Monday, August 20, 2012

The Independent Movement

Pardon me, for it is time for me to hike up my slacks up to my chest, jingle the coins in my pocket, and tell you about the good ole days. Yes, that's right, I'm going to tell you about how things used to be when I first started out in this business, and how everything old is new again. Pull up a rocking chair and pass the mason jar full of moonshine... This semi-greybeard is gonna do some bloviating.

Back in the day, there were tons of original, interesting games on the market. Noir, Little Fears, Blue Planet, The Whispering Vault, and dozens I can't remember. I would get together with the likes of Robin Laws, Kenneth Hite, Jonathan Tweet, and we'd discuss what great, original game we'd pick up at GenCon. It was like an Easter Egg hunt, with creativity and originality as the prize. John Tynes would say "there's a game in aisle two where you play a hat" and we'd run over to see it. Maybe there was an interesting mechanic inside...

Then along came something called the Open Gaming License (OGL). This open-sourced the rules engine of Dungeons & Dragons, allowing anyone to create content for the biggest game on the market. You can't argue with a potential customer base of one-million people. It gave publishers a chance to jump on those coat-tails and perhaps earn more money. Some second-party publishers made out well; many did not. But what did happen was that people stopped being creative. I never did see an innovative D&D setting like Planescape or Dark Sun from a second-party publisher. It was monster manuals, class/race guides, and people's homebrew D&D settings. In fact, the shelves groaned under the weight of so much OGL stuff, that even if there were a Planescape or Talislanta, I wouldn't have been able to find it.

The problem is that the rules should serve the setting. There is a tension between rules and setting, in order to convey to the player what he is playing, what his goals are, and allow him to feel as though he's doing something different. Games that start out as just rules are abstractions; games that are pure setting really should be novels. Most designers I know create the rules and setting in tandem. For example, when you play Call of Cthulhu, you feel as though you are playing a game of supernatural horror. The sanity rules reinforce the idea that you are combatting monsters beyond human comprehension. The rules serve the setting. By shoe-horning all games into the D20 system led to a dearth of creativity. Gone were innovative rules that conveyed a sense of the setting. All games were now Taco Bell.

One of the things that made originality difficult was the high cost of printing physical copies of the book. Noir is a perfect example. They put out one book, then... nothing. Producing your cool, creative game was quite a risk. You had to place a huge order and pay that money to the printer up front. If your game didn't sell, you took a bath. Only those with money to risk, or the foolishly optimistic, could take the chance. The guys who published Blue Planet still had to come up with the cash to pay the printer, warehouse, and ship the game; unless you won the lottery or took a mortgage on your house, you were taking quite a risk. One not everyone was willing to take. Why not publish D20 books under the OGL and improve your chances of profit? I get it. Logical business decision. But it killed creativity.

Now, at GenCon 2012, I saw tons of little, independent games out there brimming with creativity. Mortal Coil, Hollowpoint, Technoir... and many others I didn't purchase. I haven't even touched on the numerous board games and card games I saw. These are guys with an innovative mechanic and creative setting, and the ability to publish their games. What changed?

The advent of .pdf files has certainly lowered the barriers to entry. As has the continued improvement in print-on-demand. As we all know, and was a continuing topic of conversation at GenCon, Kickstarter eases the financial burden to publishing. No longer does a game have to shoehorn everything into the race/class/level template in order to be profitable. Indeed, the current state of affairs has redefined what "profitable" means. All of this combines to bring creativity back into the hobby gaming industry.

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