So, this gets to be my Wednesday blog entry (a day early).
“PROJECT `77”A Manifesto for the RPG Hobby
Sean Patrick Fannon, July 2006
Premise: There is a perceived problem for non-electronic roleplaying games (hereafter referred in simple terms as RPGs). Sales are reported down in most sectors. Game stores are not selling RPGs in anywhere near the numbers they once did, and many are giving up on them. Online sales of RPGs have picked up considerably, but not in the numbers that can sustain most companies without the employees (and, in most cases, the owners) maintaining outside jobs to survive.
Many believe we are losing players to online, electronic games that at least simulate many of the elements of classic RPGs. Others insist we are doing too little to bring new blood into the hobby. Both of these assertions make a certain amount of sense and are hard to ignore.
On the other hand, there are others who believe people are still playing lots of RPGs. Wizards of the Coast asserts that there are more RPG enthusiasts than ever before. There are certainly plenty of people playing RPGs at the various gaming conventions around the world, including a record number of living campaign players at this year’s Origins.
The truth lies in the murky between, to be sure. Nonetheless, the RPG hobby really could use a major shove in an upwards direction. RPGs need to ascend in the public eye somehow. Something needs to happen to set off some fireworks and draw a few more eyeballs our way.
That’s what “Project: `77” is about…
Statement of Purpose: In 1977, I discovered Dungeons & Dragons, and the moment was a true epiphany that forever changed my life. It deeply affected many of those around me, and shaped the paths of many in this world that I call friends and colleagues. There was magic in that moment; the imagination filled to bursting with ideas, excitement, and a yearning for more.
What I propose is that we who live and work in the industry that produces such games here in the early part of the 21st Century do our utmost to recreate something of that moment for not only our extant fans, but for all those who may yet become fans of our still intriguingly novel form of entertainment.
It is my hope to lead by example; as such, I intend to incorporate Shaintar: Immortal Legends, Talisman Studios, and the Savage Worlds game system into a kind of “test case with a profit motive.” To this end, we will produce and sell books, as most companies in our position do. However, we will endeavor to do much, much more to create a culture around our property, one that sustains itself with creative energy and sustains us with continued support, both financial and otherwise.
If we are successful, it is my sincerest hope that other companies will be able to take something out of our example and accomplish similar goals. Perhaps if enough of us strive to recreate the magic of 1977, granting a moment of magical discovery in the hearts and minds of old and new fans alike, maybe we can coax a phoenix of some shape and size out of the ashes everyone seems to think we are currently stirring.
Presumptions, Assumptions, Assertions, and Ideas: In no particular order, the following elements are foundational to my plans for changing the (RPG) world.
Follow the Dead to Margaritaville.
My friend and colleague Matt Ragsdale likes to tell the story about how, many years ago while playing multiple shows in a venue in Toledo, Jimmy Buffett spotted some people dressed exactly the same as some other folks he’d noticed at his previous show, many miles away. The next night, he saw the same people, dressed much the same way, and saw them again on the third and final night he played that venue. He actually stopped the show for a moment and asked these people if they were, indeed, the same ones from the nights previous. They responded very enthusiastically that, yes, they were and that they followed him to every show they could manage to get to. He remarked in his gently humorous way that it was like having his own “Deadheads;” his drummer (with perfect timing, of course) corrected him and said “No. More like Parrot Heads.”
A phenomenon of rather epic proportions was born.
The one-hit-wonder hit-machine concept works very well to make young men and women fairly rich (and the executives who manufacture such groups much richer), but it will do little for an RPG publisher beyond a brief moment in time of personal satisfaction. Selling a million copies of one thing is not the goal for us. Selling a few thousand of every single thing we create that relates to the property we are putting out there is much more reasonable goal to strive for; achieving that goal will sustain a small, well-run company for many years.
For the Truly Dedicated Fan, the Creator is King.
