Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Creators & Communities

My current reading of Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World – particularly about early wargaming clubs, newsletters, and rules – and the recent phenomenal and well-deserved success of James Spahn’s White Star Swords & Wizardry-compatible sci-fi roleplaying game demonstrate the importance of game creators setting out to do their own thing and forging enthusiastic communities around their creations.

In the earliest pages of Playing at the World, Peterson discusses how members of early wargaming clubs – both traditional chit-and-board games and those using miniatures – published their own newsletters, hosted their own (admittedly small) conventions, and shared ideas for creating game variants or developing new games, ones often distributed within the newsletters or in amateurish mimeographed copies. Clubs and newsletters (the primary means of finding opponents) brought people together not simply to play games but to talk about them, discuss evolving ideas, and share new interests in historical periods. All this engagement fueled the development of new games, including the groundbreaking rules called Dungeons & Dragons....

Anyone familiar with the earliest days of the roleplaying game hobby know it’s filled with legendary tales of fans, staffers, and friends setting off on their own to take what they’ve learned and develop their own game lines, complete with loyal customers. (Readers can find much of this personality- and corporate-based history in the first volume of the popular roleplaying game history Designers & Dragons.) In these early days companies came and went, many trying to capitalize on D&D’s success, some developing fantasy roleplaying games that catered to their own play styles and gaming ideals.

The phenomenon of creator/community engagement diminished as publishers went from amateur operations to professional businesses. Established publishers controlled what games released with solid marketing, keeping design on staff or among a trusted cadre of freelancers. Games in development received playtesting in house and among a trusted (and often legally bound) few independent playtesters. Collaboration between companies remained rare, as the growing trend seemed more toward protecting projects and intellectual properties from others seeking to “steal” them for their own profit (and thus denying the original publisher its own profits). Besides, interaction between game creators and among a game’s community was stuck in the old communications mode of postal correspondence and magazines (with occasional contact at conventions).

In those days of almost-exclusively professional game publishers the average gamer had few venues through which to share ideas, distribute original games, and engage with gamers beyond the local hobby scene. Some gamers created fanzines for their local market. Some collaborated at area conventions. Many sought opportunities with established publishers, primarily through magazines but also through the product submission process many made available by mail on in the pages of products. But, unless they found a voice with an established publisher, their reach remained limited, as did the extent and quality of their engagement with the greater gamer community.

Magazines served as the primary means of interaction among far-flung gamers. The early issues of Dragon Magazine (pre-issue 100) packed many submissions for adventures, new classes, spells, and monsters, tips for gamemasters, and frequent debate between vocal personalities about the direction of D&D and its various rule systems. While many served as “house organs” primarily providing material for the publisher’s own game lines (including Dragon, Challenge, and Pyramid) they still served as forums for new ideas and some degree of limited, edited engagement with gamers. My own efforts establishing the Star Wars Adventure Journal enabled talented fans to share their short fiction and game material across a wider distance; some even advanced to contribute as freelancers to other West End Games Star Wars Roleplaying Game products.

The internet and self-publishing tools not only empowered game creators who weren’t affiliated with publishers, it increased the engagement designers cultivated with the communities that grew around their games. At first the internet served as a venue for communication. Fans of certain games gathered in forums where they could discuss setting and rules. E-mail offered a means of interacting with busy staffers at established publishers, some of whom took advantage of this engagement and the means of sharing information over the internet (and some did not, much to their detriment). The advent of what are now the OneBookShelf websites and publisher websites brought online PDF distribution to new levels; the relatively recent addition of print-on-demand options for many titles bring electronic PDF material into the realm of analog reality, thus helping independent game designers and small publishers provide similar book fulfillment as established publishers. Venues like Kickstarter and Patreon also allow creators to produce projects and connect with supporters who funded their efforts. Of course established roleplaying game publishers remain the key pillars of the industry – using these very tools to their advantage, too – and their products occupy the shelves of the traditional distribution venues; but new tools enable any fan to produce their own material and distribute it across the internet to a far more expansive audience than before.

James Spahn’s White Star adaptation of the Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox rules serves as a perfect example of how the game creating community has come full circle. He used Open Game License (OGL) portions of the popular Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox rules (one of many “retro-clone” games emulating early D&D in what’s been called an Old School Renaissance, or OSR), porting what was essentially a hack-and-slash fantasy game into starfaring space opera using familiar elements like classes and levels, six attributes, hit points, and armor class. Although it provides a brief sample setting and a basic adventure, White Star doesn’t offer comprehensive mechanics or a vast game world; like its WhiteBox predecessor, it serves more as a framework and toolbox onto which individual referees can add their own (or others’) new classes, monsters, meditations (“spells”), spacecraft, and equipment. It’s an excellent game on its own, partially because it wonderfully interprets D&D-style rules into the science fiction genre, and partly because it leaves so much open for referees to develop on their own...in fact it encourages customization and creation. Interest in White Star took off with phenomenal success for a product unaffiliated with an established game publishing house thanks to online communities enabled by the internet, an avid fan following spreading the news by word of mouth, and cross promotion among friends in social media and blogs.

So the game releases, experiences amazing sales, and then the fan community takes off and runs with it. The Google+ White Star community explodes with fan-made content as well as rules discussions and thoughts on what folks want to see in new product. Erik Tenkar at the popular Tenkar’s Tavern blog starts brainstorming ways to share his own developments for White Star. Creator James Spahn engages with fans in many discussions, encouraging them in the spirit of his game to create their own material, to make it their own. Someone even starts a post listing the typos and other errors requiring correction, leading to revised PDFs for customers and a cleaner, community-proofread product for print publication.

Certainly established publisher have reached out to engage with fans – on websites, through clubs, at conventions, through event support – but they have the resources to do this as part of their larger business strategy. Smaller publishers and independent creators don’t have that kind of time and money to invest, yet the internet still allows them to find, create, and interact with gamer communities. The White Star community isn’t the first to bring together game designers and fans, even in the Internet Age. Yet its sudden – and hopefully lasting – impact demonstrates both the power of creators and the communities that support their work. It shows how fans and designers work together to provide impetus for a game line, forge meaningful connections, and serve as symbiotic resources fueling each other’s efforts. These communities give gamers the opportunity to engage with creators, learn from and sometimes collaborate with creators, and actually become creators in their own right. Just as the hobby has functioned since the earliest days.

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