Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Stay Unprofessional

We're So Professional

As Noisms recently pointed out, me and Patrick just made a very large and expensive thing that looks very professional (and is nominated for as many or more awards as any single professional product in the RPG industry). Many people have also attested to the publishers' (a guy and an intern) handling of shipping, orders, etc as very professional.

Though it took us four years to make because we're not professionals.

...Sort Of 

A lot of time when folks talk about "professional" they are using it as as a synonym for quality (production quality or content quality or customer service quality). I'd like to think that on this score we've been beyond professional at least as it's defined in this business, I haven't heard anyone disagree.

However "professional" can also refer to the creators' priorities and style of behavior, and in this we are woefully unprofessional. Just like the rest of DIY D&D. This is why we make such good stuff.

What The Difference Is

Professional behavior is characterized by prioritizing money in the long term, or at least prioritizing growing the business. These are not always the same thing: many RPG people could make more money in other fields with their skillset but would like to remain in the RPG business. In this case their priority is not so much money as doing things that keep them happily able to afford to stay full-time in the RPG business.

Either way professionalism often includes:

-Given a choice between what a target audience wants and what you want, choosing what the target audience wants.

-Not putting in more effort than the target audience will appreciate and pay for.

-Making things you may not, yourself, use.

-Making things you may not enjoy making.

-Making things you may not like.

-Never upsetting a potential customer in the target audience

-Never upsetting a potential business partner where no money is at stake.

-Making vague public statements or not making them, unless talking up your product or something about it specifically.

-Never letting the community do anything that you could do for them and monetize.

-Monetizing any creative impulse and packaging it for sale.

-Designing things primarily so they look expensive.

-Only committing to controversial ideas in public to the degree that they might help sales or have a neutral effect.

The last one is interesting and is the reason for the sort of corporate moderateness that soundly (and rightly) condemns being openly racist at work while at the same time (curiously) condemns wearing a Fuck The Pigs t-shirt to work. What's important to corporate moderation isn't accuracy or sincerity, it's being inside the Overton Window. This isn't easy during controversies--professionals in fields beset by controversy are constantly being forced to choose between being accused of not taking a stand against something horrible or having taken the wrong stand on something horrible.


Unprofessional Behavior is characterized by prioritizing eccentric personal goals even in business relations. For example, my goal with putting out RPG stuff is to make stuff I can use in my games and to inspire other people to make things I can use in my games. An unprofessional is an amateur--that is, from the root word, a lover. They not only do it because they love it (just like a professional sometimes does) but they prioritize loving it. When the love stops, the product does.

Unprofessional behavior often includes:

-Given a choice between what a target audience wants and what you want, choosing what you want.

-Putting in however much effort is required to make the thing that satisfies you.

-Making things you yourself use.

-Making things you enjoy making.

-Making things you like.

-Calling out potential customers in the target audience for being dicks.

-Calling out potential business partners for being dicks whether or not money is at stake.

-Making clear public statements you don't mind being held accountable for.

-Committing to controversial ideas in public because you happen to believe them.

-Getting the community around you to do things so you don't have to.

-Giving away free things even if they could've been packaged for sale.

-Designing things primarily so at least you can use them.

People Forget These Are Different Things

Professional people and customers often assume everyone in a business is professional or aspires to be. Customers will shout, at a nonprofessional or semiprofessional "You just lost a customer" as if they expect the nonprofessional or semiprofessional to care. Professionals, very worried about taking controversial stands, will assume that anyone taking a controversial stand is doing so in order to sell things--especially if it's one they disagree with. It's hard enough for anyone to see why anyone would disagree with you, much less (from inside the cage of a professional mindset) why someone would feel comfortable doing it in public.

Being able to behave unprofessionally is a privilege and a luxury. It means either your rent does not ultimately depend on the business you're dabbling in or that you're getting paid enough that you can afford not to care. It's not an option for everyone, not even for everyone who is good and honest.


Here's a word you hear a lot: "pandering". It literally means pimping (there's a "sly panderer" on the AD&D city night-time encounter chart) but the analogy is: the customer gets pleasure and the businessperson gets (only) money.

