for the time spent than my regular sales, but I’m in it to get some gaming done and to have fun.
RR: If I’m not mistaken, these are the only streaming games you are currently game mastering. Did you run others before, with fully clothed players?
JD: I’ve not been a huge fan of online play before, people treat it with less commitment than face-to-face sessions. However I did run a full Dragon Warriors campaign online during lockdown, and have run odd sessions here and there.
RR: Wightchester has been in the works for some time. When do you expect to release it?
JD: Early next year, with a Kickstarter starting in August to cover additional costs and the time already spent writing. It’s taking so long because other projects keep popping up and the time taken with Tabletopless. Once I’m caught up with already submitted projects I’m putting 100% focus on Wightchester and not taking anything else on until it’s done.
RR: Now, tell us a bit about the game setting.
JD: It’s a walled city in the South of England, during the Early Modern period (1667). It’s not long after the Civil War and the Restoration, so it’s interesting times even before the dead rise and devour the living. The undead are beaten back, but the most afflicted city is walled in, filled with the dead, and used as a prison in the vague hope that prisoners will – eventually – clear out the dead.
“Once I’m caught up with already submitted projects I’m putting 100% focus on Wightchester and not taking anything else on until it’s done.”
RR: And since settings were mentioned, most of your games don’t have very detailed game worlds. Why is that?
JD: I think, as a designer, my job is to provide a context in which people make their own stories. Not to try and impose my story and particulars upon people. Too much canon becomes stifling. It’s not like writing a novel or a hyperreal imaginary atlas. I prefer to provide the tools than the finished product.
RR: When did you get into role-playing and how did you find out about the hobby?
JD: It depends, really, what you mean by ‘roleplaying’. I started with Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, which means I would have been seven or eight. Myself and a friend would play them together, with me reading the book and them making the choices. In 1984 (I was 9) Fighting Fantasy – The Introductory Role-Playing Game came out, and that was my first ‘true’ RPG encounter. Reading about other games in that led me to a model shop in Basingstoke, and thence to MERP.
RR: Fighting Fantasy was also what got me into the hobby, though I think they were only translated to Portuguese in the late 80s… Which role-playing games did you enjoy most and which influenced you as a game designer?
JD: Games that I enjoy fulfil both criteria, so… WHFRP, Dragon Warriors, SLA Industries, Cyberpunk 2013, Cyberpunk 2020, Mekton, Starblazer Adventures, FUDGE, Old World of Darkness (especially Vampire and Mage), Traveller TNE, Twilight 2000, Blood!, Legend of the Five Rings, Feng Shui, Wasted West… lots.
RR: When did you publish your first commercial role-playing content and which was it?
JD: If you count more fanzine type stuff, 1992 or so, at Gamesfair I think. Published by someone else, The Munchkin’s Guide to Powergaming in 2000. Published by myself, Cloak of Steel in 2004.
RR: Interesting, I remember Munchkin’s Guide to Powergaming but I had no idea it was your work. Do you have a favourite “child” among your games?
JD: Whichever thing I’m working on at the time. Perhaps Blood!, perhaps AFM, perhaps The Little Grey Book.
RR: For what companies did you work before publishing your own material?
JD: Mongoose Publishing, Steve Jackson Games, Nightfall Games, Cubicle 7 Entertainment, Wizards of the Coast and numerous smaller companies.
RR: Do you have a favourite genre in RPGs, both as a gamer and a game designer?
JD: Horror and science-fiction.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT JAMES DESBOROUGH AND HIS WORK, VISIT POSTMORTEM STUDIOS’ BLOG AND GRIM’S YOUTUBE CHANNEL. WIGHTCHESTER: PRISON CITY OF THE DAMNED IS ON CROWDFUNDING AT INDIEGOGO