Saturday, March 5, 2011

Commercialization of the Old School Part 2

Commercialization of the Old School Part 2: Judgment Day

In the first post about commercialization of the OSR, I stopped short just before reaching James Raggi’s Lamentations of the Flame Princess game, which I think represents the cusp of the evolving shift into a matured market. I realized, though, that Jim actually probably falls into the earlier phase, since the current phase might best be characterized by the appearance of “outside” publishers as well as numbers of small publishers, and Jim’s definitely not an outsider to the community. So I probably broke my history into the wrong phases.

In any case, just to clarify, the for-profit “market” operates within the context of hobby message-boards and disparate blogs – I don’t mean to suggest that the commercial side of the OSR is the sum totality of the OSR. Quite the contrary, in fact. Because I have been tracing the commercializing trend, though, I’ve basically ignored (up until now) the fact that the for-profit publishers like me are similar to the birds that clean hippopotamus teeth – they can’t exist without the hippopotamus. In this post I want to focus on the question of whether we’re the equivalent of the tooth-cleaning bird, or whether the proper analogy is to a blood-sucking lamprey instead. In either case, it’s time to broaden the context a bit and look at the old-school community outside the for-profit publishers.

First of all, the way I evaluate “good” and “bad” in this discussion is based on the idea that we’re judging things based on whether it is productive or unproductive for the hobbyist community of old-school gamers. Mainly I’m thinking about the internet community, but there’s an elephant in the room: the gamers who aren’t interested in online discussions about gaming on the internet. I can completely relate to this – as a long-distance runner I have zero interest in reading blogs or articles about long-distance running. No interest at all. So I assume that there are plenty of old-school gamers who feel the same about the old-school internet community.

In addition to that relatively silent (majority?), there is a second offline aspect to the old-school gaming community, the old-school conventions. These are GaryCon and North Texas RPG Con. Granted, the critical mass for these endeavors probably comes from the availability of a thriving net community, but the events themselves are brick-and-mortar, face to face gaming. Great stuff. Thirdly, there are the non-specialized message boards – the largest I assume are, in order of size: Dragonsfoot, Knights & Knaves Alehouse, and ODD74. The Acaeum sort of appears in there, but since it’s about collecting rather than gaming, it’s a bit tangential. Fourthly, there’s the vast community of bloggers.

What is the effect of having for-profit publishers appearing in these various sub-parts of our community?

A few people believe that on moral grounds it is inappropriate to profit from a hobby at all. When I’ve seen this viewpoint expressed, it’s usually predicated on the position that since all resources for roleplaying games derive from the work of the original authors, even modules, that it’s like thievery to profit from such a resource. I’m not going to spend any time on this viewpoint because frankly I think it’s so weak that it would be a straw-man attack if I did. Resources have been published by third-party publishers ever since mimeograph machines fired up across the USA to publish modules and other resources in response to the 1974 publication of OD&D. That doesn’t make it morally justified, if you happen to think that it’s immoral, but most people would place the line further back, at the question of whether for-profit resources are productive or unproductive to the community.

One aspect of for-profit publishing is that it allows the publisher to hire the skills he doesn’t personally have, whether that’s illustrating, doing layout, editing, or whatever. I’d like to add something else to that list: printing, handling money, packaging, and sending things in the mail – in other words, the back office tasks that are involved in distributing something.

The OSR of 2004 had effectively two distribution channels: Dragonsfoot (free materials) and Troll Lord Games (some C&C freebies and some for-profit). If you had a great module that you wanted to share with others, you could either hand it to Dragonsfoot or sell or give it to the Troll Lords. In both cases, that’s all you had to do: volunteers at DF would edit and illustrate your resource, and it would get posted in the DF archive. You didn’t have to pay money for printing it (although it’s true that it wouldn’t get printed except at people’s houses), and you didn’t have to maintain your own website to store it. You didn’t have to do any publicity for it, because people would find it at DF, where the vast majority of the community was centered. And TLG operated in similar fashion, as long as your resource was written for Castles & Crusades.

The downside to this centralized distribution set-up was that the volunteers at DF could only handle a certain amount of material – and also, there was a bit of a problem if someone turned in a resource that was absolutely terrible. I don’t know if that actually happened, but I’m willing to bet that it did, and that the volunteers were faced with a dilemma about how to handle it. They certainly didn’t sign on to be the arbiters of quality, but by the same token they didn’t sign on to rebuild a poorly written or ill-conceived resource. But the real obstacle, I think, was simply the matter of time. Most DMs in this hobby are writers by temperament. It’s almost built in. But layout artists, illustrators, editors? Those skills are only incidentally present in the community; it’s much less of a given – if at all – that just because you play D&D you’re going to be good at layout or drawing. In other words, the skills of the production team are MUCH rarer than the skills of the author in our community. The number of good authors out there can utterly swamp the available free time of those who happen to be skilled at the production side.

