Archive for the 'RPG 2.0' Category

Why Publish?

2008 Jun 4

GB Steve asks, “Why Publish?”

I said:

I’m moving towards publishing things for free or as near to free as I can manage, because keeping track of the money and paying taxes was more trouble for me than the money was worth. I’ve got several games that are going to be available as free PDFs and at-cost print versions from Lulu. I’m also distributing free print ashcans of Geiger Counter at GenCon, through a promotion with the Design Matters booth. I don’t want to have to treat my hobby like it’s a small business; that just kills all the fun for me.

But I’m still publishing because, with the tools at our disposal nowadays, there’s literally no reason not to. There are plenty of reasons not to put out a “finished” hundred-page full-color hardcover edition of something, at least not until you’ve spent several years preparing the thing, but with PDFs and cheap print ashcans instantly available (you don’t even have to store them, they can exist as electrons until someone wants one from Lulu), sharing your work is quickly becoming the rule, not the exception.

Publishing doesn’t mean just getting your book into game stores anymore. It means every step along the way. Release a basic outline on a blog or forum. Release a playtest version as a free PDF. Release an ashcan (what other folks call an Alpha or Beta version) in a print format for a few dollars. Playtest the hell out of it. Maybe release multiple playtest versions over a few years. Finally, put together a final version. Time is on our side. There are no corporate folks giving us deadlines. We can afford to take things slow, writing games like some folks write novels, taking 10 years even, not being Stephen King, especially if we want them to stand the test of time and not count on later editions to clean things up. These are games that, supposedly, will keep being played whether they’re still “supported” by further publications or not.

But — and this is something we don’t talk about much — it’s totally okay to release short games or ashcans that you don’t necessarily expect to go all the way with (Ben’s XXXXtreme Street Luge is a great recent example). We shouldn’t expect that everyone wants to be a small-time business person or, at least, that they want to follow that model for every publishing project. Maybe they just want to put together a product solid enough that they can play it with their own play group and a handful of other interested folks can play it too. That’s totally cool. I’m totally down with products that aren’t really commercial in the sense that they’re not aimed at a wider public audience. Publish a game for 10-25 people, or for 5 people, or for 1 person. That’s publishing. Follow your passion.

Levi Goes 2.0

2008 Jun 1

Levi Kornelsen has a cool new blog that, for now, focuses on the same issues as my RPG 2.0 category. I think it’s safe to assume that I doubleplus agree with nearly everything Levi says about anything.

Indie Roleplaying Gives Up the Dream

2008 May 23

I was just talking to my brother on the phone. He just became co-editor of Top Shelf Comics’ new webcomics imprint, meaning he can leave his other half-time job and work in comics full-time. It’s interesting, now that one of the Walton boys has achieved “the dream” of making a living working in a creative field, I’m left reflecting on how “the dream” seems less and less applicable to roleplaying.

When I was a teenager, I dreamed of making a career in roleplaying or comics. Putting aside comics, making a career in roleplaying now seems ridiculous to me. I’m not sure why I would want to do that. It would be a lot of work for meager return, whether it was through freelancing for major companies or trying to make it as a full-time independent publisher. And I think I would like game design and publishing much less if I was depending on it to make ends meet.

Webcomics (and up-and-coming creative types in print comics) are dominated by college students and twenty somethings, most of whom hope to make a career out of comics. They’re willing to eat Kraft dinner for months just to make it through art school and possibly get a shot at being the next Craig Thompson.

Indie roleplaying, in contrast, is dominated by late-20s-to-middle-aged cats who already have a career. Maybe some kids too. They’re not going to abandon financial security to try to make a living from independent game publishing. Even folks like Brennan Taylor, the owner of Indie Press Revolution, has smartly chosen to not try to turn his indie games distributing business into a career. Of course, there are some folks who haven’t given up “the dream” and are, in fact, living it. Luke Crane, Jared Sorensen, and Thor Olavsrud come to mind (though I’m not sure if Thor hopes to someday turn his editorial gig with the game-producing wing of Archaia Studios Press into a full-time thing). However, I think, in the main, indie roleplaying is dominated by folks who don’t necessarily need to view game publishing as a means of generating income, because they have a “real” job that provides fairly well.