A politician or business or creative person is generally accused of "pandering" when they adopt a position or provide something that the person criticizing them doesn't like, but it is only properly used when the provider doesn't like it either. Confusion is common because most people aren't smart:

Trump is "pandering" if he doesn't want to build a wall between us and Mexico but says it to get votes, if he actually wants to build the wall because he personally wants to keep out Mexicans he isn't pandering, he's just an asshole.

In games, creators are often accused of "pandering" when they do something controversial and this is nearly always wrong. I'm fairly sure Blue Rose is full of romantic fantasy tropes because the creatives involved actually like them and likewise Hyun Tae Kim's art is full of tits for the same reason.

(The accusation of pandering regarding sexuality in games is usually based on very strange assumptions: An artist does something gay and is accused of "pandering" to teh tumblrgays or an artist draws boobs, then is said to be "pandering" to 14-year old boys who like boobs, thus suggesting the speaker cannot imagine an adult who is gay or who likes boobs. Or just can't imagine an artist who is gay or likes boobs. Either way it suggests the critic's private life is very dull.)

One very loud indie RPG author is on the record as claiming "all games pander" suggesting that there are people who aren't even aware that you can make a game you enjoy.

The same person said "Common meme is 'Just make games you'd like, stop trying to change others!" No. If I wrote it, I know the story. I don't need to be told it. After spending 1500 hours with a game, you don't necessarily want to sit down and play it for fun."

In short: it's possible for even indie RPG authors to be so professional they aren't making anything they want to (or have to) live with. In a curious quirk of early 21st century post-hobby production, they have alienated themselves from their labor, with almost no help from the larger capitalist system.

Elsewhere I have seen indie gamers grouse that 5th edition is designed with only one person in mind: Mike Mearls (the head designer). As if this would be a bad thing.

Unprofessionalism and Diversity 

It is often imagined that there's a necessary tension between hobbyist, individualist unprofessionalism and diversity. If you're prioritizing your own taste, you're supposedly not inviting in people of other genders, ages, sexual preferences, skin colors. This assumes--irrationally--that an individual's taste can't be shared by diverse other people. It also frequently assumes--again irrationally--that anyone making anything crowds the market, which isn't true (ie the "scarcity fears" that beset the storygames crowd). As the DIY D&D scene proves: on this scale a rising tide lifts all boats.

This Is All To Say

While professional priorities in the sense of suppressing your ideas and desires for the sake of a buck may occasionally benefit the individual doing it, when it comes to both the RPG product and the community it's attached to, there's no benefit at all to professionalism and quite a bit to recommend unprofessionalism.

Ed or Molly or Sam may sometimes benefit by having professional priorities, but Ed's Guide To Zombies, and Molly's Tales Of The Deep Crypt and Sam's Secrets of the Lost Labyrinth benefit from having hobbyist ones, as do Ed, Molly and Sam's friends if they are invested in keeping the community fun and they can trust them to speak out against abuse and identify people who will lie or steal.

One big problem with the larger indie RPG community is how many of the most intelligent and productive people started right off as would-be designers with the explicit goal of building business or business-like activist organizations. Interpersonal honesty and creative integrity go out the window when they fuck with The Brand, or are, more often, simply beside the point. You get people making games they aren't playing for people they don't like for just enough money to keep the whole spiral going down the drain.

This Hasn't Happened in the DIY D&D Community--Yet

And it's that "yet" that makes me write this. The community has been radiantly unprofessional: generous, cooperative, personal, committed and (very) open to disagreement but with influence slowly accreting around people who stand by what they say and actually make things worth playing with.

There are certain projects that make it harder to be unprofessional: introductory games, games for kids, even certain parts of dungeon master's guides all require imagining an audience who isn't at all you and playing to it. Most kinds of outreach and organizing are going to involve a certain amount of battle-picking and going along to get along. This isn't a tragedy. However, as DIY RPG stuff gets bigger it's going to increase, and the same tensions that, for example, make indie scenesters and mainstream full-timers wary of calling out even the most blatant hate speech and willing to pump out games barely anyone actually wants to play will begin to infect the scene.

The dystopia we're currently avoiding is the one across the table--where people moan about the travails of deadlines and freelancing, talk about comic book movies and politics because their RPG ideas are property and their RPG opinions might get them in trouble and we slide back to the same shovelware and platitude-filled conversations that we had to make all these blogs in order to lift ourselves out of.

