When is the right time for a new edition?

It happens in all industries, sooner or later the creators of something good revise what they’ve created and re-release it. It makes sense – you have a readership, the products have been sold, and you’re looking to maintain a customer base and a revenue stream. Like a shark, you need to keep moving forward, or you’re dead.

But the detail is hard, it may frustrate the consumers, especially as the game ages. DnD in particular has had so many revisions that it cannot have a “core” player base anymore, it has a variety of community cells, each who value a different flavour of what was once mainstream and current system. The Pathfinder success indicates that there is a huge population of people who didn’t think the dnd 4e change was good. They buy the Pathfinder (dnd 3.75e as its sometimes called) because it has most of dnd 3.5 in it, with fixes and tweaks. I know other gamers who loved what dnd 5e did for the game, and think it was one of the best systems developed. In fact a very astute friend said that if the same mechanical system was published without the DnD label, it would have probably been hailed as a revolution in an RPG system; and I think he’s right.

Assume for a moment that the offerings in the market are actually worth buying for some segment of the community (I don’t want to get into a holy war on editions, or to suggest what may or may not be effective as a product). Instead I’m interested in looking for parallels between different entertainment types, and what they might have in terms of long tails through version or release updates.

D&D: Lets take the range of debates, anger, and speculation about dnd5e that is around. If you scratch an RPG nerd you’ll find that they have been exposed to and have an opinion of dnd. Some love it, some wax lyrically about the past, and others love the current incarnations. Trying to estimate when the largest proportion of the audience are ready for a new edition, without killing current books or alienating the market is nigh on impossible.

Everyone has a different appetite and curve for roleplaying product consumption too, and predicting it is harsh. Some groups only ever use the core rules, others use every bloody optional book printed, and make further changes. In the early days it seemed that d&d 2e lasted a very long time, and 3e seemed to last a lot less; regardless of the truth, that is how it felt to me. The designers and owners of the IP can watch blogs, news, and purchasing to get their measure of the curves, but in the end sometimes you’ll be refreshing a product that is already dead (Traveller d20) or changing something that was not ready to be changed yet (a product escapes me, but then maybe that is because I’ve stopped watching products).

The long tail for DnD is already here, with miniatures, supplements, and such all still being produced. As the biggest game in the RPG scene it has a vary large gravity for sales, but also a huge body to move. The long tail for the game is something that I almost ignore – if I can’t play the game with the core rules, then I won’t play. As a long tail potential customer, I’m one of the hardest sells that they have.

Another of my favourite systems suffers a similar fate, except it has a far smaller player population, that of Ars Magica. It is at best a niche game, played by a devout community, and I think Atlas Games (the publishers) know that. Atlas do an outstanding job of creating new content and source material, but have not yet broken any major fundamentals in the current edition. The current books are darn expensive for an aussie to buy, and are still tempting. That said, its the 5th edition now, and that is a lot of change for a small community to absorb. It can be seen openly in the forums and web pages that many players are still using the 4th edition, especially as Atlas gave away a free version of the 4th edition rue-set as a pdf.

When we discovered Ars Magica it was mid way through the 3rd edition, and the books ranged from out of print to brand new. The feel was very gritty dark (Vampire/Whitewolf style) and I loved it. The 4th edition changed major aspects of the game, and the 5th ha further refined it. I am still a fan of many of the styles presented in the 3rd edition – something about the way the demonic and angelic aspects were handled really resonated to me. The rule-set is far better now. Combat makes a bit more sense, and the book keeping side of the game has been highly simplified and stylised.

Was it the right time? It seemed to be. I remember it being early, and not being ready, but then I can also understand that 4th had been out for a very long time, and some of the changes in 5th edition would never have meshed with the 4th edition rules. So overall, yup – it was good.

Should they be thinking about a 6th edition within a year? No, I hope not. The material being covered is still being consumed, and they have a ways to go to cover the range of source material needed. Atlas have many products, and thankfully this means that the ArsM material is produced steadily and consistently. I’m not sure what  6th edition would bring either, as the generations are improving and refining, rather than radically altering the system. Should they stop altogether on new edition thoughts? Nope – perhaps 2013 might be a great year – and the value offering of such a book would need to be high to gain uptake.

The long tail for Ars is both the source books and the peripheral products created by others. The Sub Rosa magazine is excellent from what I’ve seen, and I’m thinking of grabbing a few to really see what the quality is like. Long tail seems to mean repeat book/pdf buyer in this case – Ars suffers from the cost of the print run making the books out of print very quickly. This means that some material is only ever going to be available now as Pdf, and that is both an economic reality, and a shame.

