Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Loss and Curse of Relevance

I was born way, way, way too late. 1954 would have been a good birth year. That's right. I'm complaining that I am way too young. I missed so much, as the prime opportunities involving my interests passed decades ago.I get depressed easily when reading about the future of things I enjoy.

Here is a thread on about gaming and e-readers. I don't doubt this is where the future lies.

But I like books. Shit, I just went almost two months with no phone service. I have a pre-paid plan, and 10€ covered me from January through the beginning of September. I just put 25€ more on it and I expect that to last me most of the next year. The last time I made an actual phone call was back in May I think, to schedule a dentist appointment.

Mainly, I use the thing as a watch when I bother to take it off the bookshelf at all. Oh, and as an alarm clock because my actual alarm clock's alarm is broken. The last thing I want is an electronic doohickey that reads my books, plays my music, and blows me on command.

But some clever person is going to be cutting edge and put video and music into their electronic RPG releases, and publishers will be expected to keep up. Not just writing and layout anymore, but video and audio production. For a role-playing game. And keeping up on the latest handheld reading technology that will change every few years, because it's easier to re-sell that than those uneconomical books that can occupy a shelf (and be swapped and re-sold!) for years and years without generating ongoing revenue.

Of course the big RPG "properties" aren't even the core businesses of the companies making them anymore. While this shows the realities of business on a corporate scale, I think this distorts the possibilities on more human scales. D&D is just a portion of Wizard of the Coast's business, and not the largest portion (and Wizards of the Coast, in turn, is a nearly not-worth-mentioning portion of Hasbro's business). Any normal human being would look at the revenue D&D produces and go, "Oh wow holy shit!" But through the eyes of big corporate scale, it's minuscule. And which scale do gamers seem to pay attention to?


"D&D is ohmygod wow the biggest thing there can ever be it's the monolith!"

"D&D is probably underperforming so badly for Hasbro that they're probably going to cancel it. They just keep it for the IP anyway."

That D&D has taken big steps towards the electronic subscription model, which, by many accounts (and despite the horrid missteps of their "Digital Initiative" early on), does enhance the playability of the 4e game design. This is the future. Which conceals a message: "Are you actually working out your game with a pencil and paper? How quaint!"

Which undoubtedly will drive publishers with resources to do the same.

Or maybe it'll be something different.

Fantasy Flight Games is doing that Warhammer 3rd Edition monstrosity. Here is a promotional video for it. I know people are going crazy waiting for this, but the manipulative intent of this video makes my skin crawl. The slick, scripted manner in which the "interviews" are done (their word choices here are not spontaneous, they are very deliberate; listen), while the "game components" (read: elements which will ensure that you can't just buy a book and be done with it) are showcased using dramatic filming techniques (and music!) to make it look like their box is a major cinematic experience... all to sell you a game that's been done, and done well, twice already without all the extras.

Quite an impressive, and epic, piece of advertising trying to convince you how down and dirty their game is.

Some of it sounds neat in theory. But you need their cards, their dice, their prepackaged sets in order to play the darn thing. And to achieve all these interesting concepts, it seems the game is awfully rules-heavy with half a million condition flags. As I understand it, they have something of a feat system which will only exist on these cards. Not in the rules. It's like the character sheets they sell are already filled in. Wonderful. McRolePlaying.

Both the "physical goodies" and the "electronic presence" elements squeeze the idea of a traditional role-playing game into "obsolescence." No longer are games powered by your imagination, they're powered by a computer, or a ton of cards and interlocking pieces.

Don't have one of those? Left behind!

Compare these to Labyrinth Lord or Swords & Wizardry, which both offer unlimited adventure in a single book.

But things go in the other direction as well. The One Page Dungeon is of no use to me. It's a sparse presentation, but to me the difficulty in preparation is not a map or a key, it's the detail. How do things fit together, what's the relationship between setting element A and B? To me, what makes an adventure good is that after you've done your exploration, fought the monsters, and collected the treasure, there was something unique and intriguing about the location. It becomes a character of its own.

And then there's something like this:

In studying the needs of DMs who all have specific campaigns with real histories, characters and plots of their own, it became apparent that the idea of mainstay adventure modules, such as many based upon TSR’s old model of assumed expediency, has shifted greatly with the contraction of that market and an ever present need over the years for specific game material created by each DM.

