Tuesday, August 11, 2015

My RPG Publishing Malaise

Thinking back, I have been pondering the notion of "homebrew" role-playing game systems since I started gaming around 1993. I don't remember the specifics, but I do remember getting the "Amazing Engine" universal RPG system from TSR around that time, and it was my first real exposure to what you might consider a "generic" role-playing game system, one that kept a stable core but could be adapted to meet the needs of most any genre.

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.

3 comments:

c.r. brandon said...

Hey Jack--

As a knucklehead who has written a few RPG's myself (Far Trek, Heroes & Other Worlds, Rogue Space)--and have had good feedback, but limited buzz--I can tell you GO FOR IT.

If you do it expecting/wanting recognition and riches? It is going to be a disappointing endeavor. Everyone is a critic--and that's cool--but it is the rare person who despite the potential derision, digs in and gets it done. Be that rare person!

If you do it to share the game/ world you like to play and want to see if anyone else digs it too? Get cracking man! You get one life so live it loud--don't let fear of what others think/say rob the world of what may be the next great game--we will never know if you don't make it happen!

Write on brother!

Jack Badelaire said...

Hey man, thanks for dropping in and leaving such an inspiring comment - I really appreciate it! A gaming friend of mine pointed me towards FAR TREK, and it looks great. I think everything of yours I've seen over the years has been top-notch, so your enthusiasm means a lot.

Here we are a year and a half after I wrote that post. Things haven't changed much, to be honest. I ran some fun D&D 5E gaming last summer, and I've been playing in a 4E game for about a year now. I'm not at all a fan of the system, but the folks are cool - most of them co-workers or friends of co-workers. And I still have all my notes tucked away for various RPG ideas.

As I mentioned though in the article, my writing just dominates my creative time right now. I've got seven novels out, and I'm working on an eighth and ninth simultaneously, while prepping research materials on a couple others. I've got enough works in the queue to keep me writing until the end of the decade!

But, I have to be honest, the allure of the tabletop realm always draws me back, and always will. I know that some day I'll cobble together something...it is just a matter of when.

Thank you again, though - and don't be a stranger! If you don't mind, I reach out and say hello via email.

Anonymous said...

I've done some RPG writing over the years as well, too. System design is fascinating, but what really gets me going is world building. Or even specific settings. I do a lot of non-fantasy gaming, and have developed entire counties for a Western RPG, an Austrian city for an espionage game, and other stuff. It fits in well with fiction writing (I've set stories in both settings, and have a series of thus-far unpublished novels going in the Western one), so they're at least dual purpose. I'd say go for it, maybe using some of your writing research to come up with a setting or another framework. A couple of WW2 systems have come out in the last year or so, but they're all very similar to the old Behind Enemy Lines. There's room for something else.