Wednesday, May 12, 2021

What Really Happened to Vampire 5e, Chapter 4: Thanksgiving Uncles (or: Evil Hat gets involved)

Chapter One  - Chapter Two - Chapter Three -

 Chapter 3.5 - Chapter 4 - Chapter 5 - Chapter 6

Thanksgiving Uncles

So in the US, every Thanksgiving on Twitter, we're all reminded that when we go, on our holiday, to our turkey table, we must confront our racist uncle. We are encouraged to squint over the peas from the far end of the table, and call out his Trumpy, overtanned ass.

You've heard this one?

In the story, it's not the whole family who is racist--it's just this one uncle. But the rest of the family doesn't bring it up. The idea is: we all have convictions and know the right thing to do, but acting on it is a whole other thing.

Seldom discussed is why the job of calling out the Uncle falls only to the activist or the terrible teenager: it's because there are other motivations in the world besides doing the right thing--other loyalties.

Your progressive mom does not call out the racist uncle because he saved her from drowning in that lake when she was 12 and he was 14.

Your liberal dad does not call out the racist uncle because he owns a three-quarter share in their grocery store.

Your aunt does not call out the racist uncle because she hates arguments.

Your cousins don't call out the uncle because they're angling for the inheritance.


In the RPG community, Thanksgiving is GenCon, and the most consistent core of the family are those designers and publishers who've been coming back year after year after year for decades. They know central Indianapolis' bars and steak houses, they know whose table is usually where on the floor, they have lost dice beneath hotel couches in every state of the union. They are familiar names, people like Mike Mearls, Monte Cook and his handful of designers at MCG, Chris Pramas and Nicole Lindroos and Steve Kenson at Green Ronin, Fred Hicks and Rob Donoghue at Evil Hat, Robin Laws and his Pelgrane folks, and Kenneth Hite--who wins an Ennie every year for best podcast (at minimum) along with Laws and is seen posing centerfold-style above with several other family members at the Ennies in the picture above--there are a few others.

Unlike many younger designers, these people are definitely not going anywhere. They made some choices a long time ago: they are sticking with this career forever.

They have a family-like relationship, and "family" does not mean "They all like each other" family means "Every one of them has a little bit of a relationship to every other one of them whether they want to or not." Family means: they're in a boat, the kind that can be rocked.

The major Thanksgiving Uncles here are Rob Donoghue and Fred Hicks at Evil Hat. The folks discussed in previous chapters--Olivia Hill, the Something Awful /tg goons and the RPGnetters who copy them--are their Donald Trump. They may not agree with everything Mr Trump does, but they donate to the cause and support him when it counts.

Most of these other designers and publishers, for the most part, want nothing to do with bottom-scraping trolls--often for the very selfish reason that they themselves have been targeted by RPGnet and company's omnidirectional rage at anyone with enough name recognition to score lolpoints off of.

But Evil Hat keeps inviting them over. 

Anyone with a hate take (other than "Why does Evil Hat pay such low rates? And where are the people of color in your organization?") they invite them in. Evil Hat literally recruited off of Something Awful. Like someone who worked at Evil Hat literally waded on the /tg forum and said that if anyone wanted to get started in the RPGs they should totally contact them.

Rob Donoghue, the more-talkative face of Evil Hat, deals with questions about why Evil Hat does this exactly how a racist uncle responds to you asking about that whole Build A Wall thing. "Well, you know, it's to get a reaction, I just think..." Any words he can hang on to in order to maintain a facade of respectful distance from the hate he's signed on to.

So...the family doesn't talk about it. They read threads, they know gossip, they have people they don't respect, but they still have to drink together, eat together, be on panels together, have turkey together, get medals together.  It's undiscussed.

The Dog and the Dice

So, if you remember back to Chapter Three, Olivia Hill, the hatemob had heard I was working at White Wolf on account of the Vampire video game I'd done with Sarah Horrocks. I'd been thrown off Vampire's 5th edition, but they had no idea--three more chapters to go and nothing in the story from here forward is about me--but they don't know that., which meant in their mind the game was still Tainted By Zakness.

This meant that when Vampire 5e was announced, the hatemob spent the next year raking over press releases, interviews, beta rules, and any other shred of Vampire news looking for excuses to attack it.

Remember: I was long gone. I didn't write a word of the new tabletop game.

People who still hung out on RPGnet--many of whom had no idea I'd ever been involved (or even who I was) followed the loudest and squeakiest wheels--Olivia Hill, Paul "Ettin" Matijevic, etc.--who had an axe to grind. Vampire 5e had to be problematic. Somehow. They were like those Japanese soldiers on the island of Lubang who kept fighting because they didn't know the war was over--except they were on the winning side.

Nobody can manage to just say "This made me uncomfortable because of my issues, I guess I need a content warning". The tone would soon collapse into total underwear-on-headery but in the beginning it was like a spaghetti-o-stained YouTuber explaining how Actually, 2001 is a bad movie because it lacks a basic grasp of...

