Monday, May 19, 2008

Design Notes for The Random Esoteric Creature Generator for Classic Fantasy Role-Playing Games and Their Modern Simulacra

'allo 'allo... Just some notes talking about what went into the design and development of The Random Esoteric Creature Generator for Classic Fantasy Role-Playing Games and Their Modern Simulacra.

It was originally supposed to be a little filler of a feature in the long-delayed Insect Shrine of Goblin Hill. Unfortunately, to do it correctly was going to take far more than a few A5-sized pages, and as I continued the project and believed it to be worthwhile, I knew that it was going to be its own publication.

The goal was to keep the thing small enough to use the smallest postal rates to keep the price down. I dislike fancy production values in RPG products, and I dislike paying a lot of money for them as well. Getting anyone to buy something I wrote was going to be hard enough without making it expensive, or expensive to ship. The least expensive postage rate going overseas is 1,40€, which is over two dollars nowadays. That sucks. And it only allows 50 grams for the envelope.

Also, everything had to be done on the cheap. Really, I'm broke and have no money. As in, I have 75 cents to my name as I write this. Probably not the best idea to become a publisher at this point in time, but when I can print something, I do it, and make everything else follow it in terms of priorities. If I waited until I was ready, I'd wait for the rest of my life.

Sales potential for a systemless publication intended for use games out of print for twenty years, with no marketing or name behind it, isn't that great, so having a "proper" press run wasn't going to work. I decided on 200 copies.

So combine "cheap" with "short run," and you get "the local copy shop." It's not fancy, but it's real, and it prevents the problems of POD printing. Really, I think it's maddening to order something and then wait for it to be put together, and then wait for it to come in the mail.

The weight requirements to keep the price down meant that I couldn't have a cardstock cover or more than 28 pages. The small font size isn't really a result of that, as LotFP has been mentioned as "Lord of the Fine Print" for many years now.

It was still going to cost more than I wanted. I would have loved to say, "$5 American, postage included," but the exchange rates prevent this. So I decided that people who order will get the pdf for free.

After finishing the tables and having people look them over, I was stuck with a bunch of white space on the page at the end of most of the tables. I wanted every section to start on its own page to make everything as easy to spot as possible. I'm no stickler for what one is "supposed" to do in publications, but I didn't like all that white space.

So I started drawing monsters myself to fill the space. I've had previous bad experiences with artists not delivering work, so I figured if I did it myself, I'd have nothing to worry about. The problem is that I suck at drawing, and it took a long time to come up with ideas that I could execute without making myself puke. And I was going to publish this?

The idea for the cover was originally just going to be an adventurer, with all the cliche gear, including a 10' pole doing a perspective trick, with a creature emerging out of the darkness behind him. An adaptation of that idea became the back cover... because I had this little little sketch of a mantisgoatwoman, and a wicked idea. I "learned" to draw from wrestling magazines and comic books, so my sense of human proportion is all artistically fucked and I can't even attempt to draw women at all. I had this friend that I'd been talking to online for a couple of months, and she was good with Photoshop composites. I approached her with the idea of making the mantisgoatwoman a photo thing instead of a drawing. She went for it. I was stunned. We've even met a few times now (once to sign the contract for the artwork, after I'd already gotten most of it... her boyfriend and several of my friends were present for this and they were all much amused). Aino is an actual friend! Yay! Anyhow, she had a bunch of problems getting the mantis arms to look right, but eventually she turned in the artwork that went on the cover. I was ecstatic! This was awesome!

The inspiration for putting that on the cover has to do with a few things. There's precedent for it, sort of, on the cover of Eldritch Wizardry. And when I was a nine year old reading the Monster Manual, the thing scared me. Those pictures of undead freaked me out. I wouldn't read the book at night for a long, long time. But the idea was that the creatures were supposed to be threatening, and the artwork should have a creepy vibe to it. Maybe my abilities as an artist didn't make that happen for every picture, but that's where ideas like the "parasite" (page 26) came from. "Yes, he has snakes coming out of every hole! Wait a minute. Every hole? Why not...?" And then there was all the nudity in the old D&D books, especially on things like the sylph that showed pubic hair, well, I thought that I owned something that I shouldn't. Like it should have been forbidden. The hysteria around D&D at the time probably didn't help. And I remember the absolutely ridiculous controversy around the cover artwork for Dragon Magazine #114. I was 11 and I thought it was a non-issue.

