Saturday, November 26, 2011

Time To D.I.Y.

So what was that question all about?

It was about this...

Everybody who has vague dreams of making an RPG thing: it is time to publish your book.

No, not because it's National Game Design Month. (Though it is.)

Because I heard from the people you saw in the comments from yesterday and I heard, via email from a few more RPG professionals (including a couple heavies) and they all gave me basically the same numbers.

And here's the bottom line on those numbers...

Let's say, just hypothetically, my publisher--James Edward Raggi--decided to take all the money he still owes me plus all the projected future profits from the rest of the print run from my book, Vornheim, and go off to Tahiti to sit on the beach and spend his ill-gotten loot sipping mudslides and forcing homeless midgets to dance to Formulas Fatal To The Flesh for pennies and none of us ever heard from him again.

Even if he did that and I had only the money I already got for Vornheim, I would still have made more off of it than had I written a thing of equal length for any big publisher you care to mention. When the first printing sells out, Vornheim will have made as much money for me as a top-tier freelancer would've gotten for a gangbusters-selling book of equal length from WOTC or the Wolf at its height--and that's after splitting it with James.

You know how many copies Vornheim sold--in the scheme of things, compared to the regular not-RPG books I've been involved in? Compared to how WOTC books sell? Fuck all is how many. You know how many copies Geoffrey McKinney sold of the original--pictureless--Carcosa? Even less than fuck all. And he still is doing wayyyy better than if he'd freelanced on a wildly popular splatbook.

So the moral of the story is: find a little game company willing to split the profits with you--or just self-publish. Make some insane crayoned-together folk-art niche product that only a handful of people could possibly want--but do it your way and do it without editors and make something totally fucked up.

As of late November 2011 this community will, apparently, support you in your desire to make any dumb thing, so long as it is weird enough.

So let the squareglasses sit around and worry about growing the hobby and meeting the market halfway and having sex with their own grandmothers--you can do better for us and for you by making something really different that won't get made without your own special little snowflake brain than you can helping the machine pump out one more generation of hobbits.

In the long run, are "nobody-bought-one-but-everybody-who-did-started-a-band" albums better for the health of the overall business than spending hours filing rough edges off your thing so it can achieve Crossover Profitability at or equal to the calculated Gaga Maximum? No idea. But I know which one is more fun.

And if you do have dreams of one day working on something big for Games Workshop or the 'Bro: "did this, which is awesome" on your resume is at least as good as "one of the 900 people involved in that".

So, please: you can do whatever else it is you do for eleven other months out of the year, but take one (not necessarily continuous) month's worth off work you would've put into a freelance gig and write your nutjob project. You've probably done the R&D just running your home campaign. It will be more worth it than working for the bigs. The price of publishing is cheap enough, PDFs are popular enough, the audience is still spending money and--at least right now--you have our attention.

Do it.


  1. You are the insane bearded prophet of our community, and if you ever decide to leave us, we're screwed.

  2. I think "do whatever else it is you do for eleven other months out of the year, but take one...and write your nutjob project" is really solid advice. I didn't do NaNoWriMo this year-- life got in the way-- but I feel the itch. Maybe I'll do NaNoEdMo for once & actually look at some of the slop I've churned out a second time.

  3. I wish we Forgies hadn't got written off as airy-fairy academic/pretentious types, because THIS is the message we've been trying to get out there since, like, ever. The Forge Booth, that whole ashcan thing -- that was about THIS.

  4. I couldn't agree more. Too many get caught up in the 'is it right to make a profit' question. There is so much out there for free. No one is forcing anyone to buy anything. Make the best product you can. You may not get rich off it, but maybe you get enough to supplement some of your own RPG habits or at least enough to get a pizza.

  5. A-flippin-men.

    I think this line mirrors some of the discussion that lead up to the Hydra Co-op. If you get out from behind the 8-ball of the traditional industry commodity/production line of thinking there's just a lot more there to be there.

    We just need a lot more experimentation--not just with game design--but in how we look at our hobby as a whole. And that kind of sea change has to to be rooted in thousands of hobbyists, a 99 percent of its own, taking matters into their own hands and following where their creativity leads them.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Damn straight. RPGs are a lot like comics, that other cash-strapped nerd industry: almost everybody working in the field now were self-starters.

