Tuesday, August 11, 2015
My RPG Publishing Malaise
Later on in college during the mid- to late '90s, I would often pick up interesting one-off RPGs at the local gaming store and read through them, pondering their mechanics and feeling the beginnings of an interest in designing my own game. In fact, around 1999-2000 I did begin serious work on my own simple gaming engine, one I called SCORE (Suitable for Creating the Optimum Role-playing Experience). There were a couple of early versions that used a 2d10 bell-curve, one of which I used to run a 1920s-era horror game that went for a few sessions until I decided to switch setting gears, and baited the party into a TPK (Total Player Kill - I wiped out the entire party).
Eventually this crime against humanity was forgiven, and I ran a couple of fantasy campaigns with a new incarnation of SCORE, one that used a Rolemaster-esque d100 + rating system. Those games actually went quite well, and we had a lot of fun playing right up to around the end of 2002. I still have most of my notes for those games, along with character sheets, and I still think the system works, at least for a game written at the turn of the century. It's not the sort of system I'd use more than a decade later, but I think it worked well enough.
Soon after that game came and went by the wayside, I decided to work on a game with a very strong "Sword & Sorcery" bent, originally named "Legends of Blood and Iron". This game had a lot of good heart, and a lot of flavor to it, but I think mechanically it was a bit of a mess. The world-building portion of the game, and the discussion of what made up a proper S&S campaign, it still I think relevant, and perhaps one day I will dig a few gems out of the work. This was also around the time I found and devoured Ron Edwards' Sorcerer and Sword, a supplement for his Sorcerer RPG. I have no love for the core product, but his supplement is, in my mind, the single best treatise on "Sword & Sorcery" role-playing games I've ever seen.
Over the many intervening years, I have tinkered with a myriad of RPG designs and concepts. I've run a few one-shots here and there to test one mechanic or another, but nothing done with enough time and substance to form any true window into whether or not a specific whole rules set "works" or doesn't work - in short, nor real formal playtesting beyond one or two sessions. I've probably achieved "80%" finished on whatever it is the Tankards & Broadswords RPG might one day be, but that last twenty percent is a real bitch.
The more I think about it, the more I wonder about this RPG publishing malaise. For several years now, the urge to design a game and run a campaign was supplanted by my writing career, which - lets be honest - pays far better than I would ever imagine an RPG might pay. On the other hand, after spending so much cumulative time working towards the nebulous goal of releasing my own RPG - a goal that is easier to achieve than ever, thanks to all the print-on-demand and self-publishing options out there right now - I find it somewhat vexing that I can't approach the goal of writing and publishing an RPG with the same assertiveness that I can approach writing a novel or short story. If I can write a book that gets read by multiple thousands of complete strangers, why can't I write a RPG that might wind up in the hands of - let's be realistic - a few dozen?
Maybe it is because while the majority of readers are just that - readers - who zip through a book once and basically give it a thumbs up or a thumbs down, I find that many - if not most - RPG players are constant rules tinkerers, and obsess over almost any aspect of a game. Only a small handful of readers are ever going to pick over any one of my novels to the degree that MOST gamers would pick over a game. So, I feel, the inevitable level of scrutiny - as well as their natural inclination to say "well, if *I* designed this game, I think XYZ should have been ABC..." - keeps me from pulling the trigger.
I don't know. As I type this, I ponder the writing of a small, specific RPG premise. I think that would be the best way to start. From there, if the idea was interesting and well-received, maybe it'd give me more confidence to tackle a larger, more interesting project. It would be a shame to never have a formal sharing of all this idea fodder, but at the same time, there's a right way and a wrong way to do all that, so I need to pick and choose my battlefield carefully, so to speak.