There was baby-eating (like in Dracula by that total edgelord Bram Stoker), there was a smattering of Old School Renaissance-style mechanics, but the thing that finally got them pulling off their pants to drape them over their faces was that someone found a paragraph where the writer was trying to describe how a loss of humanity would trigger the angry-type vampire characters to get mad and they used the word..."trigger".

Rather than thinking this was maybe Ken or one of a handful of other middle-aged game designers using a word that meant less to them than it did to the Extremely Online, Ettin and company decided that White Wolf was deliberately attempting to mock the mentally ill

There are hundreds of simple examples of this kind of motivated reasoning around Vampire. Martin Ericsson, one of the Important Swedes at White Wolf, is a big nerd, of course,  so he calls himself "Martin Elricson" like, y'know, Elric. And he signs his emails "Blood and souls" like, y'know, in the extremely well-known-especially-in-RPG-circles fantasy classic Elric series. And Something Awful goons were like "Blood and souls? That sounds like Blood and Soil! Nazis! Nazis!" It's not like they google him. And when he explained it, it's not like they apologized or did any introspection.

It got worse when White Wolf put out something which had, among other things, a picture of some dice. The dice had a 1 a 4 and an 8 and another 8. Most people were like ok, sure those are dice, and turned the page--but the mob decided THATS A NAZI DOGWHISTLE!!!! In responce to said whistle, a dog duly appeared.

Specifically, this invited a long post by a teenage-vampire-erotica-writing furry known only (then) as "Dog With Dice". Dog With Dice had an elaborate multipage conspiracy theory that Vampire 5e was designed by and aimed at Nazis. Dog With Dice is not famous or influential and the post was riddled with mistakes that were (altogether now) easy to check. But that never stopped the Something Awful goons.

The post went so viral White Wolf actually had to do a press release and an official video to address fan uproar. Most fans didn't care--if the chat during the video was anything to go on--but as discussed in Chapter One, normal fans who just want a game don't do things.

None of it was in good faith. Anyone in-the-know enough to care what the acronym "VTM5e" even meant knew enough to be able to figure out this made no sense. Yet somehow not one of them remembered to mention: I'm fucking Jewish. 

Now, at first this all may sound like a repeat of last chapter, because mostly it is. Goons lying and doing bad faith readings again.

But this wave of harassment was different because an actual almost-full-time game guy, a family member--Rob Donoghue, co-founder of indie-mainstay Evil Hat--retweeted it--and then said it was "damning". 

Again: Evil Hat, who makes the Fate RPG and Thirsty Sword Lesbians and puts out Blades in the Dark. One of the biggest names in indie tabletop RPGs.

It's one thing for the racist uncle to like Donald Trump. It's another thing for him to point his fork across the cranberry sauce and tell your boyfriend to go back to Mexico.

Food Fight

This may be a subtle point but this is where the story goes from being "yeah the internet is trash" to "the entire RPG scene is trash".

Up until now this has been a story about people who could fairly be called "trolls"--commenters whose main place in the RPG constellation will be as, at most, people who complained about something.  The entry of Rob Donoghue onto the stage signals the entry into the Vampire hatemob of RPG people who have had a sizable impact on the current game scene via things they actually created.

It also signals the entry of someone who not only had privilege and structural power but had every human reason to know better. Rob may have not liked me, since I was constantly pointing out how his company promoted conspiracy theories and paid starvation wages, but he knew Kenneth Hite. Like as a face every year at the Thanksgiving table and a guy to talk to.

So, of course, I wrote a post about it:
This was Evil Hat's first public response, from Rob's co-founder, Fred Hicks:
This means Fred read my blog, which is something his people call "stalking"

Down in the little "likes" bar for this piece of hatespeech you can see who endorsed it, including perennial Evil Hat mainstay Sophie Lagace (first avatar), Cam Banks, author of Marvel Heroic RPG and formerly of Atlas Games and Margaret Weis Productions (6th avatar down), and Lowell Francis of storygames/OSR crossover podcast/discussions site/general indie RPG enterprise The Gauntlet. These aren't anonymous names hiding behind anime avatars, they're game industry people with resumes.

That's a lot of Uncles who have a problem with a Jew asking not to be called a Nazi.

Here are some bits from the texts I had back and forth with Kenneth Hite at that time. I haven't included his end because this was private, but including my end should be enough to show the tenor of the conversation...

After three days, Ken did eventually manage to get Rob to apologize. I don't know if it was with Robin Laws' help or not:

My "handling" of it. Where I typed on my blog that you shouldn't call your friend Ken a Nazi when you know he isn't. When I said maybe linking your colleague to the promotion of worldwide genocide isn't a great example of adult conflict resolution. What a horrible and unnecessary burr I am beneath the great and shiny saddles of mighty captains of indiegaming.