Actors portray memorable characters, and we love them for it. For the true fan of fantasy and science-fiction, however, the creators of the worlds those characters exist in are far more compelling. J. Michael Straczynski (JMS to his fans, and “Joe” to those who claim true kinship with him) will forever be the prophet who brought the masses “Babylon 5.” Sarah, David, and Nathan may have the hearts of the fans, but Joss Whedon has their souls, and they will follow him wherever his muse takes them all next. Every name at the end of every list of credits rolling after everything Paramount can push out will be held up to the standard of the “Great Bird of the Galaxy,” Gene Roddenberry.
Lucas burns on the pyres for what his fans feel he’s done to their Star Wars, while Jackson continues to bask in the adulation of fans who feel he properly re-invented Middle Earth.
Once a year, in either San Diego or Chicago, comic book fans swarm together and beg for just a few moments to pick the brain of the writers and editors of their comics. The artists are rock stars to be sure, and everyone is nice to the letterers, inkers, and colorists… but the writers and the editors must be sought out, must be talked to, must be thanked or admonished for what they have done lately.
What if it mattered? What if it really mattered? What if you could connect with the creator of something you’ve invested your emotions and time in, and what if he cared? What if your interactions with the creation could be further enhanced by continued connection with the creator?
What if, by some miracle of shared gestalt, the two of you could make the creation grow and evolve – together?
Would you want to help create an adventure in the `Verse, with Joss looking on and offering ideas? Would you want to craft a story in Astro City while Kurt nodded, smiled, and said “Hey, wouldn’t it be neat if…?”
The Game Master as X-Box.
RPG Publishers know the following to be true, but they have yet to truly exploit this truth to its fullest extent.
The Game Master is the world’s most powerful content delivery system.
Game consoles deliver what is programmed. Novels and comic books deliver what is written and drawn. DVDs, movie reels, and the cable/satellite companies deliver what is produced and sent. Even in theatre, where the content can change night to night, and actors can respond in subtle ways to the mood of the audience, still does the audience receive a package of content to accept or reject, with the moment ending and the experience concluded when the final bows are taken.
Game books are not the primary content delivery systems for RPGs; they merely provide the foundational understanding of the content for the real deliverer – the Game Master. In no other entertainment medium is it as possible to deliver an experience that can immediately adapt to the input of the audience. The GM does this; the Game Master delivers the content the Game Writer/Designer creates. He delivers it to the audience – the players – on the behalf of the publisher and creative team. What’s more, he can deliver it over and over, ever changing and ever immersing the audience, ad infinitum (or at least until he burns out on it, or dies).
Publishers need to truly learn this, live it, and love it. The experience the end users have with their content is entirely dependent on how the GM handles the delivery; embrace this, and learn how best to exploit it. There is no clearer path to long term success for an RPG publisher than this.
If you sell a book to a GM, you’ve sold a book. If you sell a book to a GM and then help him to run a kick-ass game with your content, you’ve sold six-to-eight times the number of books (and related products) and added to your long-term support base.
Is this a statement of the obvious? It certainly should be. That makes it no less important to note and keep on the stove as you bring out the other ingredients…
The Culture of Content.
Various news channels have been carrying the story about how many “Star Trek” fans, bereft of anything Trek on the small or big screen since the early demise of “Enterprise,” have adopted the technologies of today and are filming their own episodes. Some of these shows (shown for free on the Internet everywhere) are even considered pretty good, but that’s not the point.
Trek fans are creating content for want of it.
They’re not the only ones, it turns out. There are “X-Files,” “Firefly,” and all kinds of other “fan-isodes” coming alive out there; A/V versions of the fan fiction (“fanfic”) that’s been embedded in geek culture for decades.
Attack it from another angle; the last product published for R. Talsorian’s quirky Castle Falkenstein came out close to a decade ago. Nonetheless, Falkenstein-themed LARPs still draw a real crowd, dressed to the nines and ready to dance and intrigue the night away.
