Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Isle of the Unknown and How it Will Define LotFP as a Publisher

The Grindhouse Edition of Weird Fantasy Role-Playing is in a holding pattern on my end as most of what I need to do to it now depends on the art that hasn't yet been delivered. (to the artists reading, this doesn't mean rush... better for it to be slow and good than quick and sloppy)

So I've finally had the chance to really start looking over and planning details about Vornheim, Isle of the Unknown, and Carcosa. Vornheim: The Complete City Kit's format is entirely functional - Zak and I will be taking advantage of the format of a physical book and using it to do things beyond just being the storage medium for information. We'll also be taking advantage of the Free-PDF-with-Physical-Purchase to make the combo do even more things (I am really struggling to not use lame business lingo here). I'm hoping it'll be considered innovative, but at worst it'll simply work.

Now Zak's a obviously not just a writer - he's also the artist and his mind works in many more directions than mine does. In other words, he has a lot of ideas that seem very strange to me, but for the most part we're going with his direction. I'm the publisher but he's the guy on Vornheim. The mandate from Zak is to do all this while keeping the book as affordable as possible. None of the fancy bits of the book are unnecessary - they all have a game-play function. Our format and page count was set very early on and we're going to deliver all this to you with a lower-than-$20 price tag (exchange rates willing).

Impressed you will be. But this is all very specific to Vornheim and not to LotFP productions going forward.

Carcosa already had a low-budget version released a couple years back and my vision for the re-release is big. It's going to be a fancy hardcover, on the outside resembling a forbidden magical tome. One idea we're looking at is keep the cover itself clear of any publishing gobbledygook or sales stuff and include that info on a OBI strip type of thing.

Again, very project-specific as Carcosa is entirely its own thing with a history.

Isle of the Unknown is something else altogether. No particular physical format is suggested by the concept. So what to do?

If we keep the font that previous LotFP adventures have used (Times New Roman 8pt), we could condense it down, have a bit of artwork to fill out the page count, put the map on the reverse of a detachable cover and have the package resemble Hammers of the God. Module-as-Usual.

However, if we increase the font size a bit and make the thing a little more readable, this is no longer an option. We're looking at perfect-bound, with questions about where the map goes. Not insurmountable, but not module-as-usual. Then I get this email from McKinney the other day:


As I was falling asleep last night (in that half-awake half-asleep state) the following idea occurred to me. Then at 4:30 this morning I woke-up and couldn't fall back to sleep because of this idea. As I type this sentence it's 5:09 in the morning.

More than anything else, art in an RPG product needs to be useful. I think back to my early RPG days, and what "sold" me on a product more than anything else? Monster Manual-style art. The day I bought my Holmes Basic set, I also purchased the Monster Manual. It was a no-brainer purchase rather than the PHB or the DMG. Why? Because of the multitude of monster illustrations.

Some months thereafter I went to the store, money in hand, to buy the PHB. Ha! The Deities & Demigods book was sitting there, brand new on the shelf. One look at it (with its MM-style art) and there was no debate: I bought the DDG instead. I could sit for hours looking at the pictures in the MM and the DDG (and, in the next year, the Fiend Folio). The PHB and the DMG? Not so much. Sure, drawings of adventurers are cool, but how can they compare to the compendia of drawings of monsters in the MM, DDG, and FF?

Consider two monsters from the MM that nobody ever uses: the masher and the slithering tracker. (Hell, I literally never even noticed the very existence of the masher for about 20 years!) Why does nobody ever use them? What do they have in common?

No picture.

What if the interior art of Isle of the Unknown is devoted solely to Monster Manual-style (by that I mean relatively small drawings of just the monster itself) drawings of the 108 or so monsters in the book? That's a lot of drawings, but they'd be relatively small. The drawings would make the monsters come alive, unlike the poor masher and slithering tracker.

Plus, the drawings overall would be cooler than the drawings in MM, DDG, or FF. After all, how cool can a drawing of an orc or a brownie be? In contrast, all the monsters in Isle of the Unknown are weird and relatively hard to picture.

My first thought was "Oh fuck that. It'll cost a
fortune to have someone draw all those things. And that'll double the size of the book." I'm not going to have all these illustrations done and then make them teensy tiny, after all. Basically, Isle of the Unknown goes from being a module ("small project") to being a setting ("big project") on just the weight of visuals, with the same written content.