So I thought it would be very cool and fitting as a tribute to the past, without being stuck there, including all my weird feelings about the art as a youngster, to have something like this on the cover. At one point there was discussion about it being a full-frontal nude picture. The exact conversation involved the fact that if it's a human torso and goat legs, then the crotch is included in the torso. I did give specific instructions that Aino was not to do some porno pose like she's in Penthouse or something, but if she's just standing there, it was fine. Obviously that didn't happen, whether Aino seriously considered it or not, I don't know, but you can see that the hair on the crotch doesn't quite match the hair on the legs. It's probably bad form to post about it when I haven't talked to Aino about it, but it's interesting trivia and I was afraid if I asked her about it afterwards it would come across as, "I want to see your cooch now, please." Not the situation I want to put a friend and collaborator in.

Now the cover didn't turn out as planned. My graphic design skills are shit, and the printing method used isn't so excellent for photographs (although I've had good results with the music zine before). It's a bit dark. You can still see it just fine, but it doesn't "pop" from the page at all. The promo version online looks much better than the actual printed thing, and I was so glad I'd already decided to offer the pdf for free with an order because the cover art looks so much better there. People will see it as it was meant to be seen with no added fuss.

The overall presentation really was an easy decision. To me, half-size books are much more convenient and easy to handle. Why people insist on full-sized books is beyond me. The "trade dress" was going to be simple. I had no wish to ape old D&D cover designs, and frankly I think it's sad that many simulacra publishers choose to do that. This isn't a fossil we're dealing with here, it's a living game and we're declaring ourselves the heirs apparent to the creativity of Gygax and the rest by attempting this. We should be bold! (and I hadn't even read the thoughts of James Maliszewski and others on the subject yet).

The cover art situation taught me several lessons:

#1 - Don't bother putting the title on the cover. I know it goes against all marketing wisdom, but my releases don't have in-store distribution and probably never will since I'd feel like a shyster and a thief doing a retail markup of 60% above and beyond whatever I felt my personal profit should be. If it's not in a store, then who gives a shit if the proper branding and marketing schemes are used? Whatever web page you buy it off of will be listing the title anyway.

#2 - For the future, I should use cardstock covers, and perhaps go color. It'll be more expensive but the cover should look excellent, especially if Aino can execute some of the ideas I have in mind. I don't care about what is considered good production values in the industry at large, but I do care about the stuff I put out looking good to my standards. My disregard for "shiny and glossy" doesn't mean I want my stuff to look like crap! The products themselves will be more substantial so it's not like I'd be charging more just for a fancier cover.

The interior artwork was going to be the standard line art. I don't do it just to be "old school." Line art is just much easier to reproduce during printing without everything screwing up, and I'll always print in a dirt-cheap way. Fancy production values in a book do not enhance actual play one tiny bit so I resent paying for them when i buy things, so I will not inflict that pain upon others. I have no wish to provide product for people that aren't going to use it in their games, so all the collectors that never game, or "bookshelf fillers" who just like reading RPG books can go stick their head in a toilet for all I care. I'd originally thought to say they can "fuck off and die," but the idea is that they should start actually playing, not be permanently unable to. Although collectors that buy multiple copies so they have one pristine copy and one play copy are A-OK with me!

