Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Take the Rubies from the Demon's Eyes

Gen Con is, of course, massive--a brief Disneyland of gaming and of gamers.

However, if you ignore miniatures, boardgames, scenery shops, card game tournaments,"My other shirt is chainmail" merchshops and then run around just looking at and talking to people putting out tabletop RPGs, going to their parties and events, asking about their jobs, a strange thing quickly becomes clear:

While there is a pecking order in the industry, and there are people with and without power, and there are winners and losers, the actual aristocracy of the RPG industry (in addition to being demographically exactly what you'd expect) is:

-Relatively powerless
-Not particularly internally cohesive

To take the Ennies as an example: Neither D&D nor Pathfinder got the most Ennies. Ken Hite and his co-writer Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan won for Dracula Dossier--a sourcebook for a relatively unpopular game with by no means lavish production values or pictures. Why did it win? It's a smart concept, well-written, by a respected author. Next most Ennies was a tie between Robin Laws (for Greatest Hit Feng Shui getting a new edition) and us (with first-time publisher Satyr Press). Even the most bald-faced marketing-vulnerable fan vote award during a dramatic surge in D&D's popularity as a product recognizes that the mainstream is kinda meh. And the mainstream can't do anything about it.

Other indicators:

-There was not a single RPG bigwig I talked to who hadn't heard of Stacy's female-run auxiliary subCon, Contessa.

-Nobody this year has put out more extensively illustrated color RPGs than LotFP and Satyr.

-People working for the "larger" indies still had to reach out to people they barely knew to work their GenCon tables.

-Nobody with their name on anything is more than a degree of Kevin Bacon from anybody else.

-Freelancers working for major publishers kept saying they wished they could do the kind of stuff we do.

-Everything seriously competing with Maze had crews 3-4 times the size working on it.

-LotFP and Satyr are paying out-of-pocket and profiting off larger, more impressive products than shit more established companies have to run Kickstarters to put out.

-Magpie Games pissed off half the Indie establishment just before the con (including folks at the company that put out award-magnet Feng Shui) and still turned a tidy profit.

-I ran an ad hoc 9-person game of D&D for hours in a bar with the entirety of White Wolf's GenCon presence in attendance and happily rolling.

The bar for entry is as low as it's been since the wargame days, and DIY RPG output has never been better. In the past, I've pointed out that by DIYing it you can make more money than pretty much any RPG freelancer, right now I'm going to go farther:

If the DIY RPG scene wants to, in less than 5 years it can run this town.

Just by hanging out and talking games and not putting up with the usual bullshit, we have accidentally created a monster. We've always known we can out-write, out-design, and out-draw the mainstream, but what I'm telling you is folks like Stacy D and Kiel C and Raggi and Ken at Satyr are proving we can out-organize them and out-market them, too, and this pond is small enough that that's about all that matters. All the boxes are ticked.

The mainstream, with these full-timers whose lives depend on the next RPG paycheck, has dwindled down to such a consistent lowest-common-denominator aesthetic just to pay the bills it's getting sick of itself. Years chasing some elusive imaginary middlebrow customer have taken their toll on them. Yeah, they have licenses. And in 2016 that gets you fuck-all.

We can do this. There are three hurdles:

-You need to clear time on your calendar to make your thing.
-You need to coordinate with folks you probably already know or are 1 degree of Bacon away from to get the thing out there. Make sure it is written, illustrated and produced as well as can possibly be done. Do not half-ass any of those three elements.
-We all need to work together to recognize who is doing good work and cross-promote. Pool resources and exchange audiences.

Goodman Games, Mythmere, Hydra Collective, Lamentations, Gygax Magazine, Sine Nomine, people putting out indie products like Yoon-Suin, everybody: there is simply more substance and better, fresher, more excited personnel there than anywhere else.  The mainstream does not have the talent or the energy to get in your way.

D&D with Porn Stars will be throwing a party next Gen Con. It'll be big and it'll be loud and it'll be a year in the making and the paint will peel from the walls. If you can read this, you are invited. If you're going to put out a game thing, you're gonna show up and you're gonna help us. You have a year to plan.

The Bastille waits, and the guards are drunk.



賈尼 said...

Ha ha, nice pic. Too bad Gen Con is way too far for me :-)

Venger Satanis said...

For years, I've been not-so-quietly doing my own RPG thing with Kort'thalis Publishing... and getting paid! Zak is right. Now's the time to get out there. Make it weird and personal as professionally as you can in a way the industry leaders would never try.

I couldn't make it to this Gen Con because of impending twins. Looks like 2017 won't happen because of work. 2018 it is!

Reverend Dak said...

"... Next year..." So I take it that you'll be going again. Awesome. I'm in. How can I help?

Reverend Dak said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Zak Sabbath said...

You know the OSR 'zine scene very well, Dak, I think working with that crew to produce something next-level and substantive (individually or collectively) is something you could try to take point on.