... and not that it would be solely the monster art in there - this would be going into offset printing territory for sure and at A5 size we need multiples of 32 pages, and as there's little chance that it'll magically end up being the exact number of needed pages I'll also need enough art to fill out that page count. I want readable fonts but not exaggerated giant lettering, and blank pages sitting at the end of a gaming supplement are lame. Plus there's still the cover that needs to be gorgeous (I agree with this and if I didn't need to keep up good relations with people I'd name some names of recent OSR cover art that isn't just "kinda bad" or "understandable given the budget," but art so bad it makes me feel embarrassed for all involved). And the map needs to look professional.

Do I want to take that step? It's nice that he's got all these ideas but it's easy to have ideas when someone else is bankrolling them.

But wanting to make sure McKinney is happy with the final product, I checked around. It turns out I could do this, although the art budget would be through the roof. Yes, that cost gets passed on to you, the buyer, but with the new page count that would be required, I think the price wouldn't be outrageous for what you'd get.

Then I did my first close reading of the entire book. Holy balls, all these monster descriptions talk about color! Hmmm. HMMMMM. Not that color is necessary for the illustrations, but one should check into all the options. All-color monster illustrations not only increases the price of each piece of art individually, but a different type of paper than planned will be required for the book, and printing in color is more expensive as well, and any extra pics would also have to be in color or it won't seem like a cohesive product. Geoffrey's island is described so vibrantly that I can't say that the color would be an unnecessary luxury - color is integral to the imagery McKinney uses.

But going all-color moves us into strange territory - the risk becomes not only large but dangerous, and while I believe people will pay a quality price for a quality product, there does come a point where too much is too much.

(disregard POD pricing models - with offset if you're going all color it's the price of commissioning color vs black and white that jacks up the cost of the book more than paper or printing costs)

Isle of the Unknown is (or was until now) a smaller release on the schedule, so really what I decide for it will set a standard for what a "run of the mill" (horrible way to put it) LotFP release looks like going forward. I have a little while before I'll start commissioning any of this stuff, but that just means I'll have more time to agonize over the decision.

So what to do?

Keep in mind that Isle of the Unknown is a sandbox. Not a setpiece module that you'll run for 1 - 3 sessions and then be done with it. It can form the skeleton of an entire campaign which never leaves the Isle.

I want every release to be special and as high-quality, inside and out, as I can make it.

I believe that the perception of OSR products as "cheap" hurts us more than helps us (remember that the classic TSR products were extremely high-end for their time and not cheap on release) on a variety of levels. In an age of freely available PDFs, legitimate or otherwise, competing on price seems utterly daft. Sparse production values in a book designed to spark the imagination hardly make the book more worth owning.

But how much is too much?


  1. I coloured in many of the monster illustrations in the Fiend Folio myself using coloured pencils. The Fiend Folio art lent itself to that in a way that the art in the Monster Manual and Monster Manual 2 didn't. Colouring in monster art is a good way of relaxing your brain.

  2. I can't envision managing to break even on a full-color book with that many illustrations. The point at which the "OSR" generation reaches sticker shock is relatively low compared to the next-generation gamers who were raised on higher prices (the cost of paper skyrocketed around 1994 relative to other commodities, and never came down).

    Our niche is simply not large enough, and is too financially conservative, to let that sort of product make back the massive up-front cost you would be looking at.

  3. Sorry, I know that above post of mine is purely a publisher's viewpoint, but that's the particular two cents I had to offer. :)

    Bill Webb and I have been going through the similar exercise of how to do the Necromancer Games Tome of Horrors for Swords & Wizardry / 0e. That's going to be a black and white interior, and even with that, the page count is a major issue because there's simply a point at which the price on a single book will cause people to say "no way." EVEN if that same person would happily buy two volumes at a higher total price but paying less for each individual book. Yes, it's illogical, but it's absolutely true. Sticker shock is an issue, and you're describing a book that would have a really big price tag on it, if you want to just break even.

