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Author Topic: The problem with published rpgs (rant, long)  (Read 2809 times)
Hunter Logan
Member

Posts: 86


« on: August 13, 2003, 02:01:58 PM »

I've been following some of the more recent threads in rpg theory and I haven't really wanted to say anything. Then, over the weekend, I went with my friend to the game store. Reflecting on that in combination with some of the things I've read here has made me pretty sure that I can't keep quiet any more. There is a problem with roleplaying as we know it. Since I'm not perfectly sure how to proceed, I'll start with this quote from http://www.indie-rpgs.com/viewtopic.php?t=7333&start=45">this thread:

AnyaTheBlue wrote:
Quote
Think about this -- the simple fact that the hobby has stopped growing and replacing its members is an indication that Role Playing Games as we know them may be a fad. If they weren't, they'd still be bringing more new people in than are leaving.


Then, I will refer you to http://www.indie-rpgs.com/viewtopic.php?t=7534">Ferro's theory thread.

Well, I don't know whether or not roleplaying is a fad. Beanie Babies were a fad. For a while, everybody had to have one, and they'd pay top dollar to get it..Now, you have a hard time giving them away. I don't think there was ever a time that everyone "had to have" a copy of D&D. I certainly don't recall people paying a premium to get one. On that basis, Magic was far more a fad than D&D ever was. Anyway, roleplaying has been around at least since the German general staff started running wargames in WWII. However, even if you discount all that and the use of roleplaying in corporate training programs, roleplaying is still a niche hobby that's been around for decades. I think it will be around for a long time to come, though its form may change significantly. The CRPGs are becoming more sophisticated and immersive with the capacity to provide more and more of the experience once found in tabletop rpgs. Even if CRPGs don't do it by themselves, the CRPG technology applied to MUDs, MUSHes and MMORPGs may eventually push the big rpg publishers to extinction. Or not.

The funny thing about people's perception of the industry is, they assume that RPG publishers are "in it for the money." Yet, except for the one certified, documented Game Publishing Lottery Winner (he who is known as Peter Adkison), the economics of game publishing are such that people in the industry don't expect to get rich; they hope to make enough money to a) live and b) continue doing what they love to do. By and large, for a long time, you could talk to dozens of people in the game industry who would tell you that "They're not in this to get rich." In fact, as far as "making money in the game industry" is concerned, you're probably a lot better off being someone like Jolly Blackburn or John Kavolic, two gentlemen who have done all right for themselves by providing humorous commentary on the "secret life of gamers," for lack of a better term. I don't know much about the tenor of the industry today, so perhaps things have changed - But I doubt it. In any case, I can attest that pretty much everything Ron has ever said about the RPG industry is absolutely, unequivocally true, especially with regard to economics, misconceptions about publishing, and all the things that don't work.

So, back to my point: There is something wrong with roleplaying as we know it, and Ferro spelled out most of it in his proposed theory. Ferro has correctly identified all the common, practically stereotypical things that people who have been raised on big time, store-bought RPGs expect to find in an rpg. In the end, his document is not a theory at all; it's more an observation and an indictment. The game includes a setting and rules. The GM is responsible for all that, and the whole campaign to boot. The player shows up to play a character. The GM is singular in his power and pushes the players into an adventure or mission while the players form a group running a team of PCs working toward group goals. The GM does all the work, the players have all the fun; except Ferro missed a couple things: The game is published in a really big, expensive book with lots of text; the game includes a lot of rules and usually requires the players to do a lot of work before play can begin; and the actual outcome of events will be determined by a roll of the dice. Fully programmed roleplayers who began playing 20 years ago (or their carefully indoctrinated offspring) see this, and I guess they buy like zombies or something.

Oh, I know... Lots of rant in this piece. How often do I actually rant? I went to the game store with my friend. I was looking for games with really good reputations, Nobilis and Feng Shui. I had them both in my hands. I fondled them. You know, Nobilis is a huge tome with a white cover and a stiff price tag, damn near $50. Feng Shui is very colorful and costs less. I've read enough about Feng Shui's resolution mechanics to know it should play pretty well, though it's totally dice driven. But as I looked at pages randomly, I found the material about schticks. I remembered those from Tales of the Floating Vagabond. Except that I could see I was supposed to do some sort of point-spending thing to create characters, and at that point I was lost. I was not prepared to spend any time learning this game. Nobilis was even worse. It's a huge book, and attractive as RPG books go; but I realized I would have to read that book if I wanted to play; and read even more if I were going to run the thing. I put the books back. There was just no way. If I didn't already know, I saw the problem right then and there.