Zak Sabbath said...

could be a "greatest hits" could be new content, could be anything you like

Blazefighter348 said...

What a totally inspiring post, Zak. I hope that I do have something ready by next GenCon to share with folks. Thanks for being so nice to us, and for taking the time to sign all the books I threw at ya!

I hope the "Carnival" made it home with you and you find something cool within the pages.

Til next year!

Anonymous said...

I am still baffled that WotC seems to have pulled out of the RPG market after their latest rulebooks for D&D were such a great success.
But maybe not so baffling after all...

Every time I see another great book showing up from some two-people-company I am thinking more and more that there may be a lot of people who'd read my setting I am working on if I'd put it in book form.

X said...

Truly on point, the bigger the company the more adverse to risk they get, so there is a lot of room for dedicated indies to secure an audience. When you're latched to stockholders you always gotta show growth, making decent cash and paying your rent can be considered a massive failure.

Adamantyr said...

Very awesome and fitting post title!

So you had no run-ins with any members of the drama club or their ilk while at Con at all? Did they even try a walk-out during the awards ceremony?

I've been slightly baffled at the lack of releases from WotC since the core books myself... it's definitely not the pattern they followed with 3rd and 4th edition. I have no interest in running FR or adventures they produce so I've bought none of them. The rules are enough and anyone with some DIY has everything they need. :) I do enjoy a nice monster book or two just for some fresh ideas. (Thank you Kobold Press for the Tome of Beasts!)

It is definitely time for the asynchronous and weird and not-your-usual-fantasy stuff to start dominating. Make what you enjoy and share it.

aaronparr said...

This is an inspiring post, Zak. Thanks. I need to get my RPG into more heavy rotation of playtesting. I've been sitting on my ass too long.

Here's the current Character Sheet (for all character types in one)

josh said...

wish i had my old whitewolf books still.
wod would be a badass d6 game with very little change. also, ROCK ON!

Alex said...

Not Fate, not the *World games, not 5E. The best two things to happen to the hobby in recent years are LotFP and Sine Nomine.

opossum101 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
opossum101 said...

Frankly i don't really understand who is the enemy? Mediocre paycheck munchers that will be uberized during diy revolution? Party is fine, more products great but who is the enemy? Cubicle 7? Modiphus? Resurgant Chaosium? Pelgrane press?

aaronparr said...

Do you need an enemy? What does that have to do with anything?

I can't speak for Zak, but what I see in his post is pointing out how much opportunity there is.

opossum101 said...

The mainstream, with these full-timers whose lives depend on the next RPG paycheck, has dwindled down to such a consistent lowest-common-denominator aesthetic just to pay the bills it's getting sick of itself. Years chasing some elusive imaginary middlebrow customer have taken their toll on them. Yeah, they have licenses. And in 2016 that gets you fuck-all.

Who are these drunken guardians of the winter palace?

Zak Sabbath said...

Fred Hicks, most obviously. But everybody paying folks to put out crappy hackwork.

opossum101 said...


Zak Sabbath said...

yes Hicks.

opossum101 said...

well that sounds anticlimatic :D

maybe i am blessed that when i think of rpg 'industry' it is not the peddler of jim butcher's dubious fiction that springs to mind.

opossum101 said...

you have my permission to evict him from the louvre.

trollsmyth said...

Mike Mearls has said, "'s a huge, open question on what support for [D&D] should look like... we do a lot of stuff that may or may not end up as a released product. For instance, we now know that the high volume release schedule for 3e and 4e turned out to be bad for D&D. It wasn't too many settings that hurt TSR, but too many D&D books of any kind."

Mearls is smart enough to know that he doesn't know how to support an RPG, but the data clearly shows (to his satisfaction, at least) that an aggressive publishing schedule is not helpful.

lanboyo said...

Oddly enough, Butcher's first book in his newest series, "The Aeronaut’s Windlass" , is actually quite good. I have always thought that his stuff is C level fanfic, but apparently, if you keep writing you can learn a thing or two about storytelling. Plus, the worst published novel ever is better than the best unpublished one.

lanboyo said...

Zak, I can't help but think you have a dangerous need to see the world in terms of oppositional groups. That said, if that is the fuel that propels creating such things as "Maze of the Blue Medusa" and "Vornheim", then never see a mental health professional. I bought the MotBM in PDF and then had to double down and buy the pretty, pretty, hardback. Lot of good shit getting published right now...

Zak Sabbath said...

Well you're thinking wrong and should apologize to everyone who read that for writing ignorant pop psych bs on the internet, ianboyo

lanboyo said...

I apologize to everyone who read that. Both of them.

Eldrad Wolfsbane said...

Holy shit! I want to light torches and storm the castle with y'all! That has just inspired me to redo some of my art and get my Back to the Dungeon RPG published as well as many adventures. My other DIY project is a totally horrifying zombie horror game. Coming soon but now with more inspiration!!!