Most game software suffers a similar fate. You see a single purchase box with a hefty fee, followed by either nothing (GuildWars), a subscription fee (WoW), or you just start with a cost per month and create revenue via transactions. After a range of time from 1 week to 12 months most people who were going to buy the product, have done so, and you’ve got to offer something new to them to keep the revenue stream open.

The pen and paper RPGs don’t have a micro-transaction style yet. Perhaps there is a revenue model there which is serviceable too. I didn’t take to DDI at all, and would shy away from anything that professed value without demonstrative substance. I’d consider modules via Pdf as a way of generating revenue, but you need to move a very high volume of sales to do that, and you’re fighting some seriously high piracy levels, and consumer resistance in the RPG market. Which RPG player is not literate enough to use a bit torrent client to find shared versions? Not many I’d guess. That kind of kills the long tail very quickly.

So the creators either produce or perish. The right time for a new edition might be when the customers want it, but will certainly be when the creators need it. Is that bad? Maybe, but I’d rather they tried to continue to develop material, than close up shop.

Salman needs what Ser Payne got

There is a strange quote from Salman Rushdie which called A Game of Thrones garbage, via Vulture.

“There was a series called Game of Thrones which was very popular here in the United States, a post-Tolkien kind of thing. It was garbage, yet very addictive garbage — because there’s lots of violence, all the women take their clothes off all the time, and it’s kind of fun. In the end, it’s well-produced trash, but there’s room for that, too.”

My knee jerk reaction is to say what the?

I’ll take Rushdie’s opinion seriously when I see the quality of what he writes and produces as a TV series. The opinion of an author in an abstractly related medium is not directly relevant, especially when it contains no real detail of what he liked about the shows that were ok in his opinion.

In the full text he lists shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Dexter, and Deadwood as shows he did like. OK that’s strange. Didn’t he notice the violence, naked people, etc in The Sopranos? And Deadwood has some events that make you not sleep at night (pigs anyone). Seems a strange set of criteria to base as a point of difference.

I also cannot imagine that he is a fan of the type of setting (what the hell is meant by post-tolkien?), nor has he read the GoT books. Well I’ve tried to read two of Rushdie’s books and would call them overly convoluted, boring, and altogether in need of a good editor.I’ve read all the GoT books now except the most recent Dance with Dragons, and loved all of them.

But hey, lets not throw stones at people for having bold opinions, Salman nobody ever got famous for being controversial. Give him what Ser Payne got.

Coat of Arms generator

example coat of armsI’ve come across a great flash based tool to create coats of arms for quasi-historic games – Fantasy Shields. It has a good set of starting symbols, colours, and base templates, but better than all that is that it is actually pretty easy to use.

I’m pondering a Game of Thrones game at the moment, and this tool would be a great way to generate a few hedge knight crests for the npcs and pcs alike. Continue reading

The Iron GM

I’d love to try my hand at the Iron GM challenge. What is an Iron GM?

The Iron GM tournament turns adventure-making into competitive sport and rewards GMing talent with phenomenal prizes…

…GMs are randomly assigned to a table of Players. Next we reveal our three secret story ingredients.

…GMs have sixty minutes to craft adventures, placing the secret ingredients at the nucleus of their games, while Players have sixty minutes to build characters.

…However GMs are only permitted to say three words to players to guide character creation.

Its seat of the pants DM’ing an RPG. Playing at the bleeding edge for both the players and the GM, where a non participant at any point might dissolve the story. It sounds as creative and challenging as being a GM could get – Theatre Sports with dice.

I’d hazard a guess this started as a silly idea, became a bet, and has gone on to form some seriously great freeform rpg sessions. Good to see too that the games are also of limited duration, so that a story arc is assumed in what is being crafted by the 60 minutes of planning.

The SRD 3.5 rules are used as a baseline system, but honestly I think you’d be better off staying well away from the mechanical heavy stories for a challenge like this.

It would be darn tough on many levels. I’ve heard producers talk about it taking hours to construct every small 5 minute chunk of TV time, and “content creation” for a good rpg story is also a huge time sink – IF you pre-plan.

If you run seat of the pants, move the story controls into the players domain to a large degree, and nudge them to steer the story, then I think you’d have a blast watching them reconcile their choices with the outcomes.

