Saturday, March 5, 2011

Commercialization of the Old School: Part 3

Commercialization of the Old School Part 3

This is the third installment of what has already become a rambling, out-of-control treatise, so if you’re interested in the topic, you might want to read parts one and two rather than trying to dive mid-stream into the ramble.

Quick Recap of Earlier Exciting Conclusions

In the last installment, I talked about the fact that there are fewer production artists (layout, editing, art) in our community than there are good authors, and that these resources aren’t increased – not measurably, at any rate – by the fact that a for-profit publisher can pay for them. Indeed, the fact that a publisher is paying for these resources can actually bypass the de facto “quality filter” that was originally provided by the volunteers themselves. I concluded that even though this effect isn’t large, it probably has a small, net negative effect on the quality of modules that are produced. There’s a benefit, which is that some money gets directed to guys who do a largely thankless task (especially the editors and layout guys). But that doesn’t make them produce more, it just gets them some beer money. Perhaps it keeps them working on modules, in proportion to their desire for beer, which isn’t something that occurred to me.

The Psychological Benefit of Financially Trivial Quantities of Cash

So there’s a nice tangent – it’s possible that even though beer money doesn’t increase the amount of time that production artists spend on old-school modules, the fact that there is a much better “thank-you” than the internet provides might keep them excited about the whole prospect and thus work, over time, on more modules. In other words, they don’t provide more hours in a given week, but over time they provide more weeks. This isn’t a trivial point, actually, because it turns upon a big problem with our community (and the internet in general).

That problem is as**holes.

Internet: The Unpredictable Netscape of Praise and Vilification

When you post up something on the internet, whether it’s a free resource or not, there will be several types of responses. Many people will type “Cool!” whether they’ve read it or not. These people, god love ‘em, are wonderful even though you know that they’re supporting you for what you’re doing, not for the quality of that particular resource. You can’t draw any particular conclusion from “Cool!” but without these guys I believe there wouldn’t be any free old-school gaming resources on the internet at all. The reward for producing a free resource is entirely ego-driven; you want people to see your work and enjoy it, and if there is no response to it you will assume that nobody read it, or perhaps that they did, and didn’t like it. Almost certainly, if you get a zero-reaction, you’re not going to bother to do all that work a second time.

Another response, which is very rare, comes from someone who either likes or dislikes the resource, and takes the time to actually write out the reasons in a review or a thought-out message board post. These are the truly golden people, because they really and truly demonstrate that your resource has been appreciated (even if the conclusion wasn’t great). But it takes effort to write a meaningful reaction to a resource, or a full-scale review, and not everyone will do so. Very, very few.

A Startling Conclusion: A**holes are a Bad Thing

Thirdly, there are the aforementioned a**holes. These are people who will absolutely rip into a resource without much balancing of the positive and negative. They simply post negative reactions. Keep in mind, I think it’s very important that the community gets to hear negative reactions. Information is important. But it’s for that same reason – information being important – that vicious attacks on the quality of a module without the offsetting positives (or at least an explanation of the reviewer’s biases and preferences) are damaging. Just posting, “This module was junk!” helps no one, because it doesn’t provide any useful information about why you think so, and it’s almost always clearly intended to hurt the guy who spent a lot of time creating something for little or no monetary reward.

It’s less of an issue the more prominent the author/publisher gets, I think. That kind of thing bothered me a lot when I had only published a couple of resources, and it really doesn’t get to me any more – but the majority of publishers are putting out their first attempt, and if they get this sort of crap from a troll, it’s likely to be extremely painful. It’s very likely to discourage someone -- whose module might actually be quite good -- from writing more.

Reality Check: Not Being a Pollyanna

These trolls aren’t going to go away – they’re part of the internet landscape in any hobby – so my point isn’t “let’s all play nice.” My point is that beer money is a MEASURABLE index of appreciation when the internet itself doesn’t provide very predictable feedback. You might not see a single post saying “good job,” but if there’s some money – even if it’s not much – you know that your work was appreciated out there somewhere, by people who simply didn’t post about their appreciation.