That from Rob Kuntz, who is now promoting his new Dungeon Sets line. He's also promoting a Dungeon Trappings line. No complaints about these by themselves, as Dungeon Trappings sounds not dissimilar to Green Devil Face, and unkeyed geomorphs have been with us as a product for 30 years. These will look great, as they're being designed by Ramsey Dow, who I've mentioned before as having done the maps for the next few LotFP releases.

My problem is that this sounds like Kuntz is stepping away from creating complete adventures entirely in favor of these fragments. He writes great adventures, and if they're not selling, I think the problem is somewhere other than the fact that people supposedly don't use adventures.

I have a vested interest in all of this. Yes, I am a publisher, but even as just a simple fan and patron of particular publishers' work I was driven nuts about the things I wanted not being available in forms I could buy. I don't want to skip from game to game, I don't want my game to change, I don't want game elements I can't use and play with on a pad of paper, and I don't want an ever-increasing amount of rules and "character options."

I want adventures. Adventures to spice up my game with something different, adventures I can fit into my campaign without rewriting half of it, adventures that make me think of things I never would have thought of on my own.

That's what I want, and that's what I do.

Enough reflection and prognostication and other luxurious uses of leisure time. In four hours, I have a group of people coming over to enjoy outdated and archaic game play. On Wednesday I will do that again. Yesterday I gave a pile of money to Ramsey and Laura, and did layouts so that tomorrow I can give a shitload of money to Valopaino.

The Grinding Gear is coming, you see. Soon. It'll be a cruel and challenging and perhaps rewarding experience for your players. It'll fit nicely between your own adventures in your own campaign. It'll look nice. It'll feel nice. But it'll be nothing but paper (or even less than that if you get the PDF). It won't have audio or video, it won't sing or dance, it won't include minis or custom dice or cards. It'll take a human being applying judgment and effort to make it come to life and be what it's supposed to be. It has one room that I fear will be seen as so goofy as to belong in this thread, but I couldn't help myself. You'll like it (the adventure... maybe not the room). And it'll cost, shipping included, about the same as a single movie ticket and a bucket of popcorn at your local cineplex, or less than a new-release DVD, while taking longer than 90-150 minutes to use.

How's that for blatantly manipulative and rehearsed marketing language?


  1. I don't use computers at my tabletop game table -- BUT I have come around to how handy my iPhone is for some things. It's actually a lot more book-like than a laptop in the way you hold it and read from it.

    I've actually created an iPhone app for classic d&d and Swords & Wizardry. It's a quick reference, which is what I think mobile devices are good for.

    Once it's added to the iTunes store I'll link to it at

  2. I want to say something about the virtues of Neo-Luddism in this modern world and the success of MTV Unplugged but I haven't had breakfast yet and can't quite get it together.

  3. Needless to say, I agree with a lot of what you say here.

  4. I have fundamental agreement with your blog post, Jim.

    However, I am not pessimistic. All the stuff we hate (as well as those who like it) will keep getting increasing funneled in the direction of just sitting slack-jawed in front of a damn computer screen and staring at it. Good riddance, I say.

    But those such as ourselves will continue to play perennial D&D with straight-forward rulebooks with modest production values. I wouldn't even want some sort of "plugged-in" type playing at my table.

    Consider movies as a parallel. So many movies today are essentially giant CGI explosions that last for 2 hours. But there is still a market for movies with little or no special effects, for black-and-white movies, and even for silent movies.

    Perennial D&D will never die. Let the computerized RPGs get as good as imaginable, and let them weed-out all the people I wouldn't want to play with anyway.

  5. To an extent, I agree with you, however, I stopped worrying about my relevance sometime just after high school. The fact that the other nerds are doing stuff that marginalizes me is just a continuation of a decades long trajectory- one that I've grown rather comfortable with, actually.
    Furthermore, I don't buy adventures- I've been tempted lately by some of the OSR stuff- but in the end, I prefer to make my own junk. So I'm not too worried about the future of peripheral products- a future which I think is actually brighter than you imagine due, in large part, to the technology that you find so troubling. After all we wouldn't be having the conversation without it. Digital stuff draws some people away, for sure- but it allows those of us who remain, and those who might be interested in the old ways to connect in heretofore unheard of numbers. Imo, that's pretty groovy. Personally, I'm not interested in any kind of hardcore digital gaming interface, but Skype allows me to game with my best friend who lives a state away.
    All in all, I guess you've got to take the good with the bad.

