Friday, July 31, 2009

Another one bites the dust

Not too long ago the OSR community was mourning the death of the term "old-school." Well gentle readers, on this fateful Friday it's with great sorrow that