The publishing model is broken. It says, "Publish many big books with lots of rules and people will play." Bullshit. In the early days, the books were smaller and I think the games were more fun for their lower mass. 1st edition Gamma World was one small saddle-stitched book. It came in a box with dice and a map. The game was silly, but it was so damn accessible. You could play a walking, talking killer venus flytrap! How many games let you do that? Well, Villains and Vigilantes, for one (and that's another fun little game). Of course, Gamma World was based mostly on early D&D, the dice ruled everything, and it still had rules for the party caller; but those were the early days. Now, a new version of Gamma World is coming; and I bet it will be 300 pages, cost 5 times as much, and require a master's degree in D20 to play it. This all fits perfectly with what Ferro's saying, but Ferro's wrong. That's not the natural way of things. That's just the way too many people think is right, and they're wrong, too. That's why the industry is getting smaller. It's not because roleplaying is inherently a bizarre activity; it's because we've beenbrainwashed to accept the bloated, arcane bastardization of roleplaying published by Hasbro and White Wolf et.al. as the "golden standard."

Ordinary people will not pick up a 300+ page game tome for $30 to $50 and read it. All the rationalizing about the "hours of fun it provides" and the "value of the work" is irrelevant when the average gamer can go to Toys R Us and pick up a PS2 or X-Box game with its promise of instant gratification for the same money or less. All the talk about the great wonder that is roleplaying means nothing when people can play ordinary card games like Poker, Hearts, Bridge, or whatever any time, anywhere, with anybody. If you want to hook new people, you have to show them a product that they can play with a few friends by picking up the reasonably thin pamphlet of rules and going through the rules quickly so that play can begin on the spur of the moment, even among the uninitiated. That was the charm of the old games. when friends got together, one could say, "Hey, guy, look at this cool thing I got at the store. Let's play that tonight." You're not going to do that with an unread copy of Shadowrun. In fact, I don't know if it can be done; but I think that's a great goal for indie designers. I've often wondered how a tight, well-wrought little game like The Window would do if it were published by a high-end outfit like Hogshead. I'm musing, but it's still relevant.

 A while ago, I bought this little throw-away game called Sketch. It's main claim to fame is its character creation. Everyone creates drawings (or pastes together an image using pre-printed parts) of their characters. Everyone looks at the characters and votes on single-digit stats for the character. The game is presented as a saddle-stitched comic book. It's clever! Unfortunately, there's nothing much beyond the character creation fun. That game applies what I'm talking about. I have an old copy of Extreme Vengeance, too. Great game; too bad it's saddled with an archaic experience system and the flavor text is so heavy it's hard to figure out how the game is played. I think the world is full of ideas like that, ideas with the potential to change everything except for the critical errors. They're just waiting for smart people (like you, my fellow Forge members, or maybe me if I'm really lucky) to pick them up and do something with them. Combine them with something only you can offer, and the result might be amazing. Or start fresh with real conviction and see where that takes you.

We talk about fun on this site, and gaming and publishing and all that other stuff. We talk about games as art. Well, the most important thing I can tell you about making good art is, it takes lots of practice. How many of us are really practicing? We fill page after page with minute analysis of supposedly important jargon and pretend that any of that is going to make gaming into a better, healthier pastime. It doesn't matter. None of it matters. Every word written here is one less word going into a game. Guys like Crayne and Jared Sorenson have the right idea. Just write your games - And be bold about it. Throw away your collection of stereotypical rpgs. Do cool, funky things that incorporate your pet ideas, the weird notions you have about playing a better game. You probably won't get rich, but if you come up with the right product at the right time, anything is possible. Because I'll tell you the truth: I don't know the exact future of roleplaying, but I sincerely doubt it lies with any of the bloated games flooding the shelves today.
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Dr. Velocity
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« Reply #1 on: August 13, 2003, 02:33:48 PM »

*applauds*

I'm not even sure if I have anything to add or respond with, and in fact, I'm not sure what I even thought of that, as far as agreeing or disagreeing with parts, but I truly identify with the intensity and sincerity - I hope what you're saying here, whatever it is, gets some notice by the people that need to notice it, and maybe a little grass-roots common sense campaign can begin, at least in the minds of other gamers and game producers, to consider this approach - I can't put it into words but I support this idea and it needed to be said.
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Alan
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« Reply #2 on: August 13, 2003, 03:30:36 PM »

Quote from: Hunter Logan
We fill page after page with minute analysis of supposedly important jargon and pretend that any of that is going to make gaming into a better, healthier pastime. It doesn't matter. None of it matters. Every word written here is one less word going into a game.