Anyway so this was a crowning moment of shame, right? The indie RPG scene's most aggressively compromised Uncles are called out at the table for their longstanding habit of retweeting frantic troll backwash and privileging their connection to the darkest depths of the RPG scene over the lives and careers of peers they know and claim to respect, right? Obviously putting Ken Hite in a position where you Google him and get "Nazi" was clownshoes stupidity right?

Surely at that point Evil Hat heads Rob Donoghue and Fred Hicks stop following Ettin and other folks from his scene on Twitter, and Ettin then goes on and apologizes, then all the other Something Awful goons too, then their RPGnet clones do, too, and Olivia Hill apologizes for escalating things to this point, and surely someone actually realizes I don't work at White Wolf (maybe by asking them?) and tells everyone to calm down, and everyone realizes Rob and Fred are, at best, really stupid and stops paying any attention to them and they begin boycotting Evil Hat and John Harper decides he doesn't want to be associated with them and leaves, and the entire scene has an agonizing reappraisal of why it's so vulnerable to viral conspiracy theories. Right?

Of course not, before the year was up they did it all over again, only more and sillier. But that's for Chapter Five: Snakes Have Legs.


Kyle T said...

"Specifically, this invited a long post by a teenage-vampire-erotica-writing furry known only (then) as "Dog With Dice". "

Foreshadowing? Or was the identity of this person ever revealed and relevant?

Zak Sabbath said...

@Kyle T

Good question--I got given a name from one of the Dog's victims but:

1. They aren't otherwsie prominent, as far as I know,
2. I haven't been able to confirm it I didn't publish it.

Simon Tsevelev said...

Now that I think of it, I saw two versions of the Thanksgiving Uncle story.
A) We should all get together because we're a family and family is above politics,
B) I'm not going to be with my family because I can't make myself sit with Uncle.
Not a single one that suggested confronting the Uncles.
But, of course, my online presence is limited.

Peter Rolf said...

At this point I'm wondering if it's possible for rpg publishers to insulate themselves from the bad-faith mob? I get that it is extremely hard for indie publishers, who really live and die on their reputation, to not cave in to the vitriol and hysteria. If nothing else it's the path of least resistance. Hell, I'm starting to think having to put up with the demands of bad-faith actors is now simply the cost of doing business.

Hell, even bigger brands like D&D and Vampire are vulnerable, as your blog posts have shown. Vampire really took a hit, to the point where it will probably never recover from its launch. Looking at it from the outside, it seems like D&D as a brand has weathered the various attacks on it better, with individuals instead taking the hits, in this case by having your name stricken from the core book and Mike Mearls having a social media gag-order.

I'm not sure where I'm going with my ramblings. I find it interesting that publishers of arguably more problematic contents or subject matters, such as Helmgasts Kult: Divinity Lost, or Modiphius' Conan rpg haven't been subject to the mob. If you wanted to make bad-faith attacks on content, those would provide target rich environments. Or is it more of a matter of hunting specific individuals?

Zak Sabbath said...

@Peter Rolf

It's 100% a case of going after specific individuals. And the individuals they're going after are the ones who they see as in "their" space: taking their awards, questioning their hot takes, making indie content without praying to the proper indie gods first.

Even if you look at the list of people who got taken down and deserved it--Adam Koebel, Luke Crane, Swordsfall guy, etc--these were conspicuously successful individuals in the indie space. Attention=danger.

Peter Rolf said...

That is just really disheartening and depressing. I mean by that, if this whole mess was rooted in ideological differences, at least some sort of understanding or accord or what have you could be reached. Not saying it is something likely to ever happen, but it leaves ground open for dialogue. But if its a matter of hatered, well, there's not really any middle ground or compromise to be had.

Like you mentioned in an earlier comment a while back, you and Olivia have a lot of things in common, but because you decided to stand up for your friends of the DnD With Pornstars-crew, as well as call out Filamena's beliefs, and behavior, regarding Cosplay Deviants, you're now an enemy of Olivia's. And since anyone who would not side with Oliva and Filamena, by their own logic good persons, has to be a bad person, then they're justified in "defending" themselves.

It feels kinda pointless typing this out, since this is stuff readily aparent once you examine it. It's just that, had Hill and Young's anger towards you been founded on beliefs and principles, and not wounded egos, this could have ended long before it got to this point.

Zak Sabbath said...

@Peter Rolf

It's not pointless to type it out and here's why:

This series here on what happened to Vampire? These entries have literally thousands of hits.

But each person, they read it, go "man that's fucked up" see no comments, no reaction from anyone, and go "I guess I'm alone, I guess this is just something only I care about, and everyone is batshit except me." And so go back to doing nothing.

Olivia complains on twitter, she gets 100 responses.

So: you comment, you're reminding people there are other people who see the absurdity of this situation, see that it's a bad thing.

Ransvind said...

Good day, Zak.

I am writing in the comments, because I have not figured out where the personal messages are. My English is very bad, this text is done through an auto-translator.

