Thursday, January 20, 2011

An Example: All Flesh Must Be Eaten

There is an unwritten rule in the hobby games industry; it's called "thou shalt not criticise another company's product."  No matter how much you dislike a game, or more often the game designer in particular, you never, ever criticise the product in an open forum. First, it just looks like sour grapes. Second, the person on the receiving end will likely criticise your product in an open forum, and you've got a nemesis for life. What's truly odd about this is that if you talk to individual game designers, you'll hear all kinds of juicy, cutting remarks about various and sundry games. We just don't air our dirty laundry in public. Until today, of course.

To recap, I think RPGs are dead as an entertainment format. I think they can't compete with various technological alternatives, like Gameboys and MMOs. In a cost-benefit ratio analysis, you can either buy a $45 book, read it, and try to find four friends to play it, or you can pop in a $60 disk and start beating on dwarves immediately. And really, who doesn't like beating dwarves? Since we cannot compete, and we seem to be stuck in a closed system (i.e., the roleplayers we have currently are pretty much all the roleplayers we're ever going to have (I know that's a HUGE assumption)), what can we do?

For one thing, we can stop pretending that it's 1985 or 1997. The days when Dungeons & Dragons was part of the cultural awareness are long past. The heyday of Vampire: the Masquerade is gone. In other words, the days when you could sell a book a month, hardcover, are long gone. At least for those of us who are not WotC. So what's left?

"Beer and pretzel" games always seemed promising to me. These are simple little games intended to be played quickly, and for not a lot of time. You'd play them while enjoying beer and pretzels, like a pick-up game of Cosmic Wimpout or Lunch Money. That's not to say that they couldn't be played for longer periods of time. But they weren't intended to be played that way. Which means that the creator didn't have a year-long production schedule of monthly releases upon which his cash-flow depended. All Flesh Must Be Eaten is a great example.

It was intended as a one-off game. If it succeeded, it succeeded. If it didn't, no skin off Eden Studio's back. The rules are pretty simple. They have to be, because it was intended as a beer-and-pretzels game. Admittedly, I think they dropped the ball on character creation (the game's only misstep); I would have gone with a "race and class" system to speed things along, rather than a point-build system. However, where the game really excels is the zombie creation rules. What does the zombie eat? Brains or hearts? How does it move? Is it a shambler or a fast-mover? How can you kill it? Fire or a headshot? Pure genius. The game largely allowed you to create whatever kind of zombie you wanted, and start killing them. I could create an AFMBE game right now, on the fly. You're playing in twenty minutes. Even the size and price point was perfect, too.

Then came the supplements. Zombie cowboys. Zombies in space. Zombie wrestlers. Kung Fu zombies. It became the GURPS of zombies. Truth in advertising, I had a hand in that. I used to work for Eden Studios. And I love George Vasilakos and a lot of those books. (I even plan on writing my own AFMBE supplements.) Some of these supplements were great. Some, not so great. They were inconsistent across the line. Some books in the line presented a genre, and all the attendant permutations on the genre. For example, the Cowboy Zombie book was great. You had Singing Cowboy style zombies, and Eastwood style zombies, and Historical Cowboy zombies. Each chapter basically presented you with a pre-written adventure; you didn't really need to do much preparation in order to play the game. You could pick up the game, create a cowboy, and start blasting zombies with your six-shooter in no time flat. The Gamemaster didn't really need to do more than read ten pages of material. Perfect.

Other supplements, however, broke this model. I'm thinking of the Fantasy Zombie book. I worked on that one. There should have been an adventure/setting for each flavor of fantasy: The Tolkein chapter, the Dark Fantasy chapter, the Urban Fantasy chapter, the Romantic Fantasy chapter, the D&D rip-off chapter.... I felt the book was uneven. And each chapter was less about presenting a pre-generated adventure, and more about presenting an entire setting in one chapter. There was more work for the Gamemaster to do. Admittedly, I couldn't do much with this book; it was already written and dropped on my desk to edit. Had I actually solicited this supplement myself, it would have been much different.

And as time went by, the game collected barnacles. Did we really need a zombie wrestling supplement? As much as I enjoyed the zombie midget wrestlers (that one was mine), I didn't feel there was a burning demand out there for this product. Not as much, say, as there was for the Nazi zombie book. There are currently dozens of skills and zombie powers spread across a large number of books. The buy-in for the game, which was once low (one book) now looks prohibitive (10+ books). I suspect the only people buying these supplements are those who already own the game (and that in ever-decreasing numbers; that's just the nature of the industry). It's no longer a beer-and-pretzels game with a low buy-in. It's a big, sprawling game that tries to comprehensively cover the subject of zombies.

(Speaking of which, I haven't covered the subject of creating an intellectual property. By far, the most popular of the zombie settings was called "Mein Zombie." This was an opportunity to craft a distinctive zombie setting, which could have been exploited for profit. There's now a World War II zombie miniatures game. I'm betting Eden wishes they could've unleashed a cease and desist order, but they can't because "Nazi" and "zombie" are too generic.) 

I'm not sure how one would go about fixing this, how you could return it to it's beer-and-pretzels roots. I suppose you could take all non-setting specific rules and put them into a new core rulesbook. Take all those neat zombie powers from across 10+ books and put them into one book. Same with skills and advantages and disadvantages. The problem is, then you have no reason to buy all those splatbooks. Or rather, if the splatbooks only contained scenarios and setting-specific rules, they'd appeal to a far smaller audience; this has always been a problem for the industry. The only people who buy "modules" are the gamemasters. So you've got to put in player information to get them to buy, too. But then you end up with vital, interesting, useful information spread out through a dozen books... and we're back to the large buy-in and unwieldy size.

The fact remains, however, that AFMBE is a great game (so much so that Palladium tried to call it out for a fight when they released their zombie game). It's an example of how you can produce and fun, economically viable roleplaying game with the beer-and-pretzels mentality. You don't need a 256-page, hardcover, full-color rulesbook that minutely details the socio-political structure of your fantasy setting. You just have to be careful about managing such a game's growth over time.

Now let's hope George doesn't want to beat me with a large stick.

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