Friday, July 31, 2015

Victory Speech

Thank you, thank you all for coming...
In approximately 4 hours, in the Grand Ballroom of Union Station in Indianapolis, Indiana, it will be announced that my game book, Red & Pleasant Land, nominated for four Ennie awards, has not won a single one.*

The math here is fairly simple and I've explained it before: there are 3000 print copies in existence,'s Ennie awards had 20,000 voters and--barring some egregiously quick pdf sales or egregious lack of enthusiasm for the well-distributed and promoted mainstream products, it can't possibly win.

All props, though, to James Edward Raggi IV for building a company that punches so far above its weight in over the last five years. Expect this to happen all over again next year with Broodmother Sky Fortress or Veins of the Earth.

But that isn't the math that I want to talk about today. Here's the math I want to talk about:

2000 x 15 = 30,000

I keep checking that figure because I can't believe it.

If you can sell a mere two thousand print copies of a book which retails for 30 bucks and you get half of that (15$) and it takes you 3 months to do the writing and art, you're moving toward something like a grown-up income. You won't win an Ennie--some thing 90 guys worked on and all of them feel kind of ok about will--but the tens of thousands of dollars will be some consolation.

The bad news is: it has to be both innovative and interesting. The good news is: it gets to be both innovative and interesting. It also has to be worth thirty dollars.

There are already simple, successful models for DIY publishing--the first is the one we practice on all the blogs every week, including here: make free or cheap content as a hobby, give to other bloggers, and don't worry about money, your profit is people building on your ideas and giving you more free content.

Kevin Crawford lays out a second model here and I don't think I'd get any disagreement from Kevin when I say his model is:

-Make things for a broad audience
-Make a lot of things
-Work hard year round
-Don't worry about being inspired, just work

Kevin is an honorable man who knows what he's about. What I am saying here is that Red & Pleasant Land proves a totally different and third model is also viable in 2015:

-Ignore what the audience wants
-Put all your effort into that one thing
-Work hard for a few months
-Keep your team small
-Put out a thing that is exactly and only the thing you are inspired to work on

A few years ago, I figured out that you actually make more money doing your own stuff than working for the majors. (Immediately after, noted White Wolf has-been Malcolm Sheppard made fun of my numbers and D&D head honcho Mike Mearls wrote an email to me to say they were dead on.) What I'm telling you now is stranger than that by an order of magnitude: doing your own weird dream project will actually make you as much or more money than worrying about what The Market wants.

The fact is game people want fucked up cool game stuff and just enough of them have the money to pay for it that you can make it work for you and, in the process, fund the creation of something genuinely creative that we all are glad was published instead of like more tastefully scrub-ass public domain art and hipster-graphic design microgames and Legolas-colored dicebags with "Hug Your DM" screened on them.

Here's what you'll need:

-Very good art--or at least art that 2000 fans will accept as "very good art"--you will have to hire or be Matthew Adams or Aaron Aelfrey or someone else.  Not "professional art". Every piece of d20 crap at the store has very professional art, and none of those guys are worth half a Scrap Princess. This is because Paizo and WOTC have that angle sewn up: they can hire all the artists that look like the professional standard and are actually worth a damn and pay them more than you can. You need art that is as personal a statement as the content is going to be. Of course: why the fuck would you hire less than a genius to work on your dream project?

If you're not the artist, pay them thousands of dollars: it'll be worth it, because you'll make thousands more. Even if we're still assuming half of your 30$ cover price disappears into a black hole, if you give the artist a profit split equalling 20,000$ for two months of painting, that leaves you with 10,000$ for one month of writing. Not a bad deal. This is not just borne out by the Raggi experience: by far the most successful StoryGame is Burning Wheel and--holy coincidence--it's one of the only ones which has art that doesn't suck all of the balls.

If Apocalypse World had had a real artist on it, Vincent Baker would no longer have a day job.

-A lot of art. There needs to be art on every page or damn near close. In color.

-Art on every page, seriously.

-If you aren't the artist, work with the artist to create the book. Art isn't decoration or explanation of your marvellous words. It is half the fucking content. Here. The art should make the idea seem cool to someone who never even realized it could be cool. Like that thief in Mentzer that made stealing and sneaking seem more fun than being Conan.

-Graphic design that goes all the way. This is probably the hardest lesson for the RPG business to grasp. Ok, watch, one of these books on the Gencon Ennie table is not like the others...
Ditto the inside, which you've all probably heard about ad nauseam by now. But the point is: we wasted lots and lots of time making sure not one single thing about the design was off-the-shelf, not one single thing was standard. It was designed to look original and memorable and, from the font to the ribbon (unlike nearly everything else on the market) to be the book we could use at the game table. RPL is not just a sexy book, it's arguably a book that's easier to use than a pdf.

