Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Kickstarter & Game Project Patronage

Lately I’ve been watching a number of people -- both fellow game-designer friends and others with interesting ideas -- turn to Kickstarter to fund their projects. It’s inspired me to look at Kickstarter more closely as a means to publish my own game concepts currently under development…and while that’ll take me a bit of time to familiarize myself with how Kickstarter works, what people have done with it in the past, and how it might fit the vision for my own projects, it reminded me of a similar concept I contemplated about long ago, back when my online presence was focused through my old Griffon’s Aerie website (way back in 2004). Back then I posted a page called the “Patrons Club” listing some of my ideas for roleplaying game supplements I wanted to develop, with an eye to attracting the casual observer with influence in a roleplaying game publishing house.

The introduction to my “Patrons Club” listing of potential projects was a brief missive on the concept of patronage for game designers, much as in old times, when those with means (nobility, industrialists, clergy) funded the efforts of those with vision. I don’t mean to equate game designers -- especially average ones like me -- with the amazing artists who contributed to our civilization and culture, but the concept of patronage mirrors that system to some degree. This echoes some degree of what I understand of Kickstarter, though you can judge for yourself…here’s the original “Patrons Club” introduction I wrote in 2004:

"For centuries artists, pioneers, visionaries, and even just plain folks have pursued their careers with the generous funding and encouragement of patrons. Ramses the Great commissioned the artists of his ancient Egyptian empire to declare his glory in fine creations, from rings and scarabs to stone monuments still visible today. Pope Julius II funded Michelangelo’s artistic endeavors. Lord Carnarvon funded Howard Carter’s Egyptian excavations for years before they yielded anything of significant value. In our current age of corporate feudalism, these people seek their living by adjusting, molding, and constraining their dreams according to someone else’s dictates. The gaming hobby is no different -- game companies rarely pay outright for a freelance designer’s project. Instead they form an appealing and marketable concept and hire a writer to develop it according to their 'vision,' frequently a designer under their roof or from their own fold whom they can guide and control. If one doesn’t have the means to fund a company -- or to stay home all day and write for the fun of it -- one cannot create and sell games without severe financial risk.

"As a freelance writer I’m often torn between the projects I’d like to pursue and the assignments I must accept to make a living. Now and then I find some spare time to develop projects of my own which haven’t gone anywhere. Some are left over from my halcyon days of gaming just for the fun of it. Often there’s no market for them, they’re in rough stages, I haven’t had time to shop them around, or they were originally for games that have fallen from popularity. Usually they just don’t fit into anyone else’s corporate 'vision' according to marketing and their own whims for what a game should accomplish.

"In the 'Patrons Club' I want to list and briefly describe a few of these orphaned personal projects in the vain hope that someone, a generous patron, might see them, find something worthwhile in them, and perhaps hire me to develop them professionally."

I then went on to briefly outline several projects that ranged from one-shot scenarios and short articles to full-fledged roleplaying game supplements. I doubt anybody read the page much (and it has since disappeared along with the balance of my old Griffon’s Aerie website); certainly nobody of influence contacted me to develop these for professional publication, as I’d vainly hoped. At least two of the shorter projects reached PDF publication on their own and remain available through the Griffon Publishing Studio website “Free Downloads” page (Yugiri’s Gift, a samurai-themed adventure, and Trapped in the Museum, a solitaire adventure gamebook).

Granted, roleplaying game publishing has come a long way since then, with electronic publishing becoming more mainstream and outlets like DriveThruRPG acting as online stores for PDF books. And now I sit here suddenly captivated by the possibilities of Kickstarter, looking at the projects I’m developing, and wondering how best to offer these to a hopefully supporting gaming community and whether I as a game designer who’s probably faded from most people’s memory (if they knew me at all) have the influence to garner enough Kickstarter support for a project….

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Vast Internet Versus Edited Periodicals

The internet has brought about changes in the way we all share information, from professional publishers to enthusiastic fans. Once upon a time gamers got their news, supplemental articles, and other inspiration from print periodicals like the venerable Dragon Magazine; but today gamers of all kinds face an overwhelming flood of online information, relatively unedited into a digestible form, from sources offering various levels of quality (though some might argue trending toward the substandard end) all transiently scattered across the internet. The old curmudgeon inside me yearns for the days when this wealth of new game information could be culled, edited, and presented in a more easily read and referenced format.

