The Nuked Apple Cart
by Ron Edwards
This essay was written in late 1998 and is included here for reference purposes only. Some of the concepts are no longer valid, and others are being incorporated into a larger, more comprehensive essay.
Once upon a time, there was a roleplaying game. It was a spiffy book with glossy covers, in hardback or clothbound, available at Walden's and Kroch's & Brentano's, as well as at Weird Eddie's Roleplaying Emporium down the street. It was not just the one book, nay, it was "supported" by an ongoing stream of supplements detailing rules and settings, and no end was in sight. Customers showed up with their middle-class paychecks in hand, to buy their kids the Third Edition for Christmas. The publisher was a happy puppy, for his game had been approved by a safe and tidy distributor whose word was gold to retailers from coast to coast. He was a bona fide Book Publisher. Movie contracts and toy manufacturers beckoned, someday. It was Nirvana. It was the Holy Grail. It was an apple-cart heaped high with gleaming Granny Smiths. It is Ye Olde Myth of roleplaying games.
However, this Myth is nothing but a curse and a blight. Every company that has followed it has either failed, or its roleplaying games are financed from some other product. Does anyone want to claim that the current "dominator of the industry," whatever company-of-your-choice, is immune? Is there any hope of success beyond riding the tiger for more than a moment? Exactly two roleplaying games in twenty-five years have managed to latch onto a short-lived teen trend: AD&D in the late 1970s and Vampire in the early 1990s. Trend over? Game over. Especially since now we now know TSR's "reign over the industry" in the 1980s to be a complete mirage. And for everyone else, I ask this: has any roleplaying game ever managed to pay, out of sales profits, for its production and advertising for more than one year?
How does all this affect the customer's situation? In case you haven't bought a roleplaying game lately, here's what it's like. First, the game might not even exist. "Any minute now," says the distributor, and "any minute now," echoes the retailer to the customer who's gazing at a three-month-old announcement. Or if it does exist, it's in a box somewhere, such as in the back of the store or in the owner's storage; at the distributor's warehouse, possibly one of the warehouses they just acquired and have no real idea of what's in it; in the distributor's ex-wife's basement; in the game designer's house; in the game designer's mother's basement.
The extra fun thing is that none of these different categories are connected, or have anything to do with whether the game is considered "in print." The catalogue might have it and no one knows where the actual game is. The catalogue might not have it and there are boxes sitting around waiting for orders, that no one knows about. The vast majority of retailers want to move all those copies of that game the distributor insisted was so hot, and they aren't going to bust butt helping you look up a Shattered Dreams supplement or a copy of TFT: Wizard. What you'll find on the shelves are a million cards, GW leftovers, out-of-print TSR stuff, White Wolf supplements, fiction thinly disguised as source material, various disorganized supplements for who-knows-who, and a few new games that the store-owner ordered using slush fund money.
Communication among levels of the industry is basically a disaster. For years people have been terrified to approach a distributor with less than six supplement titles, so they lie (or their "plans change" quickly, sorry). Distributors fight to capture retailers' attention, so they lie (or "in just another week or two," sorry). Retailers recoil from the mess and order stuff that sold last year, and two years later, that stuff isn't selling.
What happened to the lovely Myth? Why is the apple-cart a bunch of fused glass at Ground Zero? The answer is clear; according to game publishers. It's the distributors (they lie), it's CCGs (they stole the customers), no, it's the retailers (they don't help sell our stuff), no, it's the customers (how can they be so stupid as to not like our stuff?). Well, you know what? The fault is that stupid Myth in the first place.
Commercial RPGs are owned in a complex relationship between authors, publishers, and third parties; the bulk of their production value is spent on advertising (e.g. magazines) and aggrandizing (presence at conventions). They depend on the approval of distributors and retailers on their basis to sell-through in large quantities for a limited time. Often they become a small portion of a large-scale merchandizing effort involving a wide range of products. If you buy into the Myth, be real about what you're selling! It's not a game, it's a book related to a large assortment of stuff. When stuff isn't fashionable any more, it gets ignored. And as far as stuff goes, the RPG itself takes a distant second to t-shirts, jewelry, and coffee mugs.
Now for the other side of things, looking, say, at Sorcerer. Sorcerer is an independent roleplaying game. That is, it's owned, marketed, distributed, and so forth by me, its designer. No one gets a penny from its sales but me and the credit card web-people, and no one buys it unless they really want it. There's no associated card game, series of novels, board game, or miniatures. Advertising is limited to reviews, trading information on the internet, and occasional flyers at convention. You get it from one place, with no markup between production and consumer. It ain't alone! Others include Puppetland, Ghost Light, Shadowside, Outlaws of the Water Margin, and many more.
Indie RPGs have generally been ignored by the gaming media, most notably by the so-called independent RPG magazines. However, I claim that indie RPGs are the real thing: where roleplaying is "at," to use a phrase of my youth. Only a few of them have made it into commercial print (Over the Edge, Prince Valiant, Extreme Vengeance, FUDGE, Zero), and even fewer have managed to stay there. Why have indie games been largely ignored, why do they have such a hard time making it into stores? Bluntly, because the priorities of those who sell roleplaying games are almost entirely opposed to those who actually play them. For most products, this is not the case -- socks are sold to people who wear them, and socks which are not wearable tend not to sell very well; therefore, merchants tend to sell wearable socks. (We'll leave aside the distinction between socks -for-looks and socks -for-action.) For roleplaying games, however, the game-seller's primary interest is to sell tons and tons of books. If this view seems paranoid, consider the retailer who tells his clerks to stop praising Extreme Vengeance ($10 retail, ~$7 profit) to customers in favor of an unnamed-to-protect-the-guilty, highly-advertised hard-bound game ($30, $20+ profit). Never mind that EV is an innovative, fun game -- the retailer ordered a copy on throw-away money and is simply not interested in sustaining it as a product.
So for people who really want to write RPGs for people who really want to play them, I suggest losing the dream. Quit trying to be the big publishing man for the great middle class, and remember what roleplaying is, who wants to do it, and how their very real customer demand might be satisfied. (1) Roleplaying is not a mainstream activity, it ain't socks and it ain't collectable. We cannot expect an expanding demand. (2) However, there does indeed seem to be a bright bunch of teens every year who'd like to try roleplaying, as well as a small but loyal base of adults who've kept it up. In conclusion: these specific customers must be able to find and buy RPGs without some tedious ordering process requiring insider information.
To go this route, people must revise the entire scale of their concept of what RPG marketing is like. Okay, so here's the New Myth, if you like.
As a final note: I am a customer as well as a designer of RPGs, in fact, far more so the former than the latter. As customers, too, each of us faces a personal decision: are you a practitioner of an artistic activity or a consumer of a advertising-driven product? I urge you to consider your role in roleplaying economics, and to consider whether a shelf of supplements and so-called source material really suits your needs, as opposed to a few slim roleplaying books with high-octane premises and system ideas.
Ron Edwards is a biology professor who owned that little white D&D box a really long time ago. He is the author of Sorcerer and its supplement Sorcerer and Sword, and is ridiculously proud of them. He credits Over the Edge with waking him up and reminding him what roleplaying priorities were.