    So you're writing a book? Want art? My illustration rates are in the other post. If you want a layout artist or graphic designer for the book, too, we can figure out a reasonable rate. Drop me a line at umlaut[myusername] or chris@chris[myusername].com (ironically, without the umlaut).

  8. @huth

    I've been looking at your comments for I think years at this point huth. You have more than enough words in you to write your own thing and draw it. Get on it, kid.

  9. Heck, Huth. It's past time a "Marvel style" of art-driven rpg production took over. Coloring books. "Down in the Dungeon." How Things Work. Hypergeomorphs.

  10. @marksman45

    To paraphrase Ron Edwards "You may want your movement to be about being all DIY and putting your game in front of people on your own terms but if 99% of your chatter is about shared exploration of what it's like to be a mormon and the 'right to dream' then that's what your movement's about."

  11. This is very inspirational.
    I've wanted to be a comic book artist or illustrator for years but never felt I had the time to devote to it and "break in" to the business.
    From what you are saying, I don't have to wait around to be invited to the club.
    I'll just put my stuff out and see who bites.
    I haven't really thought of it that way in a long time.

  12. Add my voice to the chorus. Good stuff.

  13. Best thing I've read in weeks. Very well said and very inspiring.

    The internet has taken "hobbyist gaming" out of the little basement enclaves of the early days and made it possible to bounce ideas off of hundreds or thousands of fellow gamers with minimal effort. I love the stuff that folks have been doing on their own. I enjoy it more than any big-name publisher material coming out these days.

  14. Well said. I like your DIY graphic, can I put it on my site and link to this article?

  15. Awesome Zak - so when are you going to write your own RPG? I've got my own projects, sidelined as they are by experiments in book binding, but I want to see what Vornheim style art/layout bred with a full rpg system would look like.

  16. @evernevermore

    I would never write a book i myself would not use. And I play D&D, so i don't need to write a game.

    though if you want an idea of what i'd do, just look at gigacrawler.

  17. Zak, are you (or you and Raggi) gonna put together a "How to DM Like a Porn Star" book or something? Something that took a lot of your existing posts about creating and running a game and polished them off and stitched them together with more art?

    I'd like that item to exist, so I would put it together for you to lightly edit and sign off on.

  18. @Steve

    I have no plans to do that, since retreading and reorganizing old stuff isn't fun for me, but if you want to do it and stick in art from my webpage and then show it to me, I might be like "Hey, looks good to me" and sign off.


  19. Watch it mate, you're beginning to sound like a mogul. Ha.

    Nice post.

  20. Maybe not RPG, but certainly a world of Vornheim( one that day that is).

  21. Well, WELL said Zak. I have to get my shit together...

  22. Very good advice, Zak. Though you may want to keep a close watch on James because making midget dance is really tempting.

  23. I loved that quote from Ron. It summarizes so well what this is all about.

    The games that have come out of the indie movements are great, the talk not always that great...

  24. I needed this pep talk right now, Zak, thanks. I DIY'd magazines, bands, events and comix as a kid in the 80's. Somehow when I got all 'growned up and shit' I forgot my punk rock roots...Hailz yeah, my dream game that I've been jerkin' around with, 'Total Fucking Annihilation', is gonna see the light this coming year. You wanna play test the beta?

  25. Anyone can spout off. However, it takes someone who's been there to do so authoritatively, and with numbers. You give me some hope for the future.

  26. Working on it, though I'll try to hit folks sideways.

  27. Mostly I agree with this. I'd even say that the chance of coming away with *absolutely nothing* from your indie venture is slightly lower than the chance of coming away with nothing from the bigger RPG publisher who goes bust (often after having released and sold your product!).

    The chance does exist, though, even in that friendly indie market, so do pick your 50%-of-the-profits publishing buddy with care, or better still, just go it alone.

    The real benefit to the indie route is you don't compromise your vision as an artist, man. You don't have to write an entire book about whatever dull power-gaming munchkin stuff the big publisher wants. As someone who has written enough dull power-gaming munchkin books (at the publisher's request) that my artistic vision is dim and foggy if I can find it at all, I can guarantee that that's worth it in itself.

  28. Great words Zak, you're really one steap ahead.
    If you do porns like you write of rpg I gotta buy a couple of your dvd's, maybe I'll learn something on that topic too :P

  29. If one had, hypothetically, drank a litre of cold-brewed-all-day hypercoffee and written a seven or so briefing doc on a low-fantasy city partly ruled by a liche priesthood, drawing slightly too heavily on a politics 'n' history education...