Your thing won't be Red & Pleasant Land. It won't need to be used at the table the same way Red & Pleasant Land is, it may not even be a book, but it will need to be designed 100% around whatever its own unique use at the table is. Do something original and necessary and do it from the beginning. The conception of the book should include the design.

-Zero market research. Fuck what people want. Gaming is a lot of people--if Luke Crane can sell 10,000 copies of a game with micromechanized Elf Sadness and Fred Hicks can sell comparable numbers of Bland: The System you can fucking sell 2000 copies of whatever your fucked up idea is.

Spooky Alice In Wonderland With Vampires is seriously the most played-out hack idea imaginable (TSR had already done two Alice modules and built a whole setting around fake-Dracula) and what player wants to go near a setting where pretty much every monster has level drain? But I liked it and Jez liked it and James liked it and that's all that mattered for us to put enough energy into it to make a few thousand other people like it.

-Do everything you want done. You know who worries about whether what they want is the same as what they can sell? Businessmen. You know who is better at being an RPG businessman than you? Everybody in the mainstream RPG world. So give us a product no businessman would ever bet on. It'll be bizarre and we'll all want one.

-Take no fucking shit from anyone. I get a "you catch more flies with honey" speech from a different beardo with a different failed Kickstarter every week. Guess what? Flies don't buy D&D books. They don't even have wallets. Because they're flies. They don't even have pockets. They just have big roundy golfball eyes.

You catch gamers by giving them something they don't already have, and what they already have in spades is people constantly feeding them hype in order to sell shit or soft-pedaling to avoid pissing off moderators.

Maybe there are two thousand people who hate James Edward Raggi IV, maybe there are three thousand that hate me. Here's some...

Now you know who never to talk to
or give any money to. Don't do anything with or
to these people, ever, even if they ask you to.

The anger was real, yo.

But there are at least that many that know I'll never lie to them and nothing I say is just for effect or to make someone happy. If I say "I am very proud of what we achieved with this book" know that this is a thing that is genuinely up to the obnoxiously high standards I hold other peoples' things to on this blog.

This is an effect that only the small publisher can achieve. When a company reaches a certain size, every utterance they make becomes marketing-speak even when it is sincere. The fact that what you say about your work will rise from a ground of the grimy and unvarnished ground of all the other random shit you say on the RPG internet is not a weakness --you do not have to change this voice. If they trust that person who talks about all that is great or terrible about the Ant Man movie, they will trust you when you say your thing isn't coming out in April like you said because you broke your leg but when it does come out it'll be magnificent because you are excited.

-Be honest with your partners. To y'all, James Raggi has a reputation as That Gore Metal Dickhead. To freelancers, however, he has a reputation as That Freakishly Honest Guy. He pays you on time and well, he says what's on his mind, he shows you the balance sheets, he packs your books carefully, he replaces the damaged ones, he goes above and beyond. He actually delayed the RPL trailer to make sure I'd written to the band and gotten official permission to use the song even though there was no way we'd ever get any blowback from it. And y'know what? It's paid off. People want to work with him, customers trust him with their money, and the stuff that comes out is people's best work because they know it will be handled with care rather than chucked out in front of a micromarket that doesn't give a fuck.


And yeah yeah for those of you thinking But I'm not Tony Stark. Well then you've got work to do--the first step is realizing it.

Point is: that thing you thought you could do before you got on the forums and got all cynical, you can do that thing. But if you half-ass it, it will fail--there are unmarked graves overflowing with halfdone ugly heartbreakers and indie games with shit bestfriend cartoon art nobody will ever play or love.

Imagine the hell out of it, kids. The future is not yet written.
*EDIT: I was totally wrong, I won 2 golds for Best Writing and Best Setting and 2 silvers for Product of the Year and Best Adventure. So ignore this whole post I'm clearly an idiot.


  1. It doesn't matter what the ennies say. What is important is that *I* like the book!

  2. I so want one of those t-shirts so I can wear it at Metatopia for Fred and the gang. Any chance of someone not at GenCon getting one?

  3. Don't you think there's also an item 10: "Have a fan base". That is, give little bits of awesome free stuff away for years so that when you do drop your $30 labor of love, there are more than 2000 people who have heard of you and think they might want a thing that you wrote. I mean, you can get some of that by partnering with Raggi, but you brought a lot of notoriety of your own to the table.