Where once we relied on print magazines or fanzines for news, source material, scenarios, and other gamey tidbits, now we’re continuously seeking to adapt to new electronic information formats: websites, PDFs, forums, blogs, social media. The internet has lowered the threshold to allow people without access to professional publishing venues (traditionally editorial and art departments, printing presses, warehouses, relationships with distributors) a means to share their ideas, whether participating in forum debates, posting their latest game goodies (random tables, adventures, character concepts, creature stats, opinions) on their blog, or self-publishing their work in PDF or print-on-demand formats for free or for pay. I  mean “lower the threshold” to indicate making it easy for nearly anyone with a computer and internet connection to share/publish game material, not lowering the standard of quality; but, depending on the individual reader’s point of view, that can often be the case.

The sheer fact remains that when everyone from enthusiastic game fan to professional publisher floods the internet with game-related content, readers have a huge task to personally filter through the deluge to notice not only what appeals to their interests but to find quality material…and it’s rarely all in a few places, let alone one place.

Living in the Past

Back in the “Dawn of Roleplaying” (otherwise known as “The Early Eighties”) gamers turned to the pillars of professionally produced print periodicals for updates on their games; Dragon Magazine comes to mind, along with later Polyhedron and Dungeon publications, followed later by such luminaries as Pyramid and Shadis. A plethora of limited distribution print fanzines also catered to various games and genres.

I’ve had many jobs in office administration, and I’ve worked on various newsletters, many of which, at the time, were printed and mailed to interested organization members. This incurred considerable expense beyond writing and graphic design: printing and bulk mail postage isn’t cheap. In most cases the information in these print newsletters eventually transitioned to new electronic formats more easily distributed through the internet through websites, e-mails, PDF downloads, and message boards.

Gaming magazines -- like other print periodicals -- have not transitioned well in the Internet Age. Many simply disappeared beneath the pressures of decreased demand, increased print production and distribution costs, and the availability of free, online resources elsewhere. Paying for internet content -- particularly magazine-style features rather than everyday news -- still seems to work. In many cases it’s combined with access to other interactive tools like forums or online applications, offering more exclusive access to content and community. Some adopted the subscription model used by some newspapers; Steve Jackson Games’ Pyramid, formerly a print magazine, comes to mind as one of the earliest and most successful. After the demise of Dragon and Dungeon magazines, Wizards of the Coast consolidated its formerly free online content and archived magazine material, along with character tools and other applications, into the subscription-access Dungeons & Dragons Insider.

The few print magazines available offer novel articles that work best in print format (though they also function as online content). Wargames Illustrated, for example, presents full-color photo-spreads of magnificent miniatures and dioramas, often as part of detailed battle reports or historical features (though it often serves as the “house organ” for Battlefront Miniatures). While one finds many websites with photos of people’s wargaming activities, artfully painted figures, and well-crafted terrain, some readers like having a print “album” of premium content for reference and inspiration in their own hobby pursuits. Wargames Illustrated often releases past magazine articles in PDF format on its website; Battlefront Miniatures often offers similar PDF features, excerpts, or supplemental materials to support its Flames of War game line on its website.

Some periodicals gamers might consider “fanzines” have also successfully transitioned to PDF format. I’m aware of two on the wargaming front that still see infrequent publication: the Wasatch Front Historical Gaming Society’s newsletter Warning Order (which I’ve featured before on Hobby Games Recce) and the Northern Virginia Gamers’ Gamers Closet (regrettably leaning more toward the “infrequent” end of the scale these days). They offer a smattering of articles ranging from after action reports, reviews, scenarios, and features on relevant historical issues, along with local club news. I know similar publications exist for various roleplaying endeavors, both in for-free and for-pay PDF formats. The Star Frontiersman fanzine keeps interest in the old TSR science fiction game fresh 30 years after its initial publication. For a while the OD&DITIES fanzine kept the flame burning for old-school D&D-style roleplaying, well before the Old School Renaissance movement exploded on the internet scene; unfortunately copies of OD&DITIES remain scattered across the internet, though a Google search reveals a few sources for the first 12 PDF issues (including Dragonsfoot.org, which serves as a source for early D&D material). I’m sure I’m missing even more PDF fanzines scattered across the vast, unfathomable internet.