Suddenly, Major Points in Favor of For-Profit Publishing

This, I think, is one of the major arguments in favor of for-profit publishing. The money might not be financially significant, but it’s psychologically invaluable as feedback. I definitely think it keeps people producing more resources than they would if they relied solely on the internet for the pats on the back that are so vital to a writer’s continued willingness to put pen to paper.

Now, this might seem to indicate that, “hey, there’s no reason to publish for free!” That’s not so, because obviously (I think) the trolls tend to direct their venom against for-profit publications more than against free ones. That’s a trend, though, not a rule. I have seen some truly vicious, conclusory posts made about free products. Overall, I think the value of money-as-psychological reward is very, very significant, but it’s not overriding. Many people – Chris Gonnerman of BFRPG clearly being a good example – get more reward from the fact that the resource itself is freely given. For these guys, the value of giving is psychologically rewarding enough to allow them to ignore trolls. When this is the case, money’s benefit as a source of positive feedback isn’t present. It takes a thick skin to approach it this way, but I have to give all due props to Chris, Bill Silvey, Stuart Marshall, and others like them – they are soldiers, and definitely mentally tougher than I am. Like my earlier conclusion that money causes a slight reduction in the quality-filter, this observation about money’s importance as psychological feedback rather than financial reward isn’t a one-for-one fact. It’s a general feature. However, this one is pretty big, at least in my experience. As I mentioned, when I started out I had a very thin skin about troll-type criticism, and the feedback provided by people purchasing the odd module or resource almost certainly kept me from dropping the whole hobby of writing. So as a thin-skinned guy, I tend to assign a lot of importance to money as a psychological reward.


I think that people don’t form teams very easily over the internet, and there is a very big benefit to working with other people on a project. Editing, in particular, is very important. Not just proofreading, but developmental editing where there’s a second person to say, “this might work better if you…”

Dragonsfoot and various of the for-profit publishers are both good ways of forming teams. However, I can’t really see any way in which there’s a difference between Dragonsfoot forming a team as opposed to a for-profit publisher forming a team. So, unless some brilliant idea strikes me later on, I think that for-profit publishing provides neither a benefit nor a drawback on this.

Possibly, the raw number of for-profit publishers is enough to be drawing teams together, in which case the general effect of for-profit publishing has been good on this count. In fact, I think this is probably true, so actually there’s a benefit here, although I can’t see why Dragonsfoot wouldn’t have been drawing the same volunteers to the same sorts of projects. If for some reason it were easier to approach a for-profit publisher than to approach the moderators at DF, then there’d be a benefit. But I don’t see why there would be, and in fact there appears to be some kind of “figure-on-high” effect with for-profit publishers. Several people have contacted me as if I’m something far beyond a dude with a typewriter and a lulu account, so I have to conclude that for some reason, some people appear to be a bit intimidated by the trappings of “for-profit.” Perhaps some people are equally intimidated by the trappings of a Dragonsfoot moderator. I don’t personally understand why either would be the case (we are all dudes with typewriters: the DF mods just have DF passwords instead of the lulu accounts). Either way, I still think there’s a net zero effect on team-creation.

Effects on Resource Structure

Here’s something interesting, and I’ll start it with a kind of a story. When Stuart Marshall decided to expand OSRIC 1 (essentially nothing more than a Players Handbook with some rules imported from the 1e DMG) into OSRIC 2 (a full set of rules), he decided to put it all into one book. His reasoning was based on a fundamental fact about publishing a printed book: most of the cost, unless the book is quite long, comes from the set-up costs, not from the page count. Since OSRIC had no profit markup on lulu, the value equation was very clear: it would cost the buyer less money to get the game if Stuart added pages to a single book than it would if the game were split into two books. This was also a consideration in adding more material in the first place – it wouldn’t add very significantly to the cost, because it’s cheap to add pages to a book.

