Those Who Can…

Over the weekend of Madicon, I — as the Convention Coordinator — had little time to just stop and enjoy the convention. One of the high points for me was getting involved in a conversation with two of the guests, Myke Cole and Jonah Knight about self-publishing versus traditional outlets (major book publishers) like Ace, etc. I know my answer to that debate — which I’m not going to discuss because that’s not really germane to this post — but ultimately, the discussion started me thinking about this issue in the gaming world.

Specifically, I was thinking about the difference between buying a product from Wizards of the Coast or Catalyst Game Labs versus buying something from an independent (or self) publisher. Of course, there’s also the middle ground where you have someone like John Wick who publishes under his own imprint but has the ethos of his previous career with a mainstream publisher (not that his ethos is his only appeal as a writer, but you understand what I’m driving at).

I recently purchased the new Gamma World — and I think it’s pretty fantastic — despite my love/hate/disgruntled relationship with D&D 4e (and mostly the way that WotC keeps messing with it). Ultimately, when I buy a piece from Wizards, I have certain expectations — based on their past performance and my own perceptions of their products. I was pleasantly surprised by how weird and “old-school” the new Gamma World is. It’s like 4E mixed with old Gamma World mixed with just a touch of Rifts.

I bring this up because the mainstream publishers in gaming are different from the mainstream publishers in fiction. Not that it’s easy to break into mainstream fiction, but I don’t generally go to the bookstore and look for the Ace imprint or the PYR imprint — I just look at the books, and maybe the authors. When I look at gaming stuff though, I am looking at what Catalyst is making, or WotC. It’s a different buying model.

But ultimately — what I really want to say is how impressed I am with the amazing amount and quality of the offerings from the self-publishing community. I’m only just really getting into exploring this market, but there is good stuff here. I’m not sure how “self-publishing” gets defined really in this community (I mean, is Castles and Crusades “self-published”) but I’ve really enjoyed the stuff I’ve taken chances on. Barbarians of Lemuria and Dogs of War by Simon Washbourne are amazing. Legends of Steel (BoL edition) is a great product. Castles and Crusades — while I’m not playing it — was a great read and I really liked the feel of the game. I recently looked at Stars Without Number at the urging of a few blogs and found another great read. Even the retro-clones are fascinating to me. I actually own pretty much everything TSR put out from the late 70s through the end, so I don’t really need Labyrinth Lord, but then — I’m not really the target audience… and the fact that LL makes that old-school play accessible to so many others (they’re running it at my local game store now) makes me happy. So many wonderful products and so little time.

I’m impressed, jealous, grateful, and often boggled at what the typical gamer can put together these days. Years ago (around 2004) I worked on my own game — which saw the light of day for one print run financed by my own dollar but never existed in any form that would appear on say, RPGNow. I enjoyed writing it, I enjoyed running it for my friends, but I’d never have the guts to show it off — or offer it as a real product to others. I linked the little six page Mary Sue game I made for my friends here on my blog — but that was the product of one very funny night of working on a little goof-off project — nothing to take seriously. To those who have such bravery and joy in what they do, I can only salute you and say thank you for your efforts. Even those who are producing work only on their blogs or in support of other systems (like the Firefly or Mystara conversions for the AGE system) are exceptional.

Why write this? Because I realized some time ago that I’m never going to be a game writer. I’m never going to grow up and work for TSR (especially considering that I am grown up and there is no TSR), I’m never going to publish the next great thing, and for a time I was bitter about that. Not that others were doing it — but that I wasn’t. This point brings the whole experience full circle though. That conversation about the publishing industry, about writing for a big publishing house or using the tools to self-publish ultimately came down to validation and review. Validation sounds like a horrible, passive word — but it’s not that the author needs validation, he is perfectly confident in his own work — but the idea that I might like what I write is a far cry from the editors at a major house liking what I write and putting their name on it and shelving it in bookstores next to the other, established writers they publish. The cachet they bring to the process is validating to the work itself. As someone working in grad school and submitting to conferences, etc, I’m used to the idea of review — and I think I’d need that review to trust that my work was ever good enough to deserve to see the light of day. Without it, I’d never have the guts.