Yes, but some of us don't have new gaming perspectives burst from our heads like Athena from Zeus.  Questions, discussions, and analysis are a way some of us learn.  I know I do.

I could have forged ahead to produce a new RPG without the discussions I've particpated in, but they would have been more of the same old stuff, nothing new and artistic.

Even artists need interaction with new ideas.
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- Alan

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John Kim
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« Reply #3 on: August 13, 2003, 03:34:19 PM »

Quote from: Hunter Logan
  The publishing model is broken. It says, "Publish many big books with lots of rules and people will play." Bullshit. In the early days, the books were smaller and I think the games were more fun for their lower mass. 1st edition Gamma World was one small saddle-stitched book. It came in a box with dice and a map. The game was silly, but it was so damn accessible.  

Here I am in complete agreement with you.  In earlier times, marketting to non-RPG players, games would tend to come as boxed sets with ready-to-use components.  You could hand out the character sheets and players book, keep the starting adventure to yourself, and play.  The mainstream publishing model these days is to have a hardbound core book with lots of full-color pictures.  As you say, even the acclaimed innovative games like Nobilis aren't any more newbie-friendly -- and arguably less so.  

Quote from: Hunter Logan
  We talk about fun on this site, and gaming and publishing and all that other stuff. We talk about games as art. Well, the most important thing I can tell you about making good art is, it takes lots of practice. How many of us are really practicing? We fill page after page with minute analysis of supposedly important jargon and pretend that any of that is going to make gaming into a better, healthier pastime. It doesn't matter. None of it matters. Every word written here is one less word going into a game.  

Here I have to disagree with you.  I can tell you right now that there is no lack of words being devoted to game design.  Perhaps more than others, I know this -- because I have cataloged hundreds of RPGs.  There are currently 915 entries in my print RPG encyclopedia, and 566 entries in my free RPG list (cf my WWW link).  At times, simply from the sheer volume of the entries, it begins to resemble monkeys cutting and pasting bits together.   Attributes, skills, dice, cards, points, etc., etc.

I would say nearly the opposite of this.  My rant would be to say to drop your private game.  Instead, help make someone else's game better -- by playtesting it, and especially by trying it out on non-roleplayers.  Bring your observations back to forums like this one so the designers and others can benefit from a wider perspective than just their local group.  Make support for it; write adventures for it.
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- John
pete_darby
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« Reply #4 on: August 14, 2003, 01:34:11 AM »

But

But, but, but.

Re: Hogshead publishing The Window. Apart from Hogshead not being the Hogshead it was. The old Hogshead also published Nobilis, which you hold up as an example of How Not To Publish an RPG.

And the model isn't "publish many big books and people will play," but "publish many books and many players will buy even if they never get to use them in play."

In GNS terms, large publishers are supporting exploration of setting and systemover and above other agendas in actual play, because after publishing the essentials of the rules and setting, that's all the can publish, the rest being in the hands of the game group. And for this and historical reasons, Ferro's definition (which looked to me like the illusionism manifesto, or the milliways menu*) becomes accepted as the one true way.

But.

But, but, but.

To an extent, you're singing to the choir. I think you may have missed that the point of the talk and the theorising here (and Ron et al, forgive me for jumping in and speaking for you), is was and always should be, aimed towards improving, widening and facilitating more fun RPG play. Having seen the way academic discussion of computer gaming is going (the poor bastard child of film crit without even film crit's recognition of a practical process going on), I can see what you may be worried about, but, honestly, the Forge is all about The Game (man). Whether that's writing a new game, or thinking about what it is that you enjoy about an old game and how you cna improve that, or just, for the happy few, realising that illusionism is just fine for them.