But even PDF periodicals must compete with more transient but easily updated online formats like blogs that deliver new content weekly, daily, or even hourly as it becomes available. News and press release announcements are fine in this new, transient format, but source articles and ideas for use in games need some semblance of permanence, even if it’s a nicely laid-out PDF file that languishes on a hard drive or is printed out and mangled at the gaming table.

Readers have numerous ways to discover and track new content relevant to their interests -- social media sites, referrals from similarly themed blogs -- but they must act as their own editors, evaluating what material incorporates both the best game source material and the best quality of presentation and development.

“Editors! Bah!” you might say. All stodgy and grammatical, with an antiquarian insistence on consistent style and quality, sending out rejection letters to lesser writers, barring their way to publication and letting only qualified authors into the elite social club of “real” writers. But in the publication process editors play a vital role, examining and refining the massive flood of potentially relevant material (traditionally “submissions”) and collecting it into journals, magazines, or other publications (print or electronic) for easier access and reference.

The internet is like a vast publishing house that enables anyone with a computer to produce and disseminate information, regardless of its veracity, quality, or relevance. Much of it remains as ephemera -- incidental, trivial bits -- but some are brilliant gems that further development and editing might polish to shine brighter. Some of this material might make it into a game book supplement; but most of it appears on the web and fades into a blog’s archives, retrieved only by dedicated archive delvers or those lucky enough to find it on a Google search.

The Annual

Here’s a suggestion that makes more work for creators but provides a slightly more permanent PDF “review” of past relevant posts on related subjects: compile an “annual” PDF publication of the best online articles. Each “annual” might focus on archiving all or the best material from a single blog, or on a particular gaming genre (old school renaissance, for instance). Many bloggers already include download links to materials they’ve created…why not simply add an annual review of the best of their blog in PDF format? They’d have a chance to revisit and revise material, include some graphics to spruce things up, and have a more lasting reference PDF for gamers to bring to the table. In these instances the blog writer can self-edit, revise, and compile material into a cohesive, themed annual, taking into account reader comments and further developments in other areas.

Obviously this works best for blogs producing prolific gaming resources, and one of my favorites provides an iconic example. The Dungeon Dozen offers a source of almost daily amusement with a random table suitable for inspiring nearly any dungeon-delving game. Although random tables aren’t always my personal gaming style, I find they’re a good source for ideas; and the d12-inspired ones at The Dungeon Dozen cover numerous settings with humorous if not unusual suggestions, from “Recent Edicts from the Usurper King” to “This Dungeon Has Weird Floors.” The blog archive format really isn’t great for compiling these in a PDF or print format (though the tags feature might help with reference…if the tables were tagged somehow by title and content). I’d love to see some kind of Dungeon Dozen Annual with all or the best of the tables (some revised at the author’s discretion) in a handy PDF format for reference at the gaming table or while developing scenarios. (In a parallel train of thought, Zak over at the D&D With Porn Stars blog recently noted he likes some of these random tables, too, printing and pasting some into his gamemaster notebook rather than fussing with cutting and pasting them within word processing files.)

(One might suggest compiling an annual review from the best blog articles sharing a common theme. To a would-be editor, however, this approach looks like a permissions nightmare; one would have to contact all the blog contributors for permission to compile their work, make some stylistic edits, and prepare it for free PDF distribution…far too much legwork for a “free” PDF project.)

Some creators already have a rationale in place for producing PDFs of previously released material on their blogs. Occasionally they further develop ideas floated in blog posts into PDF resources to download. For instance, Dyson Logos on his inspiring A Character for Every Game blog features wonderful, hand-drawn maps, some of which have found their way into his infrequently published PDF fanzine, Dyson’s Dodecahedron, or other PDF resources (though I often wish he’d simply collect his fine maps with any themed notes into a PDF of blank dungeon maps gamemasters can use on the fly).