So — at the end of the day — thank you. Thank you to everyone out there who is writing, producing and creating for this hobby of ours. If you are making stuff on your home computer and putting it out there for the world, sending out fanzines, working for Fight On!, writing OS adventures, or creating your own magical games and worlds from scratch, then god-bless you and thanks for all your work. Maybe someday…

…and as always, Thanks for Reading.

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7 responses

  1. Wow. Thank you so much for the praise and appreciation! I’m honored. Thank you 🙂

    Firefly has been fun to put together, a pain in the butt at times, and multiple edits, but really fun.

    Again, thank you!

  2. I used to share that dream, although I let it go much earlier in life after getting beaten to the punch by big publishers releasing games similar to ones I had been laboring on. I loved those games – don’t get me wrong, but after immersing myself more than once in major projects that I ultimately had to let go because someone with similar background and interests plus a larger budget and distribution network had come along and done it much better and had likely started a year or two earlier, I realized that releasing my own game into the wild on that scale was something that I only wanted to do, not something that I needed to do. I would have done much more to make it happen otherwise. It was much easier to see it in perspective after that, and I felt much better for directing my energies elsewhere; specifically to things I was fully invested in.

    Like you, this year I have seen a lot of fantastic ideas and clever games, and found some great reads and I find myself thinking again about ways that I could contribute something, or return something to the hobby which has give me so much enjoyment for so long. What I hit upon was just to stop keeping ideas to myself to use later. I think I can find some real satisfaction in becoming a part of the creative process by offering suggestions, sharing what happens in my games, and asking ‘What if…?’

    Thanks for sharing another insightful post.

  3. @wrath
    My girlfriend was adapting SJGames, SPANC card game into a one-shot rpg for our con, and she used your firefly conversions to help when she was working on it. So, she really enjoyed, despite not even caring about the firefly parts… so, thank you.

  4. Well I’m flattered so tell your girlfriend thanks:) Did it work out well?

  5. Much like music and book publishing, gaming is also at a place where self publishing is not only a respectable option, it is in many ways a better option depending on your experience and long term goals.

    There will always be junk, of course. With any creative project, getting to 85% done is momentum and energy. That last 15% polish and refinement is what makes the difference.

    And Madicon was great.

  6. @wrath

    Well, the game didn’t make at the con — I think people were scared to “out” themselves as Catgirls… (joking), but she did enjoy writing it and having a sci-fi AGE system reference was very helpful.

    @Jonah

    Glad you enjoyed Madicon. I wish I could have been more involved myself over the weekend. I’ll just have to hold out for next year!

    So, let me ask you a question — and I’m being serious. Would you say that it’s fair to state that — with the state of tools and outlets for self-publishing where they are today — there is no reason why a creative person with a product shouldn’t be putting it out there for everyone to see?

    Or is that going too far?

    Thanks for chiming in.

    1. If you do anything creative, you must learn to ship. Finish the project and get it out there.

      My first CD is kind of lame. My second is better, third is better than the second, and the one I’m working on new will be totally awesome. I couldn’t have done the new one without learning from the failures of the first.

      I used to be the Artistic Director for a small theatre company focused on new plays and emerging playwrights (I still have the tag line down). One of the biggest problems that inexperienced playwrights have is letting go of their first play. The first one took them years. To think about it, write it, rewrite it, procrastinate, and then getting someone to read it. The first play almost always sucks. It has story, character, tone, dialogue problems that are not fixable because it’s their first try. What separates professional playwrights from amateurs is scrapping the first and writing the second. Then the third.

      I met a guy at an indie film fest who maxed out his credit cards to the tune of $30k to make his first feature (shot on film) about street hockey. It was not that great and he wouldn’t let it go. He couldn’t move on to the next project.

      That doesn’t mean that you can’t put out an RPG and ask forums you trust for feedback and make some changes. Then stop. Take a nap. Start the next one.

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