The future of RPG's? Them big books will always be around, for better or worse. And, get this, quite a few people have taken a long hard look at their play with those books, and are very happy with them. And they're what we can possibly call an industry (with as much of a straight face as I can manage) rely on in their present model. Hogshead (old style) proved that you can run a different kind of RPG company and still make money. Web publishing, electronic distribution and PoD are providing new inroads to smaller publishers. For certain sorts of RPG, all that's needed can be produced on 1 page of a4 paper. For games focussing on exploration of the setting, encyclopeadia may be helpful. And Hero games players haven't bought the behemoth 5th edition for purely fetishitic reasons, but because they honestly want that amount of system reference for their preferred style of play.

Things were bad for the hobby, artistically, when all that was published was the big books and their supplements.

But.

But, but, but.

It will be an infintely sadder day when (if!) they disappear from the shelves altogether, replaced by slim minimalist tomes...

*If you've already done six impossible things before breakfast, why not round it off at Milliways, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe? - DNA
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Pete Darby
Hunter Logan
Member

Posts: 86


« Reply #5 on: August 14, 2003, 05:46:47 AM »

Hi! Thanks for the replies.

Dr. Velocity, Thanks.

Alan, I understand what you're saying, and I'm glad you're finding good things in the discussions.

John, you might be right; but I won't tell people to stop designing games. You just never know who will come up with something really good.

Pete, Hogshead has been a weird beast. Yes, they've published big tomes, but they've also published little pamphlets for Puppetland and some other stuff. That's why I picked them as an example. Anyway, this statement reinforces my viewpoint:

Quote
And the model isn't "publish many big books and people will play," but "publish many books and many players will buy even if they never get to use them in play."


That attitude will neither make the gaming base bigger, nor make new players want to roleplay.
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pete_darby
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« Reply #6 on: August 14, 2003, 07:08:32 AM »

Oh, one other thing...

Quote
Every word written here is one less word going into a game.


Eh? Have you got a finite word collection or something? If posts here help to make for better games, then they're less wasted than words placed into re-iterations of a Fantasy Heartbreaker... Or, indeed, a half decent game that, due to flaws that could have been spotted here, never gets played.

But to get counter-ranty...

To an extent, I think chasing a mass market, or even specifically aiming an RPG at those who don't presently play, is a little misguided. I'm not saying that I'm happy in the ghetto that Illusionist dominance has put us, but that any social past-time that requires more set up and explanation than, say, picitionary, is going to remain of interest to a small minority. But it is a minority we can expand, by giving scratchers for playing itches that are presently ill served by not only the conventional RPG market, but also the mianstream games market, computer games, even creative writing or amatuer dramatics.

{That paragraph is immensley self contradictory.. I think the key words are "specifically aiming," as if we don't know what they'll want from a game, how can we aim it at them?)

And this is the kind of thing that, for example, a GNS theory can help with. If we can identify what it is RPG's can do, what they do that people like, and how we can make games that appeal to a wider number of potential players than is presently being tapped, then that theory is of demonstrable use, much more so than plunging into a new game design with no more coherent philosophy than to turn D&D up to 11.

I wouldn't go as far as John to say "drop your private game," but instead, step back and take a really good look at it. I'm doing that with some ideas of mine at the moment for a lawyers RPG. And I'm thinking "not much here that I couldn't do with either Hero Wars or Universalis." So it's on the back burner until I get an idea that can turn it around into a unique and fun experience, worth putting out there.

And, to channel Ryan Dancey for a moment, the multiplicity of game systems leads to a breakdown of Network Externalities: many people inside and outside the hobby baulk at learning new rule sets, no matter the lightness of the rules. Many new rule sets, with the intention of emulating a published game, but better, end up multiplying rules. This may ned up not opening the hobby to new blood, but creating small exclusive cliques around micro-hobbies.

Now, to a great extent, I'm exagerrating to play devils advocate, but to cut to the chase, without hard financial data, we don't know how the hobby is doing, has done, or will do. As John pointed out, there are more new games out there than ever, many of which are approaching gaming in radical ways. I don't see the rash of company closures for conventional RPG publishers we had a few years ago happening right now. I believe the conventional publishers are putting out about as much new product as they have done for the last few years, if not more. With the rise of e-publishing, micro-print runs and PoD, sites such as RPG-Now and the Forge become viable propositions (since the focus of the Forge is actual play, and designing games to publication, and actually getting games produced is now cheaper and easier than ever), and the number of economically and artistically viable new games increases at an accelrating rate.