Nice also to add an element of the BOFH in there too, so the GM becomes the malevolent storyteller which the players wish to keep out of the steering role. Oh wait – that just describes the Paranoia RPG!

This would be fun. Found via the Fear The Boot Podcast, who are certainly worth a listen for any avid gamer.

Game of Thrones, thoughts

I’d heard the line that George R R Martin hates his characters, and looked forward to reading the books. Now that I’m starting Feast of Crows (book 4) I really understand why that sentence is true. If you’re expecting to understand that approach and you’ve only read or watched the first book, then you’ve not seen what it is like when an author loves his stories more than the characters within them.

Note: I’ll keep the post free of any Game of Thrones spoilers.

gameof thrones logoAs a series it is darn fascinating in both style and presentation. The books do not actually end at all. I read the books so far back to back, and I think that had I taken a break between them then the plot would have lost resolution for me. If you like a story that concludes between the covers, then you’ll have to consider Game of Thrones completed when Martin says he’s done. I think we’ll see at least seven in the series, although I’m not sure which characters will be left by the end.

Each chapter is from a different perspective, and there is no rhyme or rule to say which character will be written about, except to say that a few of the surviving characters get chapters regularly. Peripheral characters are raised to be main protagonists, and our heroes are brutally killed in the name of the story.

If its not blindingly obvious I am really enjoying the series. Several characters I liked have died, many others have escaped death where I thought they were due. It keeps me reading. Thankfully there have been no events that felt like Deus Ex Machina; which is a strength of Martin’s writing. If the story demands resolution, he gives it.

How does this translate into RPG games? Bluntly, brutally, and well – just like the books.

The overarching story is one of a fight against a dark evil, with the forward story of controlling an empire. The characters have almost no vision to the overall plight or story, and there is no dependance on a particular hero to provide the tempo or path forward. These are personalities in a world where loft goals often go unrewarded.

There are a few characters though who might stand apart soon to understand the need of the story, but I have faith and exposure to Martin to know that they will get little protection from their in-character enemies just because they might see a glimmer of the true fight.

For RPGs this is a world that you play in, but you’d not be saving it. An RPG setting would need to have the players as side characters, suffering the same toils as everyone else. There can be no “mission from the gods”, or “holy path” to provide a clear cut motivator – as for every character who thinks they are on a holy mission, there would be another with a different god giving alternate advice. It is less about black and white, and more about surviving a fight the characters do not even know they are in.

The setting lends itself to combat systems that are unforgiving, but also leverage skill well above base arms. It is common for a NPC soldier type to out think as much as fight a battle, and an RPG game would need to have some scope for that. Likewise some duels have been resolved with the lightly armored combatant dancing around the tank type, until the tank is too tired to survive.

The setting also needs a low amount of magic, but magic (real magic) is darn powerful. Some major characters are removed from the story with the use of magic, and there is little the characters around it can do about it. For magic lore there is also a huge range of skills considered magical, and almost all are trivial, but sometimes useful.

This means the setting is not one of fireballs and flying castles; but it is one of dragons and magic swords. It’s bloody interesting. Dark fantasy comes to mind, but the setting is almost fantasy-noir.

So what system? I have no idea. GURPS might serve, WH Fantasy is a good solution, and suits the high rate of death. Certainly DnD and d20 have no place here. Nobody in the story (so far) has soaked up a hit by a two handed sword and lived.

I can’t wait to keep reading, but I’m also keen to try the Game of Thrones-ish RPGs. Perhaps it is best done in a setting as a prologue to the books, where the ancient lore can be re-cast by the players. The events of the books are the future, and not likely to be needed or impacted.

A story about the Iron Isles becoming a kingdom, or the first men fighting against the Dragon King, or perhaps even a small game set beyond the wall in the first time of cold. All would be good settings, already full of lore, monsters, and nasty double edged swords.

Happy gaming.

A game on Rails…excellent

Oh wow, its been a while; but good fortune and a barbaric desire for reckless entertainment have me pondering playing in an RPG once again. Excellent.

I have a hope, backed by the GM’s plan to relight the fire under a DeathWatch game that my gaming circle was playing. We’re once again going to become a squad of twelve foot tall armored tech-noir Paladins, who’s single purpose is to being the Emperor’s light to the screaming hordes. The Emperor Protects. Yes, I’ll be there!