That makes perfect sense from the perspective of cost-per-page. From my perspective, I think it might have been better to have two books, though, even if the total cost ended up being higher. The reason being that players don’t need to have a great big book, and it’s easier to use a smaller book if you’re a player rather than a DM. There are considerations other than cost per page. This isn’t a criticism of Stuart’s decision; it’s just to illustrate that there are inevitable judgment calls involved with publishing a resource. I had a conversation with Benoist at one point in which he asked why Swords & Wizardry couldn’t have been better served if it were structured as a core book with supplements for playing it different ways. My answer was that when I’m at a gaming table, I prefer not to have to look at two books if I’m a player. I like complete books. Note: that appears to be the reverse logic I used with OSRIC, but the difference is between two books with separate topics as opposed to one book that (as a supplement) contradicts or changes the other. I’ve always found that to be a pain.

The point being that publishers have to make judgment calls about things like page counts, number of volumes, complete books versus supplements, and even font size/ text density. To what degree are these decisions affected by whether the resource is written for free or for profit?

One possibly negative effect is that in a free resource, people don’t select what to read based on cost per page. A publisher can be tempted to “pad” the page count in order to make it seem like the value of the resource is higher. I definitely ran into this with Knockspell Magazine at one point. My first decision was that a relatively large font size would be good because it’s easier for those of us with failing vision to read. However, after looking at a couple of issues, I felt that it somehow didn’t look like a magazine, so I decreased the font size quite significantly. And then … here comes someone on the internet who very seriously points out to all and sundry that Knockspell is somewhat more expensive per page than Fight On! Fight On! was designed with the same objective as Knockspell’s early issues – font size is based on being easy to read without having to don your lenses of middle-aged seeing. So, by switching to a higher text density in Knockspell (and thus lowering the page count) based on considerations of visual impact came back to bite me on the butt. Clearly, if Knockspell were a free resource, I wouldn’t have cared in the slightest.

I picked that example, by the way, because FO! can’t be accused of padding pages – Calithena has always been quite clear about the reason for the font size – so I can make my point without actually pointing fingers and saying “j’accuse” on the padding of page count.

One quick other point – printed books have to be in page-count multiples of 4, so if someone fills three pages with advertisements or something, don’t jump to criticize. They’ve got to fill any excess pages with something, or leave them blank. Yes, you could invent an appendix and some tonsils to add to the end of a module, but filler material is filler material. End of digression.

So, is there a tendency to pad page-counts? I think to a certain degree there is. As I mentioned, the cost of additional pages is quite small, and you can “mark them up” fairly unnoticeably. Result: adding page count without new material increases your profit. More importantly in terms of people’s considerations on this, though, is that if you try to condense your text for visual or usability reasons, there will be people who assume that because you’re offering fewer pages, you’re offering less value – even if the actual word count is the same or higher.

And there are good reasons for using a higher density of text, even though it doesn’t actually add much dollar-value (pages are cheap). For instance, when doing layout on a module, depending on the module, it is sometimes very useful to have several encounter areas all visible in that two-page visual “window.” If your rooms are interlocked – say, the orcs in room 3 are likely to reinforce the ones in room 7 – then it’s a real benefit to have room 3 and room 7 both visible at the same time. That militates toward denser text (or smaller font, or whatever). On the other hand, I have to wear my glasses to know that the word says “orcs” and not “ogres,” so if I forgot my glasses the module might suddenly become more challenging than expected.

So, charging money for a resource creates a slight tendency toward larger fonts, when that might - possibly - not be the best structural approach. In my case, with Knockspell Magazine, I decided, “well, screw it, if it’s going to hurt the magazine otherwise, I can live with using the same size font as FO! does.” For the magazine, that was a trivial decision, since density of text was just an aesthetic decision. And I’ve never padded the pages of a module because they aren’t long enough to bother with it. But the potential is out there.

I’m tempted to say that this is an area where for-profit publishing reduces quality, but to a degree this has the same effect on free publications that are put up for printing – at no mark-up – on places like lulu. The OSRIC book, even though it’s not for profit, is still going to be evaluated by those who are considering buying a printed copy in the same way. Count the pages, but forget to count the words.

So, for printing, I think there’s no effect one way or the other. The same temptations and considerations exist for people who are publishing for free and those who are publishing for profit. In the (now relatively rare) case when something is released purely as a pdf and not as a printed product, the for-profit publisher might have more of a temptation to pad pages than a free publisher would.

