Roleplaying Games: A Past-Like Future

Roleplaying games started off as a small-scale hobbyist thing, with rulebooks run off on mimeograph or laid out in really bargain-basement ways. It was very much a “folks sharing with other folks” sort of thing. As the idea caught on, standards for production rose, and kept rising, to the point where it became very unusual to see one-man-band releases anymore. Even small-press releases generally called for the work for a couple or three different people with complementary skills in writing, illustrating, and laying out. But the desire for smaller-scale production never went away. Rolegamers were among the early adopters of the World Wide Web, taking advantage of the possibilities in HTML to put up good-looking or at least useful material (articles, commentaries, whole game systems) very inexpensively. Desktop publishing in turn made more and more possible to single individuals and very small companies. So here we are again: alongside publishers that may have five or ten or more full-time employees, individuals doing it as a hobby are putting out a lot of stuff, and a lot of it is very good indeed.

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Motives for self-publishing in RPGs vary as widely as they do in any other field. For some it’s a matter of principle; the community at the Forge sees creator control as essential to the realization of any well-developed creative vision. For others, it’s a matter of wanting to keep things manageable as a hobby, not letting it get so complicated that it would become a job. And of course for some it’s a matter of practicalities, having a vision that may or may not ever find a big audience but that they’d like to get out anyway.

In the last few years, independent publishers have converged on a pair of formats: digest size (that is, about the size of an sf/f/h trade paperback, maybe 5×8 to 9×6 inches) for print and PDF for electronic distribution. Maturing print-on-demand technology means that vendors like Indie Press Revolution, Your Games Now, and RPG Now can carry really huge quantities of product without needing Amazon-scale warehousing. There’s enough interest in all this from customers to support different approaches, too: IPR and RPG Now are vendors who take their cut of sales, while Your Games Now is a coop for participating publishers. (Note: RPG Now is actually just one storefront for the underlying business, but the other one has a lapsed security certificate, and I prefer not to pass along potentially unsound links. I’ll update when that’s fixed.) More and more products are available in purely electronic form, in print, or a bundle with both options. A variety of DRM schemes intended to stop piracy flourished early on, but rpg publishers have mostly realized what e-book readers and others already knew, that security measures end up annoying customers without stopping pirates and that copying in general doesn’t harm sales, and that’s receded. IPR is ahead of the competition in doing away with sales terms that limit the number of times you can download a purchase, and I’m really, really hoping that spreads too.

One of the great things about all of this is that rolegaming, like a bunch of genres of fiction, gets to reunite with more and more of its past. Dedicated rolegamers have tended to be packrats for the same reason that a lot of sf/f/h fans have: in a world where this neat thing may only exist in 700 or 5,000 copies, if you pass up this chance to get it, you may well never see it again unless you happen to be at a convention with a great dealer’s room or one of those retailers willing to shelve a whole lot of very slow-moving stock. Every long-time rolegamer has tales of the one that got away, and of course the treasured possession that others envy.

But now…via RPG Now, Wizards of the Coast sells the very first edition line of Dungeons & Dragons, including the Chainmail miniatures rules that D&D referred to. You can print out a PDF of Heart of Oak and bother Walter Jon Williams at conventions with a request for his autograph, or do the same with Bill Willingham and the very first appearance of the villains of the Elementals universe, The Island of Doctor Apocalypse. It’s certainly not the case that everything ever for sale is for sale again, but the approximations get better and better. Furthermore, the quality of the releases is improving: a new release of something scanned for sale in PDF is now less likely than it once was to be a bunch of pages scanned as full-sized images, and more likely to have optical text recognition, indexing, and other such good stuff. Pirate scanners were and are ahead of most publishers on this, but publishers are catching up.

This ends up having lifestyle consequences. I’m by no means the only long-time rolegamer who’s cleared out a lot of their shelves, particularly of the books they can’t quite bear to be without but also never quite get around to using. Disk space, whether in hard drives or CD and DVD archive disks, is cheap and compact. De-cluttering down to the games a gamer is likely to ever actually use is psychologically pleasing, and also good for reducing dust and nuisance, and doesn’t have to come with a sense of real loss. After all, the game I may get the urge to read or use sometime is right there. Um, of course, there’s also the ease of impulse purchasing and finding disk space tight, too, but that’s a subject for another day.

This shared recovery of the past also has consequences for game designers. More creators, both amateur and professional, can look back at what they’d forgotten about or never known themselves the first time around, and think about current trends in light of that. When news of the now-out 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons came out, part of the gaming community realized that they just didn’t want to go along for the ride, and there’s a flourishing new realm of grognards having a lot of fun exploring the potential in very early flavors of D&D and other RPGs that may have gotten lost in the shuffle sense. These folks will warrant an entry all their own, soon; in the meantime I’ll say that my friend James Maliszewski has a blog that offers a good window into that part of gamerdom. Even some of us who aren’t quite in sync with that particularly style of grognardy are having fun too, bringing what we hope are pearls and not just clam snot up to the light of day again.

Happy browsing!

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