  4. I would, to start with, target the monsters that have "imaginability problems"--that is: The more sci-fi ones. start by seeing if you can afford those, then move forward,

  5. I love the idea of illustrations and I agree that the images in the MM, D&DG and Fiend Folio had a big impact on my imagination. In fact, they still do. Illustrated monsters would be wonderful.

    I think color is unnecessary. You said it yourself, a lot of the descriptions go into color. If I have a nice black and white image of a monster and a vivid description of it, my imagination will take care of the colors.

    I saw black and white illustrations of Beholders, Mind Flayers, Gythzerai, Aboleth, and other fantastic creatures long before I saw color images of them, and seeing the color versions never surprised me or made them more "real" to me.

  6. Just consider that 4th edition D&D rulebooks (not digest/A5, full color and around 200 pages or so? honestly don't know) cost about 35$. None would pay the same nor about the same for *physically* half those manuals.

    That said, full color Isle of Unknown would be f**kin' awesome, and I'd definitely pay 30 bucks for that.

  7. Oh, another great example of black and white illustrations would be the Call of Cthulhu game book. There's a good book that doesn't need color illustrations for the creatures to make a vivid impression on the reader.

  8. Definitely agree with Il Male. I would pay $30-$35 for a book I know is: (1) capable of open-ended adventure, (2) filled with illustrations, since illustrations of new monsters is something I can't do myself and use every time at the game table. Don't know if this is feasible, but I would buy a module that fulfills these two criteria and only has the most cool/unique monsters in color (4-6 on the covers of the module, the rest in B&W inside)

  9. You know, you don't have to have *all* of those graphics printed in the book. Cherry-pick, but put all the illustrations on-line. Hell, go crazy and include special small illustrations that can be printed and used for homemade miniatures. There's your useful art.

    Printing a big, beautiful book is great, but don't shy away from the digital market to help keep costs down.

    I mention this because [1] I love cool art, and [2], I'm a cheap bastard who won't pay more than $20 anymore for any gaming book that isn't at least 25 years old, so, you know, my motives for giving advice here are entirely selfish.

  10. $30-40 USD is manageable. I'm also fine with gesture-style drawings, if they're done with skill and still evocative enough to get the creature down.
    I'm not the type who ever held up the Monster Manual and said "You see this thing right here..." anyway, so it's all good regardless.

  11. One of the problems I see with the current gaming market is the emphasis on glossy color books that cost a lot. One of the appeals to me about a lot of the OSR is quality products that I can afford on a budget.

    There was a time when I could walk into a gaming store and pick up a game system because it looked interesting. These days the expense of most games means I don't buy anything unless I've researched it first.

    The free .pdf for LotFP was a big help in letting me decide to buy the boxed set. The low cost of the set and its supplements let me toss a few in just to check them out, it was like a breath of fresh air. Even though I am now invested in the system, there is definitely a "too expensive" limit on my budget, especially in the current economy.

  12. I have enough trust in the quality of James' and Geoffrey's work that I would wouldn't hesitate to drop $40-50 on a fully illustrated, full color sandbox setting.

  13. @Maasenstodt, yes, but a $30-$50 cover price may limit the audience to those who already have a high degree of confidence in the quality of Jame's and Geoffrey's work (i.e.--most readers of this blog). It will be much harder to move books off the shelves of local game stores at $34 than at $19.

    @James, would it be feasible to commission art that reproduces well in grayscale, and then do traditional printing in B&W for mass distribution, while offering a deluxe color version through POD?

  14. @imLOTFP
    Perception of OSR products as 'cheap'. Cost and Quality aren't the same thing here. Labyrinth Lord and S&W don't look or seem 'cheap' to me or anyone I've introduced them to!

    And where does this idea come from? Black and White Softbacks are fine, from where I'm standing. Palladium books still uses this format! I haven't noticed any call for more Fantasy Flight Games prices or pushing for a Nobilis style-coffee table book.

    'classic TSR products were extremely high-end for their time and not cheap on release:'

    Price Points:
    (Financial Data from Dollar Times)

    $10.00 in 1973 had the same buying power as $50.81 in 2010.

    Some people(and reviewers) thought it was overpriced for what you got in the box, and obtuse to boot! Most infamously, Ken St. Andre created T&T in response to both counts!

    Annual inflation over this period was 4.49%.