That vein of gold has yet to be truly mined, as far as I am concerned. To this day, there is nothing more truly immersive than a roleplaying experience. Finding a way to frequently and effectively immerse RPG fans into the Culture of your Content is a real key to sustained success. You want them to talk about your world between sessions. You want them to wear costumes to conventions based on your game. You want them to write fan fiction and share it with the world.
You want Trekkies. Of course you do. You know that. You have to be willing to do everything it takes to create Trekkies for your stuff. You have to wade into that pool, get wet, and hug everybody.
This means, naturally, that you must love your stuff at least as much as they do. You must be thoroughly invested in your material to make it really work. Otherwise, you’re just printing books (or filing data in PDF form).
If you want it – if you really want it to go beyond the moment of publication – you have to create a Culture of Content.
The Cult of Continuity.
“What happens next?” will always be the most compelling question in the entertainment universe. The continued existence – and thriving – of soap operas is testament enough. The geeks of the world got caught up in it when David Lynch messed with our heads with “Twin Peaks.” Not too long after, the “X-Files” and “Babylon 5” really took us all for that particular “can’t wait until next week” ride.
Now it’s “4400” and “24.” Even “Desperate Housewives.”
“Lost,” in particular, goes the very effective extra mile in terms of keeping people attached between episodes. Web-delivered content, often teased with alternate reality-style commercial aired with the show, drives the fans crazy between shows.
That, my friends, is heap big mojo.
What is a roleplaying campaign if not an even more immersive and compelling “what happens next?” experience for the participants? The idea, then, would be to create a way for the participants to feel and stay connected to the content between their game sessions. GMs often go the extra mile to do just that, but imagine what happens if they aren’t doing it alone.
What happens when you partner with your Game Masters to create a Cult of Continuity, related to your Culture of Content?
It’s a “Living” – What Paradigm and Zeitgeist Understand.
The concept of connecting to a larger, shared experience is not a new one for roleplayers. In 1990, West End Games tried to launch the “Infiniverse” campaign for their TORG property. Though it foundered after a year, the idea was absolutely breathtaking. People were encouraged to take the results of their individual game sessions and report them to West End; a newsletter was published containing “rumors” that featured those events from other campaigns.
It took many years for the next major effort to really take off. The RPGA’s “Living City” was the beta test. Though it eventually crashed and burned (with a significant fan base that still laments its passing), the lessons learned became the foundation for quite a few follow-on efforts, both from within and without the House of D&D. Oddly, the one campaign WotC would probably most like to commit assisted suicide on, “Living Greyhawk,” is the one that grows in spite of their central efforts. This is, in all ways, due to the autonomy granted to regional groups to create adventures tailored to their claimed areas.
(Ironically, it was the Ohio-based Veluna region players that ensured Origins 2006 had its most successful RPGA program, in spite of WotC’s decision not to come…)
Other WotC “Living” campaigns have had muted success or have failed outright, but other such campaigns (most of which were once part of the RPGA until they were more or less kicked out; one is RPGA almost is spite of itself) have begun to flourish as their organizers have empowered the fan base more and more. Paradigm’s “Living Arcanis” is a powerful example of what happens when creators work hand-in-hand with fans to jointly administer a shared story. Zeitgeist, with the legacy of Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor to draw on and a clear idea of what their fans want, has very effectively coined the term MMRPG (Massive Multiplayer, but not online, yo) and has a rapidly growing support base.
All of them are growing. In the days where RPG publishers can’t figure out how to eat and print a book at the same time, and game stores are faltering like brachiosaurs after a comet, shared campaigns are growing.
People want to play, that’s why. They like facilitated games, and they like feeling like they are a part of something bigger. Something huge, epic, and far-reaching.
However, there is turnover, and there are plenty of players who feel like the “Living” campaigns get close to the mark but… something doesn’t quite click. The “module chase” gets really old after a while, and many find the illusion doesn’t hold up; they know that, ultimately, what they are doing doesn’t really matter to the world.
They still want what the “Infiniverse” promised – that their unique experience, their specific participation, has meaning in the grander scheme.