I am sending warm greetings from Russia, and I hope that foes will shut up, and you will start publishing your books again. I and many here ("Eastern Lands" community, for example) are ardent fans of your work. At one time, the approaches to certain issues in the Maze or in Vornheim changed the idea of how to make good games for me.

Thank you for everything you have done and in advance for future projects.

Zak Sabbath said...


Thanks for leaving a comment!

you can email at

zakzsmith AT hotmail dawt calm

zak chad elite said...

but you made the evil baby cry.

Zak Sabbath said...


therefore what?

Vanilla said...

While it might not be pointless to type comments here, I think the real issue is that all this drama is being whipped up by a sub-culture (the what you call 'extreme online') of a sub-culture (tabletop gamers who research stuff online) of a sub-culture (tabletop gamers who actually play games). With the latter group already being a niche in the wider world of all games.

I'd argue that the majority of people actually playing the games are blissfully ignorant of pretty much all that is going on two levels of sub-culture down. If anything, they get influenced by the sub-culture one level down from them, because those people actually came in contact with the insanity of the game forums in their research on what to spend money on (I'd argue that the majority of gamers play but rarely pay. It's usually the GMs that fork out most of the cash and are more involved with what's happening online).

Your overriding argument here seems to be, that the players are being deprived of unique and creative games, because they are killed in their infancy by toxic people (mostly full of their micro-fame in a sub-sub-sub culture) before they have a chance to actually bubble up to the top. I think that is likely true and pretty sad. Same happens in other creative mediums as well.

I think this phenomenon is mostly due to all the same toxic effects that social media had on pretty much all forms of public discourse. I started playing RPGs in the 80s and was socialised into the hobby mostly by magazines (the predominant form of promotion and communication about the products), which by now have been replaced by mostly user generated formats (podcasts, twitch streams, online influencers etc.) rather than professionally produced formats of the past (you know, the kind that had editors. Those were opinionated too, had agendas as well, but at least kept the worst of the behaviours in check somewhat.

I guess the english-speaking sub-sub-sub culture also seems to much more toxic than what I can see happening in Europe, while on our end of the world tons of really great RPG content still gets produced that just has much less exposure in the english speaking world with notable exceptions being the stuff from Sweden and to a lesser extend Germany.

Also, I guess the online discourse seems to be so much more polarized and heated up, that content that tries something edgy like Vampire gets much more instant flak than any of it would have gotten in the 90s when it was first introduced.

The fact that today's indie creators have much less chance to make it into the ranks of the current luminaries is something I hadn't really thought about before, but seems plausible and concerning, because they will likely just stop producing their stuff depriving us all of fresh ideas for a hobby that has just seen renewed viability.

Zak Sabbath said...


Yes. The clearest evidence is D&D 5e came out IN 2014 and 7 years later there still isn't another game that's come close to sharing any of its spotlight. Contrast this with the apex of D&D's 80s success when WFRP, Shadowrun, Rifts, FASERIP and Vampire were all in contention for the top spot.

There's a brain drain in the hobby--people who aren't already in the high-tier with talent and a sense of self-preservation go elsewhere.

In order for an indie game to get bigger you need to attract attention, and to attract attention is to paint a target on your back.

And even if you somehow eschew that by building ties to people inside who'll spread your message, that requires making shitty deals with shitty people (including presure to join hate campaigns or be cancelled) because the scene's so small.

I suspect Free League is running rings around US and British companies because they don't have to navigate any of this shit.

Vanilla said...


I suspect the reasons for the singular dominance of D&D 5th (at least in the English speaking sphere) are twofold.

One, barriers of entry have risen quite dramatically since the creative heyday of the 80s. Back then, all products looked equally 'amateurish' by today's standards. Badly laid out typescript wastelands with occasional black & white illustrations. Since the introduction of full-colour, high illustration-density product by D&D 3rd Ed, people's perception of a professional product changed quite dramatically. All currently successful contenders follow the same presentation format, sometimes even taking it up a few notches. Free League's Tales from the Loop (based on the amazing Stalenhag paintings), Symbaroum, but also France's multi-media project Shadows of Esteren and Germany's Pegasus Spiele version of Call of Cthulhu which put out far more and far slicker product than Chaosium ever did. Finally the flagship behemoth RPGs UK's WFRP and Germany's The Dark Eye (both initially created as a local culturally more compatible answer to D&D by their original licensors) now all follow a similar pattern, that I suspect is near insurmountable for small indie publishers to fund. Most of the companies you cite were all founded by early D&D fans publishing their product almost literally from their university dorm rooms. Even if DTP technology is cheap and readily available, original, quality artwork definitely isn't. Cyberpunk 2020 looked bad, anything GDW put out looked pretty bad, WEG's stuff was only marginally better but they could reuse the Lucasfilms assets, FASA's original stuff also wasn't nowhere near as stylish as would be expected if you were to release Shadowrun today.