The dire trolly predictions made on the paleoschool game boards 5-6 years ago about what wurz gun tuh happen once James Raggi started in on printin up thim tharr Boxed Sets an' embossed leather guuds an' capituhlism tuk hold have not occurred--we still make cool free stuff a lot and nobody's been left blind and begging for random tables in the streets or been forced to kiss Kevin Crawford's perfumed boot-heels. The problem isn't selling stuff--it's what happens when and if we internalize an ethic that prioritizes selling stuff over all the reasons this is fun.

So don't do that--and enjoy the privilege of being unprofessional as long as you can hold onto it.


Shawn Kilburn said...

Shit man, if unprofessionalism led to MAZE OF THE BLUE MEDUSA, then I say, keep it coming! I'm still floored by this book.

I'm not currently running a game, but it's seriously making me want to... :)

mythusmage said...

There is an older definition of professional I much prefer. In this definition professional means doing your best, and taking a professional attitude towards your work. Getting paid isn't part of the equation, it a matter of how well you do your job. In this sense the typical amateur astronomer is a true professional.

Zak Sabbath said...

"In this definition professional means doing your best, and taking a professional attitude towards your work."

That's kinnnnnda circular Alan.

And assumes "best" and the result of a "professional attitude" are always compatible.

In creative professions, this is a complex statement.

Trent_B said...

You've expressed similar views earlier, and it was (/still is) some of the best advice you've given me.

I've been quietly chipping away at my nerdgame, playing it with diverse groups of friends and stuff, and I'm very much enjoying just making the thing I want to make. I'm excited to finish it at some point.

I'm glad you're making nerdstuff.

VicVerde said...

"Elsewhere I have seen indie gamers grouse that 5th edition is designed with only one person in mind: Mike Mearls (the head designer). As if this would be a bad thing."
God, that made me actually laugh out loud; not an internet lol where you smile and nod your head a bit, but an honest "ah ha ha HA ha!"
Mearls writing for Mearls; what a bold treat that would be.
Thanks for putting this whole look at the biz up. I feel invigorated by it. Either I can be warned and steer the course through a troubled future, or at least get in to position to see the whole thing go down in flames from the best viewpoint.

Konsumterra said...

As a gamer and graff artist and comic sweatshop slave for 30 years Ive seen friends go pro become competitive, turn into dicks, burn old friends, join more professional peers and snub old friends, bizarre benchmarks for success created and everybody jump on on bandwagon - plus seen some ignore all offers to work with cool kids who want their indy cred to add to their gang but the artist wants to keep it real and ignores the offers of fame

this stuff could happen still in indy gaming as everyone goes paetron and publishes - i wonder if this has reduced the OSR output as ppl monetize their word count

Timothy S. Brannan said...

For me at least I do it for the love. That's what I write, and that's what I buy.
That's why I wrote "Sisters of the Aquarian Order" knowing full well that maybe 100 people might like it. I bought "Red and Pleasant Land" because I could tell here and elsewhere it was a labor of love for you.

I am happy I get to live in an age when I have so much choice.

I love the high gloss professional books that cost me $75+ and the $0.99 PDFs rolled out by some gamer with a copy of Scribus.

But it is the love that keeps me coming back.

Will said...

Make the art you want and make money from it. Thanks to digital distribution, you can find people to buy whatever weird thing you really wanted to make.

Kyana said...

But what if I will be mocked and despised for what I truly like to write? With nobody to play such things anyway is it even worth writing about if it is never going to be played by anybody?

Zak Sabbath said...

find some players, then worry about writing games

Kyana said...

Tried, doesn't seem to be possible in this area

Zak Sabbath said...

well i can't tell you what to do with your life, but it's dangerous to start writing game stuff without players

have you tried playing online?

Ro said...

I wish I had something clever to say...But instead I'll just say you hit the nail on the head.

Oakes Spalding said...

Zak has far more experience writing and playing than I do, but I think you can write without playing. I did.

Don't write for a mass audience. But don't write strictly "for yourself" either. Write what you want to play and read. But also write for that imaginary intelligent and sophisticated reader who is fair but demanding. Why should she read your stuff as opposed to anyone else's? What does your offering do differently or better? David Lindsey, author of the beautiful and haunting, Voyage to Arcturus, once said that he would be satisfied if only one person a year read his novel and was positively affected by it.

As for people mocking or despising, screw them.