And for those of us who need glasses, that’s a good thing anyway – unless those orcs in room 3 are willing to risk their lives on behalf of the orcs in room 7.

There’s still more to come, but this chapter is probably long enough to tax the patience of most gentle readers, so I will break it off here.


  1. "You want people to see your work and enjoy it, and if there is no response to it you will assume that nobody read it, or perhaps that they did, and didn’t like it. Almost certainly, if you get a zero-reaction, you’re not going to bother to do all that work a second time."

    100% true. There is no need to say more than that.

  2. @Omlet:

    Yes, I think overall this is going to come down to a couple of knock-down issues. If it weren't for the fact that I could see modules being sold, I would have decided long ago that people didn't read what I wrote. When you extrapolate that, and assume it's true of lots of other authors, you get a very strong argument that one of the reasons for the sustained drive to publish modules (and thus all the available resource material) might actually be a result of that quiet but undeniably positive feedback.

  3. By the way, I find whole campaign settings much more appealing than "single" modules (mainly because they contain lots of helpful random tables).

  4. Omlet, take a look at Rob Conley's Majestic Wilderlands. His blog is linked in the sidebar here. He actually got licensed by Judges Guild to use the Wilderlands setting. It's done with the Swords & Wizardry rules, but can be used with any ruleset.

  5. Great post! Regarding fonts, I went with size 11, because it is easier to read. My book has more white space than some, but it's also a free pdf and will be an at-cost print soon. As I've said on my blog, I'm not really worried about it. If someone gets that upset over it, too bad.

  6. Rob's blog is "Bat in the Attic."

  7. I know Bat In The Attic very well, but at the moment Majestic Wilderlands are... too expensive for me :-(

  8. @Omlet give me an email I will be glad to give you a complimentary PDF. Also when you can afford the print copy order it off of RPGNow not lulu. Their overseas shipping is much better.

    Also I worked with a couple of people overseas who clubbed together a bunch of books to save shipping. If will be glad to do the same for you and your friends. The only disadvantage is that it takes a bit time for me to get them printed through PoD. I use Paypal for these sales.

  9. These are great Matt, and I want to thank you for taking the time to write these up. I considered just saying 'cool' but I am actually reading the whole thing.. heh.

  10. Here's another factor that I don't believed has been mentioned yet:

    In my recent foray into self-publishing, knowing that I was gonna ask folks to give coin for my module/setting pushed me to make it better than it would have otherwise been. The professional artwork that I obtained for the cover had a similar motivational effect on me. Hopefully that extra effort resulted in something worth the beer money price tag. If nothing else, the extra motivation pushed me to new experience in editing, layout, working with artists, etc., that may eventually lead to greater things.


  11. Matt, great insights. Thank you for this. As someone who has contributed art pro bono (OSRIC 2.0, KS, Dragonsfoot) as well as paid (Expeditious Retreat Press, Brave Halfling, Small Niche Games, Open Design) I see merrits to both sides. For me, more than money, it boils down to how interesting a project is to me, and if I think I'm well suited to doing it. I loved contributing to OSRIC as well as all of the other projects I've worked on. Doing art takes quite a bit of time, so I have to pick and choose because ultimately, it takes me away from my family, so I'm going to be damn sure I want to be associated with the project and proud to be a part of it. Sadly, there are many projects that appeal to me that I just don't have time to get to. So all things being equal, I go for the paid work as I tend to either take the money I make and invest it into supplies (art supplies are EXPENSIVE) or I go out and buy OSR stuff like Fight On!, Knock Spell, or whatever. I'm just glad to be able to contribute in some way to this incredibly cool and vibrant gaming community. I hope that neither the for profit or pro bono sides win out. I think that there is room enough for all. And I just hope that folks will keep letting me contribute to their crazy cool stuff!

  12. Fascinating commentary for a consumer/observer without experience in game publishing -- Thanks, Matt. When you can take something complex and bring it down to a**holes and beer, I think I've got a shot at getting it!