And the other factor probably being the sub-culture around the games being much more toxic in the US than in Europe. One recent, pretty stark example, would be Ulisses Spiele (the publisher of The Dark Eye) in Germany, was a sourcebook they put out on sex and eroticism in their gaming universe, called 'Wege der Vereinigung' (tranl. Ways of Union). Now that beauty was laden to the brim with sexism, racism, sophomoric humour and all kinds of triggers for all kinds of people. And mind you, this is the biggest, mainstream publisher in Germany. There was some backlash, some contributors quitting. But as far as I could tell, nobody lost their job or livelihood, nobody got cancelled, harassed or anything of that sort. It received it's deserved criticism, some people enjoyed it, most people just ignored it. Now imagine WoC or any other US publisher putting this out today.

Retribution would be swift and merciless. People would get hurt. That's why there's probably much less daring or ambitious new projects being even attempted in that sphere.

The market is too small, barriers of entry are too high, and people have learned to keep their head down. I'm not sure how to break out of that, but the toxic sub-sub-sub online culture definitely doesn't help encourage creators to go out and put themselves on the line for very long from the looks of it.

Zak Sabbath said...


While I obviously think the US culture is completely toxic, I don't find the "production values" argument convincing at all.

I'm talking about TSR's production values at its '80s heydey (not when it launched in the 70s)--with Elmore and Easley art--were formidable. And all the properties I named came out of the gate with equally impressive books. Shadowrun had an Elmore cover, Long and Siembieda produced some work for RIFTS that was better than anything in D&D at the time and Vampire had Tim fucking Bradstreet.

And today, Kickstarters mean anyone with a fanbase can put out at least one hardcover that looks good if they just find a decent artist. There are definitely indie RPGs that have had art better than the Stalenhag paintings, and better than nearly every piece of art in the modern PHB.

And as for layout--indie layout is now -better- than D&D layout since D&D isn't laid out with information-design in mind. They haven't even learned to put the info about of the room on the fucking room in dungeons.

With tabletop layout software, desktop publishing, kickstarter, even 3d printing for dice and stuff, the barriers to entry have only gone -down-. We should be seeing more results.

Zak Chad Elite said...

Adding to prod value like lol games workshop has always had incredible, lavish, beautiful and stunning works of art. Ian Miller, John Blanche etc like hell. Production value was great in the 1980s for many companies.

To explain my previous point;

Babies have no self control and need constant help and support to function correctly.
Babies crying is bad. Making a baby cry on accident is a bad thing. Doing it on purpose is monstrous.
People therefore do not like people that make babies cry. Even if the baby is evil.

You make evil babies cry, and peoples weird human nurtruring instincts take over. You make a lot of evil babies cry, Zak

And that is an optics game you will always lose

Zak Sabbath said...


oh certainly— that was really obvious when Patrick attacked me over the whole Paolo Greco thing:

I was considered at fault because I clearly had the ability to act responsibly whereas everybody just thought of Paulo is a big baby who couldn’t help being a shithead to people. How dare I ask the baby to not shit himself?

The idea that:

-if you really can’t help being a shithead to someone just because they disagree with you on the Internet or ask you to explain yourself
-that may be at that point it’s time to stop making accusations on the Internet, and
-that you and your friends should take steps to hold you responsible for patterns of repeated behavior

...thats lost on them.

It’s basically the “sacred crackpot” thing i wrote about on the blog a few months back:

How dare anyone ask Olivia Hill / Ash Kreider / Paolo Greco / Jensen Toperzer / Evlyn Moreau to be as responsible as any other adult? How dare anyone ask their friends--who know they're compromised--to play a role in helping their victims once they know that?

Trent B said...

If you are lurking this blog, reading this story, and thinking "that's fucked up but there's nothing I can do, dude".

There are a few people in an email chat and making a discord to start getting some traction on solving it. Reach out.

Use Zak's email above, since it's already here, he can put you in touch.

I assume if this post gets approved then Zak approves of the above method.

Vanilla said...

@Zak @ZCE

I think you guys misunderstood my point a little, or maybe I phrased it badly. I didn't mean to say that 80s production values were bad compared among their peers at the time, but that the standards of entry for what is considered a 'professional' product has risen quite dramatically since.

Sure, tons of titles had lavish Elmore *covers* but with some really notable exceptions (80s GW for sure) were fairly simple affairs with varying degrees of layout and interior art. Shadowrun was 89, and Vampire came out 91. And let's face it the success of those games weren't really the 'awesome' mechanics (essentially the same, even designed by the same guy and pretty clunky at that) but the style and atmosphere. Tim fucking Bradstreet indeed.

Now couple the, relatively simple, overall presentation with the sheer size of the TTRPG market at the time. I mean, 80s DnD adventures were selling between 50-150,000 copies *each*! With Keep on the Borderland apparently printed in excess of 1,000,000 copies. Tons of sources for this, here's one: Similar figures of the local, competing RPGs, Germany's Dark Eye sold 250.000 of their 1st Edition in '84.