Some people use their blogs as platforms to float new ideas or feature work in progress. Brent Wolke’s engine of thwaak blog offers insights, progress, and previews on his free Risus supplements as well as related commentary. Doug Anderson’s Blue Box Rebellion blog provides a look at his work on the second, illustrated iteration of his kid-friendly DungeonTeller game plus his observations about old-school D&D and related issues as a game designer and illustrator trying “to return his sense of wonder to its original packaging.”

Like much of the internet and the technology that shapes it, the electronic publishing landscape constantly changes. The unfettered voice it gives to fans, creators, and publishers has put more material than ever in the hands of gamers, yet has required those gamers to exercise their own critical skills in filtering relevant, quality information. Old fogeys like me value the discretion of a qualified editor in sifting through and revising material for our final consumption (even if it’s just a PDF we can print out and file according to our interests).

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Thanks, Battlefront, for Free Flames of War Upgrade

Battlefront is rolling out its latest edition of the popular World War II miniatures game, Flames of War, and started with an interesting premise for making its current customers happy: a free, digest-sized copy of the new rulebook. Theoretically the free giveaway ended this past weekend, March 10, when the full third edition Flames of War pack (three, full-sized books covering the rules, forces, and hobby) officially released. I managed to pick up a copy of the mini-book for free at my Friendly Local Gaming Store (FLGS), Game Vault in Fredericksburg last month. Battlefront should serve as a model of customer service, fan support, and forward thinking.

“Trading Up” to New Edition

Those who already own the second edition hardcover rulebook of Flames of War (which retailed for $50 when it released six years ago) could bring their copy to their local approved Battlefront hobby store (listed on the website, and familiar to fans as place to purchase and play the game); there they could present their rulebook, put a “Flames of War Veteran” sticker somewhere on it, and receive a free mini-rulebook (while supplies last). The mini-book is a 296-page digest-sized, full-color tome containing the complete set of third edition rules. Battlefront also released a series of free PDF publications at its website with notes on revised third-edition rules and handy reference charts for the new version.

I can’t remember where I picked up my Flames of War 2nd Edition hardcover, full-color rulebook. When the game caught my notice I had access to three “local” game stores: Game Parlor in Woodbridge (1.5 hours away, now closed, though its Chantilly store remains), a hobby store in Fredericksburg, VA, with about a third of the space devoted to geeky game pursuits (roleplaying games, minis, board games -- the store has since closed), and Game Vault in Fredericksburg, VA (about 45 minutes away, alive and healthy still). At the time second edition was new, and I recall debating whether to purchase second edition at full price ($50) or first edition at a solid discount. I chose second edition, surprising for me since I’m not heavily into complex miniature wargames and hesitate spending that much money on any single gaming product. I’ve since bought more minis than I can paint, painted a few, and tried out the game mechanics on my own on the basement wargames table. One of these days I’ll get out to the Game Vault for their Friday night Flames of War skirmishes. But I stopped by Game Vault recently to pick up some board games they’d special ordered for me and picked up my mini-book and sticker.

I’ve read several encouraging accounts on the internet of avid Flames of War players who lamented the absence of a nearby game shop where they might “trade up” to the new rules; and the friendly folks at Battlefront made sure these fans got copies of the mini-book, often by directly mailing them.

The most consistent complaint I’ve seen regarding the mini-book comes from its fragile binding; given its thickness and the quality of binding glue, the spine tends to crack and pages fall out. Avid fans have remedied this by fitting the book into a small three-ring binder or an office-supply-store applied comb binding for a small price. I can’t complain too much; considering the book is free, and saved me $60 to upgrade to the new, full-sized edition, a little work or money on my part to retrofit a new binding medium isn’t a problem.

Battlefront’s made a modest public relations push about the free third edition mini-book rules upgrade, more to inform loyal players than to tout the company’s own generosity. It’s part of an ongoing commitment to good customer service and support. The company website posts weekly updates, from previews and product information to small-unit guides and historical scenarios. It compiles links to convention tournament reports and relevant podcasts to highlight fan efforts across the globe. Third edition upgrade features include free PDF downloads of quick reference sheets and missions, plus various articles exploring the changes from the earlier version.

