Jul 20 2008 5:49pm

Roleplaying Games: A Past-Like Future

Print shopRoleplaying 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.

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 5x8 to 9x6 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!

Robin Zimmerman
1. Packbat
Hah! My brother's running a 2e campaign now, and bought a .pdf version of a couple books. (Although he does have the paper copies, too...)
Paul Arzooman
2. parzooman
Role-playing games of the pen and paper variety were always something those other kids did - the ones who would not invite me in. With the advent of computer RPGs, I no longer needed to worry about cliques or having to run games myself to enjoy playing.
La Tlönista
3. tlonista
Having helped avid GURPS gamers move house (do you know how many books you need to run a magic medieval pirate campaign?), I welcome the advent of .pdf rulebooks.

My own group uses a personalized, stripped-down version of the unfashionable BESM system. Rulebooks, we don't need no stinkin' rulebooks.
Jeffrey Richard
4. neutronjockey
I think also (and you touched on this briefly) is that a lot of the hobbyist designers aren't in it necessarily for the money but rather the love of the sport. I've watched a lot of friends careers and lifestyles become jeopardized over the fuss of 4e --- and that's what drove me away from it (nevermind the investment of 3.0---no wait, now it's 3.5---no, we want your money again). I know a number of folks that either used to work for WotC or still do work for WotC and they care about the game. The bottom line is that there is a net profit margin concern on the Hasbro side and this is where the indie movements and POD technology act as a leveling field for freelancer designers.
5. BruceB
Parzooman, that right there is just why it is that computer games sell so much better than tabletop games. Though there are a growing variety of ways to play the latter without hassling jerks; I'll be writing more about that soon, I hope.

Neutronjockey: The lead developer on 4e is actually one of my oldest, best friends, and he yields to nobody in caring about the game and gamers. (I'm hoping to have an interview with him up before the end of the week.) But yes, definitely, the freedom to do it for the love of it and to make the choices you want made and that's all there is to it is a great thing, too, and is leading to some fascinating results.
Lon Braidwood
6. daDiceGuy
PDFs is a great way to read small press games. There are a good many things I would not have ever seen if it wasnt for PDF publishing. I wish that would have been an option when Placebo Press was a going concern.
7. Tom Scudder
Slight nitpick, but the FIRST appearance of the Elementals villains would have been in Death Duel with the Destroyers, to which Island of Dr. Apocalypse was the sequel.
Bruce Baugh
8. BruceB
Gah. I am ashamed, Tom! I always get those reversed. You are quite right. What the heck, you can annoy Willingham with a request for autographing their second appearance, too. :)
Jeremy Williams
9. Ravenhawk
I've stocked a good couple gigs of PDF rule books for various systems onto my computer. They're easy to search through for things and they don't take up physical space.
I have to say, however, that I still prefer having the books physically when I'm going to be flipping through the books and am not looking for something specific. I love the feel of paper and it's much easier on the eyes than staring at the text on screen...
luc betbeder
10. javelin
Was just cleaning out the study over the weekend..
Let's list a few of the games I still have fond memories and some characters frozen in mid career..

Traveller - classic please ;P
Call of Cthulhu

Pen and Paper Tactile Joy.. Campaign Maps, Drawings, Weapons, Rules, Notes, did I mention maps, Equipment lists, random encounters...

loved the smell of opening the boxes and seeing my handwriting evolve ..

although some of my latter Traveller notes made it to the PC (in about 89 or so) the rest is in glorious pen and pencil manship.
Eric Chapman
11. IdleThreat
The problem with online role playing games is that very little actual role playing goes on, and that leaves me frustrated. World of Warcraft role playing, that I've seen, is basically a bunch of characters with no depth beyond the word of canon, standing around stating the obvious. City of Heroes was a bit better (something I credit to the user-writable public character biographies and multiple costume slots you could use to portray your secret identity, Hulk form, or whatever) but it still never had the depth that I could get with friends at a tabletop or a LARP. And then, only with the right friends in the right setting.
Maybe I'm just too picky. I want character depth in both the player characters, non-player characters, and setting in order to enjoy what's going on. I want hidden motivations, realistic emotions, dark secrets, trauma and triumph. And I want a crew who will do all of that with me. Seems like my old group isn't on the same track as me anymore.. so I've kind of given it up.
My favorite was the old Mage: The Ascension, before the WoD reboot. I ran a Mind's Eye Theater larp based on that at college for years, and it was one of the best part about being in college. I also played in another larp at a nearby university, and had some of my favorite gaming moments there. But the problem with Mage was getting new players to wrap their heads around it: it was pretty high-concept stuff.
Eric Chapman
12. IdleThreat
Erm. Meant to make that comment in your other post about RPGs. Not sure how I managed to put it here.
13. Michael R. Brewer
I believe your link to the original D&D is old, as I'm pretty sure Wizards of the Coast yanked ALL digital sales of their IP (with the exception of the stuff available through DDI) more than a year ago.

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