Tuesday, July 30, 2013

New Games, Old Games, and Lost Opportunities

My musings on the likelihood of future support for 13th Age at the end of this post seemed to stir up at least a few similar thoughts. It is a fairly big concern of mine when it comes to picking up a new RPG these days. There is some baggage that goes along with any RPG from cost to shelf-space to time. I don't feel a tremendous drive to add books to my shelves "just because" anymore. There's a little more of a method to it than there used to be.

Sometimes a game is only available as a single, relatively inexpensive book or PDF. Those are easy. The Explorer's Editions of Savage Worlds are a great example. Heck ICONS is a pretty good example - it's regularly available at a similar price. Stars Without Number was like this too. There's not a lot of expense, it takes up little to no shelf space, it ties in to a subject or a system I already like and own - those are the easy ones.

Then you have examples from Pathfinder to Pendragon to Dark Heresy: detailed mechanical systems, big expensive books, dense text, massive amounts of supporting material, a lot of background to dig into to really get into the game. With these I have to ask:

  • Is this something I really want to run? This is me attempting to filter out new shiny for new shiny's sake. For Pendragon it was yes. For Pathfinder it was probably. For Dark Heresy it was no - I needed to wait for the Space Marine game. In many ways I've punched through the "collector" mentality and pretty much any game I still own I'd like to run or at least play.
  • Will I really have the opportunity to run it? This is largely dependent on time and players. For Pendragon so far it's been a no, and I knew that going in. I just wanted to have a copy on the shelf  for "someday". For Pathfinder, it's still a maybe. For Dark Heresy it doesn't matter because I didn't get it but for it's replacement, Deathwatch, the answer is I thought I would but it hasn't happened yet.
  • Am I willing to pick up all of the supporting stuff that goes along with it? For Pendragon I have only picked up a few extra books. I know I'm not likely to get to run it anytime soon so these are more targets of opportunity than any deliberate plan. For Pathfinder I stopped at the core book, but if we started playing it regularly I would go ahead and get more as it was needed. For Deathwatch  I picked up the GM's Kit as I knew it would get used from session 1 onward. There's a ton more stuff for that game and much like PF if we start playing it I will start adding it.
Now these guidelines have developed over the last fifteen years or so and I'm pretty comfortable with them. Along the way though a lot of game companies showed up with something cool, then disappeared, leaving an unfinished game behind, or let's say, the promise of a particular game unfulfilled. So recently I've started asking myself "What's this game going to look like in a year or two? Supplement overload? New edition? Dead and gone?" because as much as I'd like it to not be true, there is an impact when a games goes dead or out of print. There's less discussion of it online, fewer resources, and players are less interested in playing it - possibly related to those first two issues. Interestingly between the OSR and the WOTC reprints, the older editions of D&D are effectively "in print", while 4E limps off into the sunset with a hopefully temporary stigma of being a failed game that no one wants to play anymore. It's not a critical factor but all things being equal I'd rather run a game that's being supported than one that's not.
  • For Pendragon I think my book is an edition behind but I don't care because there is a version in print and much like Call of Cthulu, it doesn't change a great deal from one edition to the next. For Pathfinder I've circled around and come out the other end of this question: when is the next edition coming? I don't really want to go whole hog and spend a bunch of time and money getting this started only to find out we're going to get PF second edition in 2015. No, they haven't said anything but I'm a little gun-shy on this. For Deathwatch I don't think it's an issue as there is a lot of stuff out for it - but they did just announce a second edition for Dark Heresy so who knows. 
Now why would I feel this way? Allow me to share some examples:

The most recent example of trust being burned. I should probably add a sub-question to that last one "Is there a license involved?". I was ready to go all-in on this one and even bought some new dice just to support it and BAM - lots and lots of potential lost. We had just over a year of support and then poof - players can't even buy the PDF's anymore, another downside of licensed games.

Going back a bit we had a promising system and ... oh look another license. Hmmm. I picked up TNG and TOS and while I skipped some of the supporting material I was really looking forward to the Spacedock books that were going to be all about the spaceships. As productive as this company was they didn't even make it past year 3. 

Hey remember this one? Yeah ... I do: I bought a copy. Because I liked the setting and mechanics. This came out in 2005, around the same time as Eberron for D&D and had a similar pulp fantasy thing going on. They came out with one supplement, one of those "bunch of stuff we cut out of the main rulebook" type of supplements that was fairly common in the 90's & 00's and then they were eaten by a black hole. By 2006 there was nothing happening on this game anymore. Not too many people played it apparently, and not many remember it now. My lesson here was not to be fooled by the cool. Brand new settings with brand new mechanics from publishers you've never heard of should set off caution signs at least, even if they come in shiny hardbacks.

