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).