On April 1, I was ready to print. I had all my drawings done, the text was ready. Aino was just going to submit another drawing, and that was going to be it. When I saw her drawing, I stopped the presses. She could actually draw! That submission was the dog-thing now found on page 20. I immediately asked if she could re-do all the drawings I had done. She did, copying my work perhaps a bit much, but improving the quality on most of the pieces 100%. Here's an example, with my art above and Aino's below:

I think her work looks better than mine. She knows how to shade, for one. Now because I had already been ready to print, and I hadn't published anything in almost a year and a half and wanted to get this out, I rushed her. I bugged her almost daily for status reports. As a result, a couple of the pieces aren't as good as they should have been, and that's all my fault. She's already got the specs for the next project and she has months, not weeks, to get it done. I predict that we will all be impressed with the "improvement" she makes because nobody's breathing down her neck every second. (No pressure, Aino. No pressure. :P)

So that's the story about the artwork. I haven't talked much about the writing.

The bulk of the product is simply random charts and tables that generates a creature for use with classic fantasy role-playing games. But it couldn't just be charts. It needed an introduction and a proper wrap-up. Now, the introduction had to be contentious. A statement of intent. I know it's not "professional" to swear in a publication, and my antagonistic "edition wars" attitude doesn't help me make friends, but I'm not here to make friends and be part of a big happy scene. I'm here to challenge, make people think, get them fired up, and provide a gaming supplement that will be genuinely useful. Yeah, I call a certain company "those fuckers," but I'm also challenging the traditional audience's approach to the original game. "The idea of a standardized monster list for anything other than exemplar purposes is probably the worst thing that happened to role-playing," is a powerful statement, I think. It definitely doesn't match with the accepted common wisdom of... well... anyone! I would hope that people reading that actually think about it. I don't care if they agree with me in the end or not. That's not the point. I want them to engage their hobby instead of just going through the motions with it.

And I enjoy a strong author in game books. I know we're "supposed" to as neutral and accommodating to as wide an audience as possible, but that's not the kind of book I like to read. I like Gary Gygax sounding like the God of the Game telling me that, "YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT." I like Ron Edwards telling me how games should be designed in the pages of Sorcerer. It doesn't matter if I agree with them or not, I'm not offended! Why is anyone offended or put off by this? I don't understand.

And my writing will reflect who I am. A new friend of mine, who'd known me only a few weeks, picked up the Creature Generator and told me it sounded like me from the very first sentence. That's a compliment to my writing, I think. And yeah, sometimes the language I use is coarse. I guess sometimes I use words unnecessarily, although moreso in speech and maybe this blog than in my serious writing (I do try to avoid using "colorful" language unnecessarily there), but sometimes saying fuck or shit says what I mean more clearly than more polite or professional wording can. This isn't academia, and writing in creative works, like RPG books, should seem vibrant and alive.

After the fact, I'm pretty pleased with the Creature Generator. Yeah, the cover turned out a little dark, yeah, some of the illustrations aren't world class. And yeah, I've found a few typos since printing it (and I had someone look it over for that damn it!). But I think it does what it's supposed to do, I think the mechanics work, and I think everyone that runs a classic RPG can enrich their game by using this thing.

After postage and printing and artwork costs, my "profit" margin on this project is 40 cents per copy. Aino is earning more than I am per sale. The bitch of it is that I still think it's expensive. I want to do print, so that means expenses, so that means charging, and I am a horrible, horrible businessman, and an even worse salesman. If I could afford to print them up and give them away for free, I would. Promise. But I can't.

So buy a copy if the idea of having a random creature generator sounds at all useful to you. Please? :D


  1. Sold. Thank you for demonstrating that it is possible to make a non-glossy, line art, inexpensive, quality old school product with motivations other than "aping" or nostalgia.

  2. It's so cheap, I just had to buy it. Very fair price and I appreciate your dedication to the hobby!
    It's funny, I never played OD&D, I've just the AD&D 2nd ed. in German. But I'm sure, I can use a random monster creator fo my games, too.

    best wishes

  3. Thanks! Don't tell anyone, but I have never played OD&D either. Mainly AD&D1E, with some 2E and various Basic editions. My last campaign was run using BFRPG.

  4. If I could afford to print them up and give them away for free, I would. Promise.

    Well, you did that years later with some products that are better than any other product ever, given for free, before or after.