    This is in no way intended as a put-down! Just that it should be acknowledged that I Hit it With My Axe and the Rorschach Fight and your Art History series and Fixing the Monster Manual all laid groundwork so that you had an audience that could find RPL when it came out.

    1. Kinda?

      But here's the thing: you only have to sell 2000.

      If the Forgies can sell 2000 copies (and more) with no porn stars, so can you.

  4. Look my opinion isn't work crap but thanks for this Zak. Personally I love the book. I wish I had more time to run the damn thing. Your right up to eleven!

  5. Zak, you will never find my copy of RPL in a second hand bookshop. Not even if you make it out to Australia, cause it will be by the gaming table.

  6. You did win Zak :) and this post has definitely boosted my game-making zeitgeist.

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  9. Welp, there goes my faith in you as a prognosticator.

  10. This is profoundly hilarious, and I'm glad to see my votes for R&PL were not in vain.

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  12. Not only were you nominated. You won! I look forward to many more books from you and Raggi.

  13. And so the word is that members of the Drama Club who were present walked out as NPL won the awards.

    If true, I can't help but continue to see that kind of behavior as strange. I know Zak's theory, but how can anyone be that invested in RPG books?

  14. Great speech!
    ... and well deserved recoginition for work well done.

  15. What knobgobbler said. I am happy to have stumbled upon your blog and related stuff. I have the Vornheim City Kit (pdf) and am reading through RPL (physical copy) for the first time and am continually amazed at the thoughts in both books. Your blog - as a starting point - and those books have turned my rpg interest in a new and interesting direction. So on top of congrats, you have my thanks as well.

  16. well, let's face it, you were up against the 400 pound gorilla that is the 5th ed player's guide for best product, and a $300 CoC boxed set for best adventure. so getting the gold in those 2 was a long shot at best, but congrats on the silvers and the golds.

  17. Congratulations Zak. I'm really happy to see talent win out.

  18. Congratulations Zak! Also to James for creating the platform in which so many great stuff has been launched.

    You deserve each and every award; RPL it´s inspiring, not only as a RPG book, but as art, writing and personal proyect. I hope many more people come out with great ideas and products, thanks to it.

    Thank you for making this amazing stuff.

    - English is not my first language, so please excuse any fault and incoherent stuff from what I just wrote.

  19. I don't agree with Zak Smith on many things (if not most). For example: hey man Conan snuck and stole too! But, everything he's written about Art and RPGs that I have read, if not always something I agree with, has been interesting. Interesting. Shouldn't that be the minimum we expect of what we do with our time? I find it remarkable that he gets browbeat for saying pretty much that.

    I am, however, glad those trogs attacked him over consulting on D&D5. Yeah, I know it probably sucked for him but, otherwise I likely would not have heard of him. No such thing as bad publicity I guess.

    I'm one of those 3,000 with the R&PL book. It is both a thing of beauty and well written. Both a pleasure to read and to hold in one's hands. It's one of the few times I've felt lucky to buy into the hype. He has every right to be proud.

    Also, I was contemplating buying a shower curtain from him the other day despite having a perfectly serviceable shower curtain that will last for years. So, I guess his talent transcends RPGs.

  20. Congrats Zak. This product deserved to win and after all the BS people heaped upon you the fans, the people that play and write the games rewarded you for your excellence. I cannot think of a more fitting way to say I told you so to those haters.
    Much love for you and your work!!!

  21. Since D&D5 won stuff, didn't you win twice? Since you helped make it? Damn what a good day eh? :)

  22. I don't suppose there is any YouTube footage of crowd reaction from the hater contingent during the award announcements? Because that has to be comedy gold.

  23. Congratulations! It's an excellent book.

  24. Congrats to you and your team for your awards Zak!

  25. "Spooky Alice In Wonderland With Vampires is seriously the most played-out hack idea imaginable"

    Jim Butcher wrote a fucking fantastic fantasy series based on combining the worn out ideas of Pokemon and the Lost Roman Legion.

    I've yet to pick up R&PL, but if it's anything at all like Vornheim (one of my all time favorite rpg books ever) then I know it's fantastic.

  26. All the above plus, your math is off. I bought 2 copies of Red and Pleasant Land.

  27. Why do people hate zac so much? I'm new to his persona, and I think his creations are amazing.

    I'm not into the more indy aspects from RPG outside D&D, and I definitely don't see the same attitude towards other writers.

  28. I am glad to see that your work got the wide appreciation it deserved. Congratulations!

    @ALN Fernandes: Zak is honest and up front. Some people cannot handle that.

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