Can This Work for Others?

I’m still astounded at Battlefront’s generosity at giving away a 296-page, digest-sized, full-color rulebook. It’s something I can’t recall anyone else having done in the adventure gaming hobby in recent memory (and I’m searching the dusty halls of my memory, almost 30 years as a gamer). Give away the new edition of your core ruleset to existing customers for free? Insane. Think of the money Battlefront could have made selling the recently released, full-sized third edition, a slipcased, three-book set including books containing the rules, forces information, and hobby tips, all for $60. (Though I believe the third edition bundle at $60 remains relatively comparable in price to the second edition hardbound rulebook.) Are they nuts? Maybe. Are they good people? Most certainly. Of course, Battlefront probably makes most of its profits from sales of miniatures and other accessories, all of which are high quality and priced accordingly. Like the model of the Games Workshop Warhammer hobby Battlefront emulates, the Flames of War hobby isn’t cheap. It encompasses expensive rules and army books, well-sculpted miniatures, dice and marker packs, paints, and even pre-painted terrain pieces ready for the tabletop. Making a half-sized version of the third edition rulebook available free to existing players who’ve already invested in the full second edition rulebook -- and having the sales and marketing infrastructure of approved retailers to implement it -- just makes good sense.

Can others in the adventure gaming hobby use this “free upgrade” strategy to their advantage? To do so assumes a publisher has a distribution structure and relationship with retailers who loyally carry relevant product, like Battlefront’s approved retailers listed on its website. With sales and marketing to “approved stores” similar to the Games Workshop Warhammer hobby model, Battlefront has an immediate channel to its customers, supplemented by its website and loyal online fan community.

Unfortunately few other publishers of various game types (wargames, roleplaying games, and board games) have the sales and marketing infrastructure to effectively implement this kind of free upgrade; in fact, most publishers seek to profit from their existing players, many of whom don’t give much thought to purchasing the next iteration of their favorite game.

During my time in the mid-1990s at West End Games I cannot imagine management ever consenting to release any rules upgrade for free as a standalone product (the company did include first-edition Star Wars Roleplaying Game rules upgrades packaged with several early products, mostly scenarios, though that was before my time).

About the only system with which I’m somewhat familiar comes from DriveThruRPG and its OneBookShelf affiliates. The online sales nature of the sites provides a system whereby registered users who purchase particular products can receive free upgrades should publishers make those available. I’ve never tried this myself, or been on the receiving end of any free revisions, but it’s a concept worth exploring.

Please correct me if I’m overlooking someone’s similar efforts in the past; it’s a great leap of faith, and a testament to the loyalty of its fans, for Battlefront to try putting even a half-sized new edition of its most popular rules set into the hands of every fans for free.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Sundry Game Ideas from across the Internet

I come across a lot of content in my wanderings across the internet in search of interesting game material; usually only the most relevant to me or the hobby (as I see it) receives mention here at Hobby Games Recce, sometimes in a full feature or as part of my discussion/exploration of a particular facet of the adventure gaming hobby. Which means I often overlook little gems I don’t really have time to explore or write about in depth, but wouldn’t mind bringing to the attention of readers who might not have discovered them on their own.

Here are a few notable little discoveries that can enrich one’s game experiences, most with applications for roleplaying games, but one from the wargaming front (with applications in roleplaying games, too):

Wargames on the Fridge

John Fiore over at the Solo Nexus blog recently posted “Rally Round the Fridge,” a piece about wargaming in his New York City apartment where space remains at a premium. His solution? Mount pieces on office supply store magnetic sheets and use the vertical refrigerator surface as his wargaming table! In his example Fiore uses top-down paper soldier pieces from Junior General (which I’ve featured before here at Hobby Games Recce), but one could mount three-dimensional pieces on magnets, assuming they aren’t too heavy for the magnets to stick on a vertical refrigerator serface: other stand-up figures from Junior General, pre-painted plastic minis (both for roleplaying game heroes and monsters as well as wargaming minis, like Gordon & Hague’s pre-painted 10mm Civil War minis), even Axis & Allies minis (I think anything for Flames of War would be too heavy to stick, though that would look cool). The idea would even work for roleplaying game skirmishes showing the location of heroes and monsters in a dungeon chamber. Fiore’s Solo Nexus blog remains a good resource not only for those interested in solitaire games of all sorts (from wargames and roleplaying games to board and card games) but anyone looking for innovative approaches to group gaming.