It was easier to produce something that the market would accept, the market was hungry for new stuff (that wasn't DnD) and there was much less competition from other entertainment (no Netflix, no Playstation, no Internet etc.).

Now, sure production tools have evolved and are readily available, there's print on demand, pdf sales, etc. And yeah, Kickstarter.

But check out what's successful on Kickstarter:

Free League rules that space, Monte is making a haul, FGG, Evil Hat, etc. 95% are existing properties, re-releases or updates, re-brands for 5E, and maybe 1% is actually something original.

Even the most successful ones have like 15,000 backers tops. And Shadows of Esteren were super pleased to top 1,000. How many copies are the top ones shifting today? 20k, 30k? Given that their core fanbase isn't waiting for retail. The more indie ones maybe 3k? And the stuff is essentially produced when they put it on Kickstarter, it's not really crowdfunding, it's a pre-order and hype engine. Nobody wants to wait 3 years to get their product. By then the hype is gone and its Humble Bundle time.

And the production values on even the smaller stuff is amazing, count the number of unique art assets in a new Free League release. That is 10x what was in a top 80s release. Only you can expect to sell 10x copies less.

I might be wrong. But on my end I'm doubling down on barriers of entry. Sure, it's much easier to release 'something' today, and get it selling on drivethru. But to release the next killer RPG at scale that actually captures market share? You would have to have a crack art team, produce it all to say 80% completion before Kickstarter, have some kind of hype network (to your point Zak), and ideally produce something groundbreaking that expands the market (like White Wolf did, WW gaming groups were nothing like the same old dudes everyone new -> fresh bodies!).

The average consumer would still wonder if they should chance it on that new stuff, when they can just get their next fix from just another Free League system re-skin at known quality and production value.

And then the real tragedy isn't even covered. Everyone plays on VTT now. And the established systems have deep support and available playerbase. Your new shiny needs to produce all of that as well.

The 80s ain't coming back. The pond is so much smaller, and the stakes far higher, in my opinion.

TabelleCasuali said...

Question: Are you Jewish or do you have Jewish origins? Are you a believer or were you simply born into a Jewish family, like Freud or Marx?

Zak Sabbath said...


" but that the standards of entry for what is considered a 'professional' product has risen quite dramatically since."

No, I understand completely and completely disagree on all levels.

In the 80s D&D product wasn't much more "professional" than its competitors.

And now D&D product isn't much more "professional" than its competitors. The art, printing and layout are often better.

As far as the books themselves are concerned, anyway.


If you're bringing in all the other stuff, like name recognition--sure. But that shouldn't have stopped MArvel Heroic or the new DC game. And it shouldn't be insurmountable to Vampire, Shadowrun etc.

Zak Sabbath said...


Simply born, like Freud or Marx.

TabelleCasuali said...

So why do you call yourself a Jew? Technically it was not a Jew who "created a Nazi game". It's a bit of a rhetorical argument, isn't it? This obviously does not justify the various accusations and does not weaken your other arguments.

Zak Sabbath said...


Because the Nazis would've killed all three of us. Therefore it is absurd to claim we'd have allegiance to them.

TabelleCasuali said...

Ok, thanks for the reply

Zak Sabbath said...


I have to reply, it's the rules

Vanilla said...

Didn't take us long to get to the Nazis, but the accusations levelled at V5 are just beyond ludicrous and so obviously trolling.

I guess we have to agree to disagree on the other points. D&D was never better than the competition in both content and presentation then or now, I agree. It's just harder for regular dudes in their dorm room to compete now than it was back then, in my opinion.

Maybe it's also a genre thing. Cyberpunk was fresh and hip in the late 80s. And now, well, Russian hackers disabling gas stations across the US. We're effectively living Cyberpunk. Vampire in my mind was also 90% style and hit a particular nerve with grunge and goth and oh the edginess of it all (at least back in the 90s). Not so edgy anymore, we're also all a bit over Anne Rice at this point. WW had 25%+ market share in their day. I don't see anyone even remotely close right now.

I wonder what could be a killer genre for the 2020s. Super Heroes, Vampires, and Street Samurai are not in my Top 10 list, I think. If WEG D6 Star Wars (or similar) came back, I'd give them a chance, just for the simplicity and cinematic style. Everyone's soul is also battered right now by the grim-darkness of the real world, that maybe it's the wholesome, generic fun that makes D&D so appealing to people. Maybe something that doesn't try so damn hard to be edgy and dark is the answer here.

Zak Sabbath said...


Given that art is not a barrier and graphic design is not a barrier and book quality is not a barrier what -is- the barrier you see?

It certainly isn't just genre. Again: see Marvel.

Vanilla said...

Oh, I absolutely see those as barriers, but maybe not in the reductive, absolute terms you see them. But sure, let's assume they're not.