So here’s where we end up: lots of potential authors, not many skilled production teams. It might seem obvious that injecting money into this system would help out, right? If the authors became publishers, and could pull in some cash from the eventual sale of the modules, this ought to allow the author to hire the production guys, which would mean that more modules actually see the light of day. But I don’t think it works that way, or at least, it doesn’t work nearly as well as one might think.

The reason it doesn’t work is because you haven’t really – not to any great degree – increased the number of guys doing the production work. It’s not like we’d make enough money to hire an editor at $20 an hour, or to pay an artist $500 or more to get awesome cover art. So to a large degree, it’s still the same production teams, which means that there aren’t more modules. All that happens is that the production teams get beer money (which is good) and that the modules being published are no longer prioritized by volunteers at Dragonsfoot, but are prioritized based on who has money to invest (or blow) on getting a module published. All that has happened – mostly – is that the selection process has changed.

That’s not a neutral change, either. It’s a bad one. I’m guessing that the volunteers at Dragonsfoot tended to prioritize their efforts on the resources they felt were the best ones. There was a quality filter in operation. When the structure shifts around, all of a sudden money allows you to circumvent that quality filter. So, all other things being equal, the advent of for-profit publishing definitely has the potential to cause the community’s resources to shift away from the higher quality material and focus on materials that might be of lower quality. That’s the risk, anyway. I think it ends up being more complicated, but the very first effect of for-profit publishing is that it creates a cliff-edge. It has the potential, by removing the quality-filter provided by busy volunteers, to divert their time into lower-quality products than they’d otherwise focus on.

I should say that this process started very gradually; in most cases the artists, editors, and layout artists were still donating their time to projects such as OSRIC 2.0, Fight On! and Knockspell Magazines, and so forth, including Dragonsfoot, which certainly didn’t disappear from the scene. Moreover, I don’t think that most of the production artists base their decisions on monetary concerns any more than the publishers do – which given the razor-thin profits of old school publishing means not much. So although I think we have created that cliff-edge, and although I assume it has re-allocated some resources, I don’t think the effect is particularly big. Let’s call it a –2 impact, measured in metric whatsits. It’s not worth an artist’s time to do highly discounted work on a module that’s a piece of crap – certainly not based on the mere prospect of beer money – so that quality-filter is still in operation, just less so. As I mentioned before, there’s not a shortage of good writing, so it’s not like every time the filter got circumvented it would mean that something bad was necessarily being published – just that it might be pulling resources from something better. It doesn’t create an influx of awful materials, it just means that overall, somewhere, somehow, it’s probably having an effect.

Obviously I am in the course of writing a much longer essay than I’d realized, here, so I’ll split this into another installment, leaving things at this exciting cliff-hanger of a moment.


  1. Interesting line of thought so far, Matt. I'm looking forward to reading the next installment.

  2. This is has been excellent series of posts and inspired me to write my take on the situation.

  3. That's great to hear, John! Although, frankly, I think I'm discovering (I haven't finished writing this series yet) that most of the negative effects of for-profit publishing are systemic rather than anything you can point to on a case-by-case basis.

    The positives tend to be on a case-by-case basis, and don't need anything particularly altruistic. For instance, it's a "competitive edge" for a publisher to offer free resources. It draws "customers" to a website. But what's characteristic of our community is that we don't make enough money to make these decisions based purely on money. The "competition" that one expects in a true free market isn't present, or at least, not to the degree that one would expect in a true business environment.

    That's something I hadn't thought of, though, is whether publisher freebies designed to draw traffic actually increase the quantity of free resources in the community. That would be a pretty strong argument for the benefits of for-profit publishing.

  4. I don't agree with the premise that we should be publishing less stuff, because there aren't enough layout guys or artists, and Dragonsfoot isn't being some kind of quality control. If nothing else, if someone publishes a bad supplement, and it costs money, they likely won't publish a second one once their first book fails. I do think we need the free stuff to keep coming out, or the whole show will be controlled by a couple people, which would not be good.

  5. Dan, I'm definitely not saying that we should publish less material. There are several more points that I'll be mentioning - the fact that there's a small net negative in this particular area isn't the final conclusion. There are lots of other considerations, some of which are in favor of for-profit, and some of which are against.

  6. @dan pretty much summed up my take on it as well. Failure commercially = no money to continue to drain production resources from others who can make use of them. Failure commercially, for whatever reason, whether based on quality of product or not, acts as a quality control filter, for good or for bad.

  7. Thanks for writing this! Good of you to get it all down in some sort of form and allow people to come back in and fill out the details or offer corrections.

  8. Joe, your point about people failing commercially is valid, but you have to keep in mind that if you're talking about a lulu publisher there's not much that could actually cause you to fail in business. When there's no capital investment required, it's hard to be forced "out of business."

    But the point is very well taken; even if it's very inexpensive to publish, continually low sales would presumably cause someone either to quit or to do something to improve the product-resources.

  9. If I had one wish, it would be an influx of editors and layout people. For me, writing is easy. The editing and layout are bears.

    Also, Chris Gonnerman of BFRPG is looking for editors. He has a number of submissions that just need edited so they can go to print.