A way has been found…
If You Plan It, They Will Play – the Big Convention Events.
The first real opportunities for the players of shared campaigns to have a sense of impact started happening at the one place where organizers could be sure to have central command of the entire experience, all at once.
Gamers still plan their entire year’s vacation around when their convention(s) of choice is scheduled. Sales are down everywhere else, but companies still bring in the bucks at conventions. Attendance, overall, has been higher in the last few years. Nowhere are the numbers higher than in the areas where one shared campaign or another is hosting a special “interactive” event.
“Battle Interactives” are now to shared campaigns what Pennsic is to the SCA. Come one, come all, and let’s have a showdown of epic proportions that wraps up a major conflict with the key bad guys of at least one of the prime story arcs. Even if you’re just one of a couple of hundred “foot soldiers,” this time your experience is unique, and this time what you do or fail to do really matters.
The fans fill these events to bursting, and more are outside begging to get in. The limit is always based on how many people can be called in to help run the thing.
There are two key lessons I’ve learned from studying shared campaigns, conventions, and the rest of it:
1) Conventions have always been vital to a company publishing RPGs; that importance is increasing in recent years. Conventions are where you gather the faithful and reinforce the Culture.
2) RPG players crave impact on the settings they care about.
Next slide, please…
The Power of Impact.
Glory, even imagined glory, is so much sweeter when it’s shared. Sweeter, still, when it’s shared with everyone who might possibly care about what happened.
One of the things that has stayed with me through the years I’ve been a professional creator is how very much my friends have been willing to contribute to my efforts. They’ve never asked for money, and only rarely have they ever had a strong urge to see their actual name in print.
No, all any of them have ever wanted – and make no mistake, every single one of them has wanted this –
Their character in a book. A story, a picture if Santa is extra kind. Something that indicates “Kilroy was here” for all eternity. So much the better if that character can be referenced in some legendary, historical way.
Hell, I’ve wanted it. Reading through Scott Bennie’s “Gestalt Universe” document (which isn’t even really “published,” but such is the importance of Scott among Old School Champions fans, it doesn’t matter), I scanned voraciously for any mention of Agent Cromwell, my character in his campaign.
You know the story about Christian Slater and the last original crew Star Trek movie, “Undiscovered Country,” right? You know there are a ton of others before him, right? And let’s not forget Samuel L. and the prequels…
If they love your stuff, they will want to be as big a part of it as you will let them. If you are letting people be a part of your stuff, even more of them will love it… and love it all the more. It’s one of those beautiful recursive things, trust me.
I’ve often read or heard statements from RPGA fans, wishing against all hope that somehow their characters could be mentioned in some way, somewhere, in the official stuff.
Just imagine… imagine if that really were possible.
And why the hell isn’t it?
Even imaginary worlds are pretty freaking huge, right? There’s room for everyone, and there’s room for everyone’s stories.
And, if handled correctly (and I really, truly believe this is possible; I am, in fact, counting on it), there’s room for everyone’s stories to matter, in some way.
Dice + Keyboard = 21st Century Success.
I find myself thinking a lot these days about what would have happened if Gary and the three Daves hadn’t put together this stuff until around the mid-80s or so. Yes, I know, “inevitable development; someone else would have gotten there before then, 100 monkeys, etc..,” but just bear with me for this exercise.
Just imagine what the RPG community would look like had e-mail and, eventually, web pages had been available tools that early on.
This figures into my thinking when I assert that maybe, just maybe, we can engineer a kind of renaissance for RPGs. We’ve been playing with the tools, integrating them as they’ve come along. There are some very clever people out there who have done some very impressive things, keeping their business alive through adaptation to electronic media and online sales and all that.
But… have we really created a whole-cloth structure that includes all these wonderful communication tools at the outset of a property’s development and release? Have we created and delivered a roleplaying experience that involves the full set of tools right off the bat?
Another thought for you… the pendulum is swinging. It’s slow, and possibly imperceptible to those too close to the thing. But it is swinging its way back, I believe.