Genre definitely is part of it. So from a different culture, super heroes have been non-existent as a genre in RPGs in Europe now and in the past. Sure, Marvel Movies are just as big, but the genre has never had any traction here. No V&V, no Champions, no Marvel no DC. Cthulhu is much larger here than in the US from what I see. But D&D seems to be the constant here and there. Even though 4th Edition was skipped here (there were several years without anyone wanting the license even).

Looking at what's big on Kickstarter, and what generally seems to sell (or survive at that), it's all old names. People who have been around for ages. Free League has also been around for a decade already. What seems to be missing is the new blood bubbling up to the top. Sure, tons of new and innovative stuff in the indie scene, but it's not hitting it big. I guess people either join an existing company or move on. In the 80s and 90s these young designers would start companies of their own. Doesn't seem to be happening now. So, there must be barriers or at least deterrents.

So, I'm curious, what's your take? If there are no barriers, why is it not simply happening in all this time?

Zak Sabbath said...


Why isn't it happening?

The reason that this topic came up at all under this blog entry-- because the english-language RPG scene is full of people who act like sociopaths and so prevent people from getting enough traction to do their thing---and also, the whole process turns a lot of people off so they leave.

ZCE said...

A big reason the RPG market shrunk too is because there's more competition. Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, Video Games, Netflix, etc. These weren't around or if they were they weren't that great. Nowadays there are videogames that are entire DnD campaigns - multiple dungeons, a big bad, characters to like and even fall in love with. DnD is actually releasing one of these soonish and you can play the entire game in co-op start to finish, which is INSANE, especially compared to the stuff that was coming out in the early 1990s, which suffered from brutal difficulty and terrible UI controls.

It's much easier to get a fantasy adventure these days than it is to get four people consistently that are also great people that are fun to get along with. You can make the game as hard or as easy as you want, and you can bench characters you hate, etc.

Zak Sabbath said...


It's true that other diversions are common and popular but go back to the beginning of this discussion:

The fact other diversions are common doesn't explain why D&D is popular yet in 7 years no other RPG is still even close. No Marvel game, no game based on formerly D&D-level properties like Shadowrun, no game based on anything newer, like JRPGs etc. Nothing.

WOTC's version of D&D keeps its unchallenged place at the top because the rest of the industry can't share information or learn collectively without being tempted to cannibalize each other.

It's never "Hey, have you tried this? Did it work for you? It didn't? Why not? Let's talk!"

It's always "Lol you did it wrong bc yr not enlightened like my frens"

ZCE said...

I think momentum helps a lot too

Warhammer fans will tell you warhammer is shit, the paints are shit, the models and paints and tools are overpriced and who sits at the top of the sales roost? warhammer. i think its because its just been putting out shit for like, 40 years without stopping and now everyone plays warhammer. There are better rulesets and everything else there, sure. You can pick up Conquest or Malifaux or Warmachine and I cant name any others wait Infinity but if you want someone to play with? A thriving community pool of players? You're buying and playing Warhammer

I think DnD is just objectively more accessible than everything else:
- you dont need to know the lore or understand the world at all(this means its easier to get into than WHFRP, any MCG property)
- its easy enough to get into and the rules are simple enough and have a good sweet spot of difficulty
- everyone plays DnD and i dont know if harassing dipshits are really stopping other systems from taking hold

Zak Sabbath said...


If momentum meant -that- much more than everything else then the 80s explosion couldn't have happened. Neither could lots of other "johnny-come-lately" properties currently popular. Game of Thrones came after LotR, etc.

The issues about lore and rules difficulty could easily apply to other genres.

Harassing dipshits are obectively stopping other systems from taking hold. Games need writers and artists:

-Writers who reach any level of success are obsessively attacked until they are either cancelled or withdraw from interacting with the scene.

-Artists won't commit to being associated with any given property because they can make more money with less headache elsewhere

Address that.

zce said...

Harassing dipshits are obectively stopping other systems from taking hold. Games need writers and artists:

-Writers who reach any level of success are obsessively attacked until they are either cancelled or withdraw from interacting with the scene.

-Artists won't commit to being associated with any given property because they can make more money with less headache elsewhere

Address that.

How do you explain monte cook who is very successful despite seemingly having a small private army of haters?

How much is that because most RPG companies won't pay fuck-all? A friend showed me the Black Libray contract for some cover art- they don't pay very much, if at all. Most creatives won't find more "do it for exposure!" than in tabletop rpgs. The DnD art team is just doing side work along with M:TG.

Zak Sabbath said...


Good question!

1. Monte Cook got popular before the current era. He published "Monte Cook's World of Darkness" (one of the few games to be sold so heavily on the strength of the creator's name) in 2007 and had been well-known so long he announced his retirement.

2. Yes, Monte came back and started his own game company. He does alright but he has completely withdrawn from talkng in the game scene. HE doesn't talk and neither does his partner Shanna Germain anymore. They were attacked repeatedly by the mob.