  6. I wonder how much it cost to visit Dream Park...

  7. Ha! Nice to learn of a fellow mobilewatchian: I also tend to use it in lieu of an alarm clock. Too bad my old one's display had finally given up - the replacement only has more functions I don't use, not more utility.

    I suppose my tastes in gaming are also fairly tech-free: no background music, no laptops, no special gaming table and in recent years, no battlemat. I gave up on DM screens a lot of time ago - it was the first artifice I discarded since I noticed it was a disruption in the casual table atmosphere I prefer.

    Does this make me a luddite? No; I am using a laptop to post this message on a blog of all things, so it would be mighty hypocritical of me to claim that. I simply believe in conscious technology use - use it when beneficial, but don't let it rule you out of simple conveniance.

  8. While I see the merits of "enhanced media" at a game... nothing and I mean nothing is more rewarding that watching the faces of my players as I describe what they are seeing as opposed to just showing them a picture.

    This move forward into multimedia RPGs will pass, it came already as the MMO and until Dream Park is a reality, there will always be those who prefer to sit around a table, bounce dice, do halfassed accents and pretend to slay dragons.

    All through the oldest multimedia setup we know... voice, body and imagination.


  9. AslanC said...

    "While I see the merits of "enhanced media" at a game... nothing and I mean nothing is more rewarding that watching the faces of my players as I describe what they are seeing as opposed to just showing them a picture"

    Agreed- unless you (or whomever is the DM) drew the picture yourself. I love that kind of stuff. Pinching a pic off the internet just seems like cheating to me.

  10. While I wouldn't take such a whiny/moany Gen-X'er approach to it all, I'll agree that it is a shame that "Pen & Paper" RPGs can't be left to the use of Pen & Paper. Sadly, the more popular a niche becomes, the more it becomes about making money.

    Just look at the retro-clones; what were once all free PDF distributions are now becoming printed brick-and-mortar store items; sure, you can get versions of them for free, but as soon as they were popular enough to sustain a for-purchase production, they went to it. I don't think this is a bad thing, but it is an example to show that moving towards a product model that encourages buyer investment is a natural progression for a lot of products, and in this day and age, buyer investment can easily mean some sort of computer-based involvement.

    But honestly, I don't think there's that much to worry about. D&D and a couple of other games might be moving towards the digital age more quickly, but even a company as tech-savvy as Steve Jackson Games isn't pushing any kind of "convergence"; yeah, they are selling a lot more niche products as PDFs, but that allows them to sell products online that wouldn't normally be worthwhile as printed products.

    Even though you can "computer-fy" almost any boardgame with a little coding elbow grease, people still buy (and still make) $50-100 board games, as well as classics like chess and checkers and monopoly and risk and the like. RPGs will probably fall into the same trend; a number of them will try for some kind of digital market, but most will remain an "old fashioned" product.

    Not to pimp myself overmuch, but I did write a blog post about "Luddite GMing" a few weeks ago. I am totally confident (and comments left at that post support my opinion) that a computer-less RPG experience is not only possible, but probably in many ways more satisfying than one that goes too "digital".

  11. If you'd been born in 1954 you'd have spent the late 80's bitching about the same shit you're spending the late 00's bitching about, only no one would have cared because you wouldn't have had this free-of-charge weblog to bitch with.

  12. Shut the fuck up, ship it on time, make sure it's letter-perfect, and if the audience doesn't exist, fucking go out and create it. You live in the early 21st century; you can blog about how awesome the last show was or you can step up and run this one. You want game companies to work out cool preservationist revenue streams to keep straight-text RPG adventures coming? Start a goddamn company and find those streams yourself, or write a letter to the heads of WotC, or something.

    Your peers are largely nostalgists and your refusal of technology doesn't make you awesome, it just means you're not going to be part of most of what comes next. That's your choice.

    It might be a good choice, but it's not interesting in itself.

    James, I really do wish you luck, but if this blog post were 'Why aren't there any good Victorian novelists?' instead of 'Why aren't there any good AD&D/OD&D adventure writers?' you'd have been laughed off the Internet by now.

    Maybe there's a good life to be had among the phoneless and the abjurers of new tech. Maybe you think your storytelling skills are JUST WOW HUGE because you have these unfashionable opinions about how fucking authentic Gary Gygax's shit was. Prove it: live that life, show off your chops, and IF THE MARKET DOESN'T EXIST, MAKE IT. No one's going to make it for you, broheem.

