Tuesday, June 6, 2023

On The Ethics of Product Reviews: Why People Reacted Badly to the Shadowdark Blitz

On Inertia

Shadowdark cover
©️2022 Arcane Library

I recently was having a discussion with my wife about my blog, and how frustrated I was that I hadn't had enough time to create more reviews lately. I have a wonderful backlog of classic RPG material and small publisher games I've been dying to get to. And, I am sure my regular readers have noticed that I have a terrible habit of deciding on a course of action, and then getting distracted by other projects.

I had stated my intent, for example to review Shadowdark back when it was an incomplete sample document a year and a half ago. Long before it's famous million dollar Kickstarter and the controversies around it. But when I was talking about my plans for the blog and my frustration with having missed an opportunity to have been ahead of the game on Shadowdark, had led to another interesting conversation about review ethics.

Moral Hazard and Chartreuse Tentacles

Cover for Cha'alt: Chartreuse Shadows
©️2022 kor'thalis Publishing
Art by Monstark
I consider the trust of my readers to be very important, and I have very clear rules set out for myself on this blog about what I will and will not review. And it has gotten in my way a couple of times in the past year.

A very big example of this is Cha'alt: Chartreuse Shadows, the third of a trilogy I am very fond of. The Cha'alt setting is one of the weirdest, wildest, wackiest I have ever had the good fortune to run a game in. And the system, Crimson Dragon Slayer d20 is true marvel of minimalistic game design.

However, I am also in the writing credits. 

I had made a lot of suggestions to Venger Satanis for material in various tables. I made some suggestions about adventure design. And my critique of some of the early versions of the adventures as he included them in Saving Cha'alt and Cha'alt After Dark had made enough of a difference in Venger Satanis' final expression of those adventures that he felt it fit to kindly put me in the writing credits. Which was a very flattering moment and I consider to be one of the biggest feathers in my game design cap. I also was involved in play testing one of the adventures in Cha'alt After Dark and Chartreuse Shadows' final megadungeon.

However, it also presents a conflict of interest in reviewing it. How can you possibly trust me to give an honest review of Cha'alt Chartreuse Shadows giving my involvement in its design?

You can't. And I'm not going to ask you to.

And this is the downside of forming friendships with a few of the game developers out there that I admire. There comes to be a point where my objectivity should rightly be called into question. And when I feel that's the case, I won't review a book however much I'm itching to do so.

The Shadowdark Folderol

A lot of the controversy over the Shadowdark reviews with the idea that the prominent youtubers who reviewed it, many of whom I respect, had their good opinions bought.

Having read at least an earlier draft of Shadowdark in December of 2021, I can attest to the fact that it's actually pretty good. Nobody had to buy a good review of the game. The version I read was a pretty solid B/X D&D clone with some clever mechanics for light and timekeeping that takes the idea of one-to-one time very literally.

Of course, that was nearly 2 years ago. I would love to see what Arcane Library has produced in the end at some point.

I don't personally see anything wrong with accepting a copy for a review, but it has to come up front with a very simple agreement: 

I'll say what I want about the product, whether I like it or not. I owe you nothing except a review for receiving it. 

It is a simple transaction. And I don't think that any more than that happened with Shadowdark.

What I objected to, and what I think a lot of people really object you too was the very slick corporate marketing strategy that came alongside it. It seems for a couple of weeks that Shadowdark was everywhere. Arcane Library masterfully made sure every OSR hobbyist knew about it. And for an indie gaming community that doesn't like modern, slick corporate packaging, this did not inspire trust. It felt like an invasion of corporatist culture into the indie sphere with the usual predictable results when that happens. Especially when it's a hobby group whose majority Gen-Xers who, as a demographic are constitutionally incapable of appreciating corporate sales and marketing.

On that front, I will maintain that it was tone deaf, not sinister or corrupt. And for that matter, I don't think that Professor Dungeon Master or Ben Milton were being particularly tone deaf, themselves. They weren't necessarily aware of just how the game would be marketed outside of their YouTube channels.

Marketing is Evil, but It Might Be A Necessary One

As a matter of self-reflection, my own aversion to marketing has really been a problem. I don't know how to draw people's attention to my work, and never have. I would love to have someone like Ben Milton give people his opinion on Deathtrap Lite or QuAD RPG, but as there's only one physical copy in existence, and I am flat broke, I'm not even sure I can meet his policy of reviewing only hard copy submissions.

At this point, I just keep creating my content, and hope that one day I will figure how to get attention to my works in a way that doesn't feel like nails on a chalkboard to me and my fellow 40-something grognards.

And in the meantime, I will continue to stick with what I hope are some of the most strict ethics a game reviewer has probably posted. Sending me something we'll get you a review. I will not promise it will be a positive one. But it will be thorough and in my format.

I will do reviews for the creations of someone I like or an internet friend, but not if I help them create it to the point where I should be credited.

And ultimately, all of my efforts are towards making my hobby self-sustaining and having a collection of cool OSR and indie TTRPG books on my shelf. I am not looking to make this a career.  And I hope that pads me from perverse incentives.


  1. (For What It's Worth: Chartreuse Shadows is a pretty solid entry into the Cha'alt trilogy.

    Most of the Early adventures are high stakes one shot adventures that hello play your characters too save the world in the vein of a sleazy sci-fi adventure. With really good pastiches of deep impact, space cowboys, escape from New york, and a few other classic science fiction films.

    The middle adventures, all originally from Cha'alt after dark, play up this sleazy part to 11, involving alien sex quotes and sinister brothels as part of the fun. Chartreuse Shadows definitely goes back to the very horny vibes that you got from Venger's early works such as "the Islands of Purple Haunted Putrescence" and "Alpha Blue".

    The megadungeon at the end really goes even harder on the sexy aspect. Chartreuse Shadows tries very hard to add more of the flavor to Cha'alt, and doesn't offer nearly as much in the terms of mechanical development of the game.
    Nor does it expand on the metenarrative that Fuchsia Malaise had added. It's a pretty good book, although not as good as the first two, I would highly recommend it to someone who wanted to add a lot more sex into their games, but wasn't sure how to start. I will be reviewing avengers latest book, "Advanced how to DM like a Badass" soon.)

  2. That makes a lot of sense. I'm one of those few who actively recoil from most marketing ad campaigns. Even if I like an ad, I'm not going to buy something unless it's something I already wanted or fills a current need.

    The density and throwing so many tentacles at the wall makes sure there's a regular supply of diamonds in the rough, regarding Chartreuse Shadows. I don't know if I have a favorite, but due to the sheer size and sleaziness, you definitely get more bang for your buck with Book 3.

    I'll be Kickstarting Book 4 of the Cha'alt trilogy early this winter, so look for that. In the meantime, there's the free PDF of The Violet-Haunted Crypt.

    Thanks again for all your support and suggestions, hoss!