And where does this lead… to the de-professionalization of roleplaying game design and publishing, where people treat their game design work (correctly, I would argue) as a hobby and not a career. This has all sorts of ramifications. Making money is secondary. Sales numbers stop being the main measure of “success.” Maybe creative works are shared freely instead of sold, because that extra bit of income isn’t as important. There’s no need to beg for mainstream media coverage. There’s no reason to evangelically expand roleplaying to the masses. There’s no reason to care about the decline of the industry.

And… these are all going in the opposite direction that comics is currently headed in, where even independent comics are becoming a big business complete with movie deals and full-time editors for free webcomics imprints. Sure, it’s still possible that someone like Wizards or White Wolf will decide to start an independent imprint for boutique games (Mongoose’s tragic Flaming Cobra experiment is a debacle that’s not at all capable of seizing on the promise of indie game publishing) or that some meta-indie publisher will rise up and turn indie gaming into a heavily-commercialized section of the market. If the money starts pouring in, I imagine some folks will line up to cash out, because, why not? Might as well. I’m still waiting to see what happens when the first indie roleplaying property gets licensed for a major motion picture. Then the Powers That Be will start paying attention. (Is it a coincidence that Random House has a comics imprint now? I doubt it.)

But, as things are moving now, indie roleplaying has, in effect, given up on “the dream” of game publishing as a full-time career. We don’t want it. I like my job, personally, and I wouldn’t give it up to develop games, unless a major company was going to hire me to edit a boutique imprint. Even then, it would be a hard choice. What’s the health plan like? (Honestly, they don’t want me anyway; they want Evil Hat, who are more invested in doing crossover work with indie style but mainstream appeal.) More importantly, I’m not working towards the dream and I’m not seeking it out. I’m getting on with my life but staying committed to working on and publishing games on the side, because, you know, why not? It’s fun.

And so it everyone else I know. Interesting.

The OGL Getting Less Open

2008 May 5

Archiving some thoughts from Story Games.

For me, this isn’t about folks being able to make money by riffing off WotC’s IP. That would be good for some publishers, sure, but I’m more interested in the long-term effect of the new GSL on the culture of sharing and free-use in our little creative niche. In my opinion, the OGL provided a legal framework to allow roleplayers to do what roleplayers had already been doing since before the first version of D&D was published: borrow and remix game mechanics for their own play and, also, for creating competing commercial products. From that perspective, if licenses become significantly less open, they actually restrict widely accepted existing practices and are not necessary a big gift that we should be thankful WotC is bestowing upon us. The free borrowing practices of roleplaying are already decades ahead of many other creative fields in establishing an open creative environment. Going backwards would suck.

At this point, it’s simply a lot of bad emotions, that they’re telling folks already used to playing in their playground that, if they want to stay, there are a bunch of new rules they have to follow. But, on the other hand, I think WotC being less open about their IP is likely to have a strong effect. In fact, I would argue that the backlash against the perceived weaknesses and problems of open gaming started a while back.

Remember the John Kim vs. Green Ronin fiasco over posting the open portions of Blue Rose on the internet, as a kind of SRD? To me, that indicated that Green Ronin was not actively on board with many of the core principles of open source, despite their own use of open content. In contrast, Evil Hat enthusiastically welcomed efforts by their own fans to make an SRD for Spirit of the Century. Recently, Green Ronin have taken a more pro-open stance with their True20 material, but I suspect this is — at least in part — motivated by an attempt to build a foundation for True20 when it looked like WotC was putting a firmer grip on their own IP. They’re still actively dissuading attempts at a True20 SRD.

So, from my perspective, a shift in thinking about open content and the value of it has already happened in the minds of several major roleplaying publishers. The changes to WotC’s open content procedures are really an indication of these developments more than something entirely new. But I would argue that something is wrong when roleplaying publishers increasingly feel the need to prevent their fans or fellow publishers from “unfairly” taking advantage of their work. Legitimately protecting your IP from damaging, unfair practices is one thing, but protecting a specific business model or method of operating is another, and I think the latter is actually happening more often. The way open source generally works as a commercial business model is that you give away some open content (Linux, webcomics, SRDs) and make your money selling content that isn’t open or freely available (support, t-shirts, hardcover books with full color art). But WotC and Green Ronin clearly want to have their cake and eat it too; they want people to spend money for the privilege of having access to open content (via print or PDF versions, or both). That’s pretty odd, yeah?