The conventional RPG market is still big enough to support a number of publishers, which is more than can be said for some other hobbies.

The publishing model isn't broken, just because it isn't doing what you want it to do. It's ticking over nicely. It's not attractive to you, but that's not to say it's not functioning. You don't want to buy it's products, but that's not to say they won't be bought.

To me, your initial post sounded a bit old testament prophet (but over exposure to The Life of Brian may be at work), crying woe unto the industry unless we do something.

We're already doing it, besides which the industry shows few signs of falling.

What's the most important thing we can do to preserve and extend the hobby? Play with new players. Not write new games. Play in a way that they find compelling, and what that is will vary as much as people do (but once more, a theory like GNS can help identify what they want). The publishing model is a red herring.
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Pete Darby
Hunter Logan
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« Reply #7 on: August 14, 2003, 07:57:05 AM »

Pete, I have read your post, and I think we will agree to disagree. Thank you.
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pete_darby
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« Reply #8 on: August 14, 2003, 07:59:28 AM »

Cool.
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Pete Darby
Bankuei
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« Reply #9 on: August 14, 2003, 08:01:37 AM »

Hi guys,

I think the real issues of our hobby are deeper, more widespread, and more fundamental than what we're talking about here.  It's rather simple, and it comes in this form:

"Why do we play?"
"To have fun!"
"Then why aren't we having fun?!?"

Look at the horror stories, look at the theory.  It's part self help book, part advice columns, and part emotional rant.  It's not too hard to figure out that if you are playing a game based on communication, NOT nailing down vital social contract rules regarding communication, and NOT openly discussing it is a great way to set yourself up for trouble.

The problem isn't too many/too few rules, the problem is when the rules fail to explicitly nail down those issues, such as GNS, IIEE, Narration, etc. or provide meaningful guidelines to discuss and establish said issues.   Most games do not provide enough to cover these things, and dysfunction is the result.  

Imagine two people arguing over the rules to a sport, one believes he is playing soccer, the other believes he's playing basketball, but neither one will openly say what sport they're playing, either because they lack the vocabulary, or else believe that they're just "playing ball".  That's effectively what we have going on when no form of GNS stuff has been laid down.

That's raw dysfunction in a nutshell.  Now on to the second part of "the shrinking hobby"...

Emotional commitment.  It brings us together as social people.  We hang out with friends because we want to.  We like each other, and have fun together.  Notice that in the previous example, we're talking about people NOT having fun together.  

Secondly, the emotional commitment comes from the emotional commitment to the game itself.  As mentioned in the escalation thread, Illusionism often breeds dwindling emotional commitment and interest. Why?  Because it's someone else's vision, one in which the players are not given meaningful input.

In fact, it is near impossible to establish play based on emotionally driving play under the typical linear structure of play.  In linear play, NPCs are not free willed agents, acting and reacting to a "world", they are simply if-then dummies, subroutines designed to deliver clues, show up for fights, or give/'take resources.  Can you see much emotional attachment to that?

"Meaningful decision" is an emotional statement, which is input into the game, input into the story.  Illusionism does not allow for that, and with illusionism as the bog-standard assumption for play, players are not allowed that option to commit themselves emotionally to what is going on.

So, between dysfunction and the standard of giving players no meaningful way to input(claim, make their own, establish ownership of, emotionally) into the game, you get unhappy players, and low commitment newbies.  Between assumptions, and what the rules don't provide, we get what we get.  Add lots of conditioning, and Viola! Gaming as the Not-fun hobby.

Chris
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Mike Holmes
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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Posts: 10459


« Reply #10 on: August 14, 2003, 09:47:58 AM »

Quote
I would say nearly the opposite of this. My rant would be to say to drop your private game. Instead, help make someone else's game better -- by playtesting it, and especially by trying it out on non-roleplayers. Bring your observations back to forums like this one so the designers and others can benefit from a wider perspective than just their local group. Make support for it; write adventures for it.


John Kim is my hero! :-)

OK, I'd take a more conservative viewpoint, and say that all games should be considered as to their actual value before going into them; but then whould be tried when they seem to have merit. I do think that it's important to design new games on a regular basis.