“Escalating” Solitaire Adventure

A while ago Crystal Star Games released the Chronicles of Arax, a basic fantasy roleplaying game system geared toward solitaire play, available free on DriveThruRPG and its affiliates. The game introduces a new format for solitaire adventures; rather than relying on a series of “programmed” entries with choices (“If you defeat the goblins, go to 27; if you run away, go to 12.”), it presents a series of numbered entries from 1 to 20 without any “if/then” choices in the text. Each turn the player rolls 1D10 and goes to that numbered entry, confronting a challenge, evading a trap, or fighting the inhabitants. On subsequent rolls the player adds +1 to the die roll for each previous turn, increasingly escalating the numbered encounter; if the die roll indicates a encounter already visited, the player moves upward to the next new encounter. Obviously the earlier entries represent easier challenges and locations one would encounter first in a dungeon, with the later entries covering more difficult obstacles and ultimately the adventure climax. This design offers inspiration for a non-programmed solo adventure format with an intuitive escalation mechanic; it seems to work well for dungeon-delving scenarios, though it might prove an interesting challenge for more story-driven adventures.

Sharp-Looking Risus Supplements

S. John Ross’ Risus: The Anything RPG remains one of the more innovative, free roleplaying game offerings on the internet, with a huge online fan following that regularly contributes free source material for the game. One of those contributors, Brent Wolke, recently released We the People -- a Revolutionary War with magic setting -- to his library of sharp-looking, free Risus supplements available through his engine of thwaak blog. These additional offerings include Axe, Hammer & Rune (dwarf-oriented fantasy), Call of the Wild (animal-mutant post-apocalyptic), and Future Imperfect (near future sci-fi). They’re all short and sweet -- in the spirit of the original Risus rules -- but manage to impart a solid sense of the setting, all within a very engaging graphic design. Wolke’s engine of thwaak blog is definitely worth watching for his latest innovative and graphically sharp developments on the Risus front.

Zak’s Drop-Die Instadungeon

Need a quick dungeon for tonight’s old-school hack-and-slash game? Check out Zak’s drop-die “instadungeon” on his Playing D&D with Porn Stars blog. The two-part process consists of grabbing some polyhedral dice and rolling them on one square-segmented chart with location notes, drawing “rooms” around the dice and connecting them; then rolling each die on a particular chart to determine what adversaries or other challenges inhabit each room. The “instadungeon” concept is a neat idea one might customize (both locations and die-roll results) for one’s particular game, setting, character levels, and general difficulty level. Check out Zak’s blog entry for the more-or-less complete process, as well as someone’s more legible online interpretation (an easier-to-read chart, with the ability to randomize and customize its contents, then print). Warning: If you couldn’t tell from the title, Zak’s blog sometimes contains Not-Safe-For-Work material; and while his style and subject matter range quite artistically all over the place and are sometimes difficult to follow, there’s some real gaming genius at work here.


Over at game designer-illustrator Doug Anderson’s Blue Boxer Rebellion blog I’ve been following his posts about developing a new iteration of his DungeonTeller roleplaying game for kids. The current, free version relies on success-based dice pool rolls, offering the usual menu of roles and races with some original touches, like different “powers” players can choose for their characters. The presentation’s very basic, as it’s obviously a first draft to get the system on paper to share with others and use as a personal reference in games; but the approach and mechanics show a great deal of promise, especially when one sees Anderson’s artwork and graphic design ideas, such as his “Into the Unknown” piece, his nicely organized and illustrated weapon chart, and the concise yet innovative “Rumor Mill Premise-Maker for Dungeon Adventures.” I’ll admit I’m getting more interested in roleplaying games oriented toward children, both as a parent (of a toddler who has a few years before I subject him to my gaming interest) and a game designer dabbling in a project of his own. Anderson’s blog is worth following for developments on the next version of DungeonTeller, his crisp, old-school-style artwork, and his insights on old-school D&D.