    The Holmes Book came out in 1977 for 5.00: $5.00 in 1977 had the same buying power as $18.55 in 2010.
    The Holmes Box was 9.95: $9.95 in 1977 had the same buying power as $36.92 in 2010.

    Annual inflation over this period was 4.05%.


    Moldvay Set:
    $14.95 in 1981 had the same buying power as $37.41 in 2010.
    Annual inflation over this period was 3.21%

    how about:

    2nd Edition Player's Handbook:
    20.00 in 1989 had the same buying power as $35.84 in 2010.

    Annual inflation over this period was 2.82%

    Followed up with:

    3rd Edition Player's Handbook:
    $19.95 in 2000 had the same buying power as $25.60 in 2010.

    Annual inflation over this period was 2.52%.


    Note also there were complaints from competitors that TSR was holding costs down and flooding the market!

    $25-35-40 depending on what you're looking to do, I'd say.

    @ZAk S:
    On Art:
    Thanx for this, btw: 'The mandate from Zak is to do all this while keeping the book as affordable as possible.'(And Jim's efforts of course!)

    @Matt Finch
    'too financially conservative'-
    Low price points to bring in players could only help I'd say. Especially with good product waiting in the wings. More players, more sales. But you've heard this before, no doubt, and you're the one running the business...
    Thanx for your S&W efforts, BTW!

    Free PDF previews(limited or no) are good to let customers gauge product, I'd say.

    Personally, my sweet spot is $25-35, but I don't care for 350+ page, full-color, glossy page, foil wrapped, holographic vanity projects, either. I want a functional game book, like S&W Core or After the Bomb, Or Labyrinth Lord, or White Wolf's self-contained games. In my opinion, there should be a deluxe hardcover version AND a softcover version; that way you'd have people who buy one or the other, or both!(One[or more] for play, the other for display!) YMMV.

    Looking forward to Vornheim and Grindhouse Edition in particular!

  15. Id pay $40 or so for Isle of the Unknown sight unseen on the strength of Carcosa.

    I value simple abstract black & white illustrations, silhouettes, masks, designs and so on over colour illustrations. I think colour illustrations are gaudy, too explicit, too rich, too interfering, too hand-holding to the imagination.

  16. Estimate gross income for each option, subtract expenses, choose the option which results in greatest net profit.

    My impression has been that you are trying to make a living at this, rather than doing vanity projects.

    And don't get me wrong, I love vanity projects, I'm working on a vanity project, but it's not my day job.

  17. Color is dangerous.

    Seriously, even more so than all black-and-white. If you decide to go with color, get together with your artists and decide on a palette. It's the only way to give the book a coherent feel. Also, make sure the artists stick to the palette chosen. Otherwise, again, you end up not with a coherent book, but something that looks like art was grabbed here and there and just slapped in together.

    Color means a lot more coordination and a lot more of someone (probably you) riding herd on the artists to make sure it's right. It's very easy to go through the expense and end up with something that looks worse than it would have in black-and-white.

  18. >>@James, would it be feasible to commission art that reproduces well in grayscale, and then do traditional printing in B&W for mass distribution, while offering a deluxe color version through POD?

    The increased risk and expense of an all-color book is almost entirely art costs.

    The increased cost of printing full color, once the artwork is already there, is minor.

  19. Perhaps you could put many of the illustrations together, perhaps on a poster or on color plate pages (I don't know the publishing terminology for that). The image doesn't need to be next to the illustration.

    I didn't notice any comments about it, but moving up from 8 point Roman is key. There are A-list rulebooks I cannot use because even with good eyesight, I get a headache from the layout. I will read them in PDF, but probably never use the rules in play.

  20. When I buy a module, I inevitably tweak and customize it. When I run a module, I make notes about what has happened during play - these guys are dead, this corridor has stuff in it, these doors are spiked open, etc. I like to be able to do that right in the book, rather than worry about keeping extra pages of notes nearby. So if color illustration is going to change the paper to something that won't take graphite well or won't erase cleanly, I'll be less interested in the purchase.

    Since I'm also trimming down my gaming budget these days, color illustrations could really be a deciding factor for me, if they increase the price while simultaneously making the module less customization-friendly.