Heh, DeathWatch – the RPG game where you use RPGs (rocket propelled grenades, amongst other nasty toys).

We’re also pondering either a Warhammer Fantasy or Pathfinder game to play in the midst of the DeathWatch game, and with the group we have the theme needs to be similar. You see our team plays well on rails.

train rail

You have three choices... Well one; but it feels like three.

The story flows around the team, and we tend to love combat heavy games, where the direct approach is not only viable but mandatory. For most of us (including my humble self) the subtle approach takes too much time and uses way too much of the forward lobe.

We’ve tried games with deep and wide lore, where both the good guys and bad guys are shooting at us, and it got really hard to not try to just kill everyone.

Our motto almost became “Kill them all and let God sort them out”, except we knew we were the bottom of the talent food chain. And that meant we could only kill lightly armored hamsters. While they were asleep. And tied down.

All sarcasm aside, I don’t think it is a bad thing to want simple stories. Based upon the DeathWatch game I summarise our style/need as:

  • lore of being a marine in the WH40k setting, as who doesn’t like being the universal badass,
  • the fact that the mechanics reflect that lore (us being darn tough),
  • we tend to like the brute force approach for confrontations,
  • the game mandates that we’re a kill team who works together – so no real internal conflict is allowed from day one. No hidden vampires, no mind control, no group of 5 angry selfish bastards.
  • we have an RP ethic in-built too.
  • the stories are basically on rails, and the rails tend to be logical and can be followed.

All in all there are good reasons too:

  • Every player is darn busy (has children, full time work, partners, and/or plenty to do).
  • We gather to enjoy catching up as much as the game.
  • Thematic stories with subtle twists are hard to retain unless you play very regularly; which all of us can’t do.
  • We tend to not be strong roleplayers, meaning as in-character actors, not the mechanical side of the game.

So here we are. A set of gamers who know all too well that time is a critically limited resource, but wish to play something regardless. I’ve accepted my somewhat thug-ish nature, and am looking forward to roleplaying again.

So how do you run a good Rails game? I’m not sure. The two GMs are probably pondering this now. My unsolicited 2c has me thinking that our team needs to make some concessions on time and play style. The games should allow for:

  • short punchy sessions.
  • allowance for characters to leave and join the gaming table as needed between sessions, so that means either NPC’ing a character, or legit lore ways to get them into and out of the action (Clone Insertion Round from Paranoia is not an option).
  • a story akin to a good action film, with clearly defined goals. Rescue the npc, defeat the demon, and collect the 8 artefacts of doom – perfect.
  • as the team is 5-7 males, getting heavy on the slaughter is never bad (you can’t have slaughter without laughter).
  • The players need to accept the nature of a “on-rails” game.

The last point is critical to a game surviving. Well critical for me to remember anyway.

In the last Warhammer Fantasy game I lost my patience with the disparity of choices and the lack of influence I perceived, and basically encouraged the party to get slaughtered. My fed up character charged angrily into a few heavily armed solider types and their 5-15 archer buddies waiting on the road side.

Needless to say it was a blood bath, and a plot-rending action. I’d still argue to this day that the module should have allowed for the PCs doing something that stupid, with some sort of recover stance; but once the event was played it was all but impossible to recover. It also pissed more than a few of the players off. WHFRP is brutal, and even if that had been D&D 2nd Edition, we’d be murdered, so in Warhammer it was just a walk over.

The thing that I’ll need to keep in mind for next time is the flavor of the game. The illusion of choice is important to define; either I have it or I don’t – but if you’re juxtaposing giving an open story but no real choice, then it will lead to trouble. Our GM did warn us/me multiple times about the game being brutal, and also that it was a scripted module. What did not translate till afterward (I mentioned our play-style above) is how poor it felt to be on rails when the game told us we were not. The GM did, but the setting and story style was built to a more open path style game.

I’m looking forward to playing on rails this time. The emotional investment in the story will stay appropriate to the action. Playing a character in rails means we can keep it simple. Foes will often be clearly articulated; friends will offer advice, and rewards will be progressive. The mechanical game becomes a major part of the experience, and the lore might be fudged a tad here and there.

It also gets me thinking that the “on-rails” games are the ones I like running the least. I like choice as a GM, but the time it takes to run even a short open ended story is ten times more that I have free, and with out team’s style I can’t see them playing deeply in that either.

There you have it; a gamer of (many) years experience wishing to keep it simple, mash the button, and enjoy the game.

Happy killing.