But, honestly, that’s how most publishing works under the OGL. Do OGL publishers put their open content on their website, for people to use? Nope, not generally. Sometimes they make PDFs of their products free after they’ve sold about as many as they play to, but that’s it. And now they have even less of an incentive to make open content really open and available, with major publishers taking pains to put more barriers around content that’s supposed to be free to use. I imagine a widespread turtling is not far off, with a large number of folks retreating into their shells instead of being coaxed into abandoning them entirely. Is there a future in which you can play D&D for free (i.e. the corebooks can be freely downloaded), but have to pay for “official” supplements compiled by WotC from both fan and freelancer material (and made all pretty)? Maybe, but it just moved a bit further off, since WotC (and others) have decided that this open stuff isn’t as awesome as they thought it was and, instead of getting more open (and, generally speaking, roleplaying’s barely open at all, yet), we’re going back to being more closed.

Roleplaying 2.0

2008 May 4

The recent kerfuffle over Wizards of the Coast’s attempts to wrangle their open source content into being less open, has got me thinking about the future of roleplaying in an increasingly open source, self-created, and freely shared media environment.

A while back I hungrily devoured Chris “Long Tail” Anderson’s presentation on “free stuff” at the Nokia 2007 conference. Then, yesterday, Paul Czege linked me to Clay Shirky’s speech on the transition towards interactivity at the Web 2.0 conference. Both of these talks are very inspiring.

One of Shirky’s main points is that there is a growing shift from a model of media consumption to a model of media participation. Even things like the rise of fanfic (not one of his examples) point to consumers’ shared desire and expectation that they will become involved in the creation and dissemination of the things they like. And, in many ways, roleplaying is ahead of its time in this regard, having always held the door open (to one degree or another) for fans to create their own material to supplement or replace commercial products. In fact, it’s impossible to be a passive consumer of roleplaying. Even in the most railroaded of all dungeon crawls, players are actively engaged in a participatory manner.

However, I think both mainstream and independent roleplaying design has a strong tendency to try to replicate traditional print and audio-visual media, especially genre fiction novels and movies, which have a much more passive model of consumption and don’t allow as much space for “audience participation.” Roleplaying as an activity may demand a level of participation that’s higher than your average scifi novel or film — and consumers may independently create networks for exchanging material that they’ve created to supplement or replace commercial products — but it’s less often that designers and publishers try to actually make room for consumers to create and disseminate their own material that exists on equal standing (or is even recognized as superior to) commercially published material. This attempt by Wizards to rein in the OGL is definitely a step backwards.

It would be worthwhile for us to get better at this, I think.

For example, right after In a Wicked Age was released, there was not a day that went by where several new Oracles or Oracle creation projects / invitations were posted on Story Games. That is powerful stuff, and Vincent didn’t even expressly suggest people should create other Oracles, though he certainly got excited about it when they did, which helped build enthusiasm. Generally, though, the excitement spread because people saw how cool Oracles were and simultaneously thought, “Hey, I could do that at least as good as Vincent, at least, for this particular thing that I care about.” Wouldn’t it be cool if all of roleplaying worked more like that, and explicitly so? If everyone could be valued and supported for their contributions, whether they had “authority” as the original author / publisher of the material or not?

On the D&D OGL Debacle

2008 Apr 21

Cross-posted from Story Games.

As I was telling John Harper earlier today, I think this is the kind of mess that inevitably happens when forward-thinking people convince a large company of the merits of a newfangled hippie idea (I say that with lots of love) like open source or Web 2.0; the company wants all the advantages of these newfangled hippie idea, but doesn’t really accept the values, consequences, or new ways of doing business that come with the newfangled hippie idea. Overall, the company still continues to do things in a more traditional fashion, doing “what’s best for the company” instead of being satisfied with doing “what’s best for the industry / community” and being a part of the general success that brings to the entire environment. I suspect Wizards, like many folks, is trying to make a play that is both “daring” and relatively “safe,” which lands them in this mess of being sorta open source, but not really, because they’re not really prepared, as a company, to operate and compete in a truly open source environment, because, like most folks, they’re still not entirely sure what that environment would look like. Still, the post-IP all-Open horizon is slowly approaching and roleplaying seems uniquely poised, in many ways, to take advantage of it.