But, if anything, we start more designs here than we finish; are there really too few? I have several that are in limbo, not because I don't have time to write (obviously), but because creation is a personal endeavor that requires something that one doesn't always have. Vision. I refuse to work on anything of my own when I can't see where it's going. Finishing a game, just to finish it is no good at all.

What gives me back my vision? What gets me to write? Working with other people on their games here. Every 10 words here is one more that gets put into a game. Not the same words, but ones inspired by what happens here. Before the Forge, and theory, I had published nothing. And I think that many of the designs in the Design forum are there because of the ideas here. So, rather than the talk stiffling design, it seems obvious that it's instead increasing design. And, even if not successful, it's been an attempt to make those designs better.

What's worse about this point, however, is that it seems that it was meant to be a motivational statement added at the end of a post about something else entirely. I agree, generally speaking, with your points up to the last paragraph. But you'll find that, one, you're preaching to the choir here and, two, you then alienate the choir in your last paragraph completely oblitterating any value the first part of the rant may have had.

We are the ones doing just what you say, you see. I'll accept that this may not have been meant as the ad hominem that I feel it to be; I'm probably over-reacting. But realize how strongly such a statment might make one feel an urge to launch ad hominems back, and consider just why for a moment.

Mike
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Jack Spencer Jr
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« Reply #11 on: August 14, 2003, 10:02:11 AM »

Quote from: Hunter Logan
  The publishing model is broken. It says, "Publish many big books with lots of rules and people will play." Bullshit. In the early days, the books were smaller and I think the games were more fun for their lower mass. 1st edition Gamma World was one small saddle-stitched book. It came in a box with dice and a map. The game was silly, but it was so damn accessible.  

I don't know about that. Sure, the big box o' crap was nifty, but it was probably just as confusing to non-roleplays as anything. What do you do with all of that stuff?
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contracycle
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« Reply #12 on: August 14, 2003, 10:40:46 AM »

Hmm - that sent me off on an interesting tangent.  When you got a box with dice and mapping paper it was more obviously a game, and you knew right away that you'd be active and probably with multiple people around the table or floor, or something anyway, that being how most games with dice are played.  I wonder if current RPG's would sell better in toy stores if they had a clear plastic tube of dice attached to the spine; that would be more self-explanatory.  Books look like.... homework.
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W. Don
Member

Posts: 113


« Reply #13 on: August 14, 2003, 11:34:38 AM »

I really just have to say this: Bravo! It's all very inspiring! Thanks Hunter and everyone else. I'm framing this thread right by my game design drafting table.

:)

- W.
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Gordon C. Landis
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« Reply #14 on: August 14, 2003, 12:34:10 PM »

Hmm . . . What Mike Said (all of it), but -

I/we can can also choose to just look past the "offensive" part of that last paragraph, and just deal with the warning there: that talking *about* is not the same as doing, and if/when you let talking-about substitute for doing (design and/or play), you're doing yourself and "the hobby" (if you care about that) a disservice.

I keep up with the talking-about because I can see, every week or so, that it helps me as a participant in various play groups.  It helps me identify problems, helps me to stay "on track" as far as what really matters to me in RPG play, and gives all kinds of little tips and benefits to me and everyone I play with.

I do, however, have a design or two that have been on simmer for a LONG time, and to some extent . . . it is easier to talk-about than it is to move those along.  Even though I fully subscribe to what Hunter says about needing something really different to break RPGs into a wider arena - I mean, I do enjoy playing some of those "bloated" games, but they do have a limited appeal - I'm not doing much to make that happen.

There are practical issues, of course - publishing "a book" is pretty easy (don't take that the wrong way - it's still a HUGE accomplishment, especially if it's a good book).  But - what about a REAL roleplaying card game?  Or a REAL roleplaying boardgame?  Those could get on the shelves of Toys R' Us and etc., but require a whole different magnitude of monetary investment and business expertise to pull off.  Sometimes, it seems like that's what it'd take to make a huge impact with RPGs.

And sometimes, you realize just how much an impact has already been made by people like Jared, Crayne, Ron, Mike & Ralph, etc. etc.

So - no answers on that last part, I'm afraid, but ignoring the inapropriate and perhaps unintended "attack" Mike mentions - there's ton's o' value in value in this thread.  Thanks, everyone.

Gordon
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