Have you noticed that even though computer games are getting prettier and prettier, they are pretty much the… same… thing… over and over and over and …?
Sure, there are some outstanding breakout ideas (I must admit to being more than blown away by the very concept of Spore, the kind of game that only works when you’ve got processors working at lightspeed). None of those breakout ideas, from what I see, are in the RPG realm. They’re gorgeous and fun, yes, but most of the “RPGs” online are really not much more than real-time strategy/action games.
Coming from the electronic design side, you aren’t likely to see the kinds of innovations I am seeking; World of Warcraft makes too damn much money.
It’s time to offer alternatives. We aren’t going to drag people away from the computers; that’s a fool’s errand. However, we can sure as hell give them a new way to be entertained using their PCs (and, who knows, probably the consoles as well, since they’re practically living room PCs now, anyway).
Parents want their kids to interact with real people. Why else do you think Yu-Gi-Oh and Pokemon exist? “Dateline” has done a pretty bang up job of terrifying parents while demonizing MySpace, and I couldn’t be happier about it. Encouraging parents to seek entertainment for their kids where they actually have a chance to meet who the kids are playing with will be a huge boon for face-to-face gaming.
As well, the older generations are starting to get bored. Sure, they still play, and they aren’t dropping off in droves or anything like that. I just think that there’s a lot of them who’d be happy if a new/old style of play became available. You can believe a lot of them miss the old D&D days, but they know they won’t be happy just dusting off the books and finding people to play.
But if something new and interesting were being done, something that started with the “old school” dice and paper style but expanded way beyond that… well, now, it would be time to take a new look at the whole thing, wouldn’t it?
I am not trying to be unnecessarily vague here. I am talking about integrating a web presence and other 21st Century ideas (hell, I’ve even been looking at the whole cellular texting thing) to more fully immerse the players and keep everyone more continuously involved and connected with the Content. I’ve also been looking at how best to create a Community of Content where the Game Masters, my prime Deliverers, have a primo role with a strong sense of entitlement.
The details are still being laid out, but I think you can see where I am headed, now.
Bullet Points are Fun!
With this insane amount of rambling, it’s probably a good idea if I do some summing up.
For all our sakes.
- The RPG Hobby and Industry as we know it seems to be in trouble. It certainly could use a shot in the arm.
- Most RPG fans can all agree that the time they first got involved with these games was a magical, inspiring period of their lives. It would be cool to recapture that in some way.
- Sustaining a fan base that truly supports you over time is the real key to longevity and reasonable business success for a niche market like ours. This will kick the crap out of any model that is based on selling thousands of books all at once.
- RPG fans, like any group of geeks, have massive respect for and interest in the creators of the worlds they connect to. This desire to connect with the creator is a powerful opportunity to expand and extend the life of a property.
- Game Masters are the life or death of an RPG property. Understanding their role and developing a plan based more purely on that role is essential to success, and to innovation. You don’t reach the players without them.
- The Culture of Content – create it, sustain it, exploit it. You won’t go far without it.
- The Cult of Continuity – the entire point of putting an RPG world on the market is to exploit this. Go all the way.
- Shared campaign experiences = long life. Bring them all together if you are serious about what you’ve created and want to go the distance.
- Conventions are your “tent revivals,” and the big events will draw your pilgrims. Accept that, go for broke with them, and you’re playing for real, and for a while.
- Your world is meant to be played with. You know that. Acknowledge what they’re doing to it, and let it matter. You won’t believe the magic of that until you see it for yourself.
- Yes, Web. Yes, the Internets. Blah blah blah – stop! Wake up. They aren’t just sales and PR tools. Make them, and the other tools out there, part of the game and you get “Keep on the Borderlands, welcome to Greyhawk,” 21st Century style.
As always, comments are welcome. I would like to reiterate that I am full-speed-ahead on applying these ideas to my own efforts. As well, I am interested in seeing others in the industry benefit in any way they can from what is shared here.