    If this post comes down to 'Why doesn't everyone want to play these cool games with me?" then the answer is SELL US SOMETHING BETTER. Your hobby can't stay small, 'authentic,' indie, grassroots, AND commercially vibrant. You don't like selling? Begging for sales hurts your feelings? Toughen up.

    You wish you were born in 1954? That's because you're scared of being alone in 2024. Strap on, buckle down, make sure it isn't so, and be content in those things, because that's all anyone can do. Good fucking luck.

  13. >>You wish you were born in 1954? That's because you're scared of being alone in 2024.

    I would think being 70 years old in 2024 carries more risk of being alone than being 50 in 2024.

    But your interpretation is off.

    If I was born in 1954, then I would have been 15 when the first Black Sabbath album came out. I would have still been a teenager when Wizards & Demons, In Rock, and Sad Wings of Destiny came out. I would have been there during the prime periods of King Crimson, Genesis, and Rush. I would have been mid-20s and primed for the emergence of Saxon, Iron Maiden, Angel Witch, and Venom.

    I would have been 13 when Night of the Living Dead came out, and 19 when the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre came out.

    I would have had the opportunity to get into D&D at the very beginning. I could have seen Arduin and A&E and Judges Guild as they first came together and showed off "third party publishing."

    Getting the publishing bug in 1978, instead of 1998, would have meant something entirely different. Everything that I love was new, and about to expand immensely. The possibilities endless.

    And then we'd still be sitting here in 2009, on the internet, but without having missed anything because I was too young, or not even born, at the time.

    And I'd be bitching about having missed the great days of Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis and wishing I had been born in 1934 instead. ;)

    >>James, I really do wish you luck, but if this blog post were 'Why aren't there any good Victorian novelists?' instead of 'Why aren't there any good AD&D/OD&D adventure writers?' you'd have been laughed off the Internet by now.

    Not that I'm an expert on Victorian literature by any means, but honestly, you want to guess the amount of Victorian-era literature on my shelves compared to anything written after, say, 1970? (comic books and graphic novels excepted, of course, and even there it's mostly Cerebus and 60s/70s reprints)

  14. Quality post, Jim. I like my gaming primitive. I made my own Labyrinth Lord screen and I forbid computers at the gaming table.

  15. re @6p00d83451be5069e2's comment of "You want game companies to work out cool preservationist revenue streams to keep straight-text RPG adventures coming? Start a goddamn company and find those streams yourself":

    he did

  16. The RPG industry is hollywood, rich and fat and out of touch with the audience, selling stuff to bored teens with lots of cash, little brains, and too stupid to know better.

    The electronic book has been around for years. I like PDFs and wouldn't do without them. I make them and share them.

    But a print book works better for my needs. I don't need a PC or gadget or electricty to open a book and read it. I hope anyone who likes any PDF I make realizes it's not on a print-on-demand site because I don't care for financial problems; they can take 'em and print them off at a copy shop if they want a professional print version. (Often cheaper than print-on-demand...)

    Electronic books were set to sweep the world years ago. Certainly they've caused various changes. But, mostly, they've failed to kill ink printed on pupled trees and cotton. The e-book market exists and thrives and is a fart compared to paper.

    Pure elecronics will one day reverse that. When it becomes even more convenient than books. But I got tired of e-books and formats and loosing my books to PC crashes and being told "We stopped selling our books. Download yours and make copies because after that, you are screwed."

    Every new version of an operating system renders something old incompatible. Every e-book today will one day NOT be readable by new operating systems: "Buy a new one or screw yourself." is the O/S designer's smirky comments.

    "Buy our new e-book reader. The old one will not support our new books. Otherwise: screw you!"

    Game publishers today suffer one big problem: they try to sell stuff based on gimmicks. Take other people's ideas, polish it with gold and silver leaf, add cutting edge gee-whizz and sell it.

    As for putting effort into designing stuff real people and ordinary people might want to buy, something actually new and novel, their response is a smirky, "I'm making money, so screw you."

    Making fun games for people to play is a lost art; and it is shriveling the hobby year by year...

    PDFs and electronics are not the solution to a lack of creativity and imagination. They are attempts to catch up with what should be happening already, caused by a lack of creativity and imagination. A lack exhibited by deluded fat-cats who are out of touch with ordinary people and struggle to catch up with what we ordinary folk are already doing...