In fact, they are so shell-shocked that when I published this:

...literally half of Monte's permanent staff came up to me and said "Thank you so much for publishing that"--because they knew they couldn't say that without being crucified.

3. Separate issue:
How much is that because most RPG companies won't pay fuck-all?

Simple--they don't make good work so don't get good word-of-mouth and don't sell enough.
Raggi came up with a formula--make really high-quality books, pay the people involved a percentage and pray sales are good enough to return on the investment.

On Vornheim it kinda worked and then on Red & Pleasant Land (whether due to higher production values, winning 4 ennies or being kinda girly) it worked like gangbusters and Raggi was out of debt for the first time in his life. Other OSR companies explicitly copied the model.

My royalties from Raggi equalled out to 21 cents per word but I was doing writing AND art AND I got 50% of cover price. Most people can't make that deal because they can't gamble they'll sell that many copies.

Many LotFP books sell -more copies each year-. This matches the economics of cult classics in most media. A few people read it, then word of mouth is good and it grows.

Compare this to Evil Hat-- Fred Hicks prides himself on transparency and has said that:

1. His books don't sell more as time goes on--there's a burst of purchase on release then it's downhill.

2. Awards dont' give his sales a bump at all.

People who like Fate buy Fate when the new Fate books come out. People who like RPGs buy cool weird RPG books forever.

Now "quality" is subjective, of course, but if -not even fans- of your book consistently say, unprompted, that "the writing is good" or "the art is amazing" then you have a problem. And Evil HAt fans admit both those things straight up.

This is a problem all over:

-Green Ronin has terrible Deviantart backwash on its non-licensed product
-Most Storygames things up until a few years ago had minimal art and tried to coast on graphic design alone. They took a looooong time to get to the quality in Bluebeard's Bride--and even that game just doesn't have enough art.
-Lancer--god damn, for a game inspired by anime you couldn't ask for uglier more westernized, don't-get-the-point lazy robot art.

zce said...

ok that makes sense. i guess wargames arent the same kind of business as rpgs. i think intertia matters more and from my quick researching most of the wargames that have failed, didnt do so because there was a crowd of fuckos trying to fuck them, Warmahordes dug its own grave by being stupid from what google's telling me.

Zak Sabbath said...


Wargames, like movies and video games, require a lot more money and technical knowledge to get off the ground than RPGs.

Someone has to make and mail miniatures. Anyone with a computer can make an RPG.

Vanilla said...

Wargames, at least the collectible kind, are really a different kind of business. GW stopped being in the business of making and publishing really cool and innovative games sometime after 3rd Edition in the 90s and has overhauled their company dramatically to be in the business of making and shifting tons of minis. Lately, they've also seen an incredible uptick in licensing their IP to video games and other media. That's why it's not dwarves and elves anymore, but Duaradin and Aelves instead. Can't trademark the former. These kind of games also have incredible network and lock-in effects. After you dumped 500 bucks on your army and found some people to play with, it's not as simple to switch to a different game and do it all over again. So everyone continues to play Warhammer, or switches to a less demanding hobby.

With RPGs (at least in theory), the switching costs are far far lower. Network effects are real too though. For a while everything anybody wanted to play was D20 and it was hard finding a different group.

I do think Zak has a point about people actively antagonising, instead of cooperating in the current industry, at least in the English speaking sphere. If the histories of the 80s and 90s are accurate (Applecline's or any other of the various write-ups), people were actively supporting each other and their colleague's games.

Most companies got founded producing supplements for DnD, Traveller, or really took off when respective competencies were pooled. White Wolf was just a gaming magazine for a long while, before they merged with Lion Rampart and then combined distribution and PR with Rein-Hagen's modern dark world vision and Tom Dowd's dice pool system and turned out Vampire. And if you look at these people's bios, they were all over the place, over the years working for all kinds of companies and sharing their knowledge and combining what they had learned. Well apart from TSR which got into the business of suing everybody else, then being burned by the TCG train (like almost everybody else).

I guess Zak is making the point that this is not happening on the same scale as it did back then. That things have become more antagonistic. Combined with the shrinking market everybody seems to be fighting over a shrinking pie.

I'm not convinced that's the whole truth to DnD's sole dominance. Accessibility, marketing and distribution power (and pretty much endless backcatalog of IP to recycle) lead to network effects. Having all the stuff ready to play out of the box on VTTs also creates lock-in, at least right now, before people get back to their tables (if they ever do).

I do buy into the Ragi business model working though. I will happily fork over big bucks for a beautiful wrought gaming artifact. Even if these days, I won't realistically get it to the table, it's still nice to own. Lesser produced stuff simply doesn't hold the same value. It's not a treasure to own. I can wait till I get it in some pdf bundle markdown deal.

But yeah, I mean reading these stories is kinda like following a really messed-up abusive reality TV show. Gaming's Tiger King.

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