    How would one ask people to read it and give feedback?

    It's the first piece of (semi)creative writing I've done in forever, but given how much it gripped me in the six hours it took to brainstorm and write up, I don't want to ignore it.

  30. @peter

    post it on the dragnsfoot, rpgsite and odd74 forums and on G+ if you don't have a blog.

    ignore half of what you hear.

  31. Zak, please explain the relationship between "do it yourself" and your advice to follow the money.

    Everyone else, please continue releasing your work gratis. The last thing our hobby needs is encouragement for blogwriters banging their heads against the publishing wall in order to justify "monetizing" their houserules in imitation of a few successful outliers. The OSR is not an industry, it's a running dialogue built on a free(!) exchange of information. At its best, it produces more and better material than anyone on the market.

  32. @Danny Z

    I get the (maybe wrong) feeling where this is one of those comments where you make a provocative statement and I give a completely reasonable answer and you ignore it and never write back but I'll do it anyway:

    I am not saying "follow the money". I am saying "If you are going to try to make a commercial product ANYWAY, do it independently or on a profit split, not for a work-for-hire basis".

    As for free material: I OBVIOUSLY AGREE WITH YOU there are free D&D tools published per month on this blog than almost anywhere else. I like and approve of the mostly-free DIY D&D spirit.

    However: there are things (like Vornheim) which take SO long to produce, that they would start eating into your ability to feed yourself if you didn't get something back from them.

    NOT EVERYONE WANTS TO OR SHOULD MAKE SUCH A THING: however some people are inclined to, and those people should realize that traditional freelancing is the less-optimal and (coincedentally) less creativity-friendly way to go.

    If you have any actual desire to participate in a meaningful way in this conversation I ask that you write a response to this comment and tell me whether you understand and agree with what I'm saying. If not, let's have a conversation about it. Hit and run comments help nobody.

  33. Self-published games? Bah, nobody buys those!

    - J

  34. I don't have any problem with somebody making the leap from freelancer to self-published. More power to them, I say. But I would argue that commercializing the hobby that we already have can only do harm to the collective output.

    Speaking for myself, I like to pick rules fragments and setting details from whatever's at hand on the blogospace. If someone's new character class or dungeon is mediocre or doesn't fit my taste I still benefit from cannibalizing the ideas that I like. On the other hand I've found many commercial products of the OSR to be disappointing because I had to shell out for them and only a few are appreciably different or better than what I can already get for free. OSR, I love what you're about. Please don't make me pay four dollars for a half-assed pdf of what you should be giving away. I'd like to add a special emphasis to those developing new retroclones. Do us both a favor and ask yourself "Am I adding anything valuable to the discussion?"

    I'd also like to take a parting shot at the shameless hucksterism that plagues many commercially-directed efforts in the OSR. Posting endless "sneak peek" screenshots and updates on your latest negotiations with the printer is worse than worthless, it's a dilution of my RSS feed!!

  35. @Danny

    1. I am not asking anyone to commercialize what they're doing. Only if they were only going to that they should do it in a certain way.

    2. Nearly every rules clone I see is downloadable for free. LOTFP, S&W etc. Who are you talking about?

    3. I dunno about anyone else but the commercial product I put out is fucking awesome.

  36. Those objections are all fine by me. All I'm saying is that it would be a shame if folks took your words for permission to commodify the stuff they would be doing anyway. I can see it now: "Zak said we should all start self-publishing because of punks or something! My first effort will be available on lulu for 3d6 dollars (plus or minus my self-importance modifier). It will consist of all-new rehashes of the bard, mountebank, jongleur and monk classes and a primer on my house setting, Onne Myllyion Nyghts of Humanoid Caves."

    My quibble about the retroclones is a separate issue. I think we have enough of them now, let's cool it on the retroclones for a while.

  37. @danny

    If I worried that much about brainless fuckheads misinterpreting my blog entries I'd never write any.

    Seriously, you could write "Grass is green" on a role-playing game blog and the next day there'd be a link to it on some forum about how you were encouraging people to sell pregnant teenagers into white slavery.

  38. Such is the grand tradition in which we participate, Zak. Try to enjoy it if possible.