Around the time Ziran disappeared this one became the new hotness. I didn't buy it in 2006, but I wanted to! I was worried that I would end up buying a fairly pricey book just for the setting and using Savage Worlds to actually run it, which seemed like a waste. This was one of the more memorable times where I held off buying it and sure enough there was a grand total of one supplement and a DM screen and that was it - in 7 years! Can't complain about overloading the channels there, can we? Again this was all over the place winning awards and garnering hype for a year or so but by 2009 who was playing it? 

Again, not every game needs a ton of support and lord knows I get tired of the "core book - monthly supplements for 5 years - new edition"  treadmill as much as anyone but it would be nice to have a middle ground. A lot of games manage to pull this off and I'd like to see it happen more.

Kickstarter is a bit of a wild card though. Take 13th Age - the original game was announced around last year and there has been a beta program and then there was a kickstarter for the first supplement which included this quote:

Rob, Jonathan, Lee and Aaron want nothing more than to keep working together and create the first expansion book for 13th Age. But they need your help to do it. That's where the 13 True Ways Kickstarter comes in.

If this campaign meets its funding goal, they can cheerfully turn down other rent-paying freelance projects and focus on what they love best: designing and illustrating more great monsters, magic items, locations and NPCs for you to use either with 13th Age, or adapt to your favorite fantasy RPG.

So what we have here is effectively "we will keep supporting the game if we get paid" and that's a refreshingly honest approach. That said this looks a lot like one of those books of stuff leftover from the core type initial supplements I mentioned above rather than a really focused book. 

This sort of direct-to-the-customer approach with supplemental books makes even more sense than funding core books in some ways - you want more? Pay for it in advance and you can have it! This could easily become the wave of the future even for existing games. Want Hollow Earth Expeditions Australia supplement? Maybe it eventually comes out via KS.

My question here though is how often can this happen? Would players support one KS per year for a particular game? Two? Quarterly drives? I'm not sure. What if one of them fails? Does that mean no more support ever or just moving on to the next one on the list? At least when a company started publishing a big new game you could count on them to be committed for a year or two - well, you used to anyway - but with KS the commitment might only be as strong as the next funding drive. There's that risk of draining too much from your customers too with the growing number of gold-plated-leatherbound-signed-by-the-creators special limited edition funding levels on RPG kickstarters of late. Sure, if you can make money go for it but I suspect it's a short-term gain at the expense of a longer run. Not every game needs to be Ptolus-level in it's presentation, especially a new game.

Now there are all the failed KS projects, so it's not a guaranteed thing but it's at least an option in between "monthly books" and "dead game line". Dwimmermount, the dwarf game, and some others all remind us of the worst possible outcome - it funds and then you still don't get any support, at least not without some kind of drawn-out fiasco. 


Barking Alien said...

Game support, while nice and welcomed, is by and large no longer an important factor for me.

Looking over my collection at the games I love the most, play the most and keep going back to again and again, none of them are currently supported. Furthermore, some were never supported relatively speaking.

Case in point, InSpectres. Memento Mori Theatricks put out a single, 90+ page, digest sized book as the one and only rulebook for this game and guess what? I can play it and it's awesome. There has never been another book for it, there may never be another book for it. Online fan support not withstanding, if they never put out another anything for this game I will still enjoy it just as much as I do now.

Faery's Tale Deluxe - Same thing.

Mekton hasn't been supported in years, no one is putting out a Star Trek RPG and there are exactly four DC Adventures books from Green Ronin and that's it, done deal.

Actually, I'm beginning to form the opinion that I prefer it that way.

Unless you are fixing errors in the original rules, greatly expanded the content and capabilities of a game, subsequent editions, source material and such can actually ruin a good game.

Here me out...

I used to play World of Darkness quite a bit and while not a bit fan of the genre per se, I did like running it and I love Mummies in that setting.

What drove me to stop was that there was so much setting, and more setting and more setting until I really couldn't move as a GM without stepping on the toes of a player who bought the supplement all about his or her faction.

Player: "I bought the Glass Walker book so I know all about Glass Walkers. They don't act like that."

Me: "Well these are MY Glass Walkers. They're different."

Player: "Then why did I spend my money buying this book and all that time reading it?"


Anyway (pardon my I'm a little cranky tonight), my real point is that we all hope for the best with our favorite games but in the end it has little effect on my attitude towards playing said game if, indeed, it truly is a favorite.

Blacksteel said...

Oh I agree with everything you've said here. I think there are downsides to over-publishing a game that are at least as damaging as letting one go out of print.

One case: Paizo's adventure paths. I assume most people are buying them to read, because there's no way I could run a campaign that would advance at a rate that would keep up with the speed of publication.

The only real downside to running an out of print game is getting players to commit. I'm pretty sure if I put out the word that I was going to start a Lords of Creation campaign that I would be met with cricket chirps. If I dangled Numenera out there I might be turning people away.

It's not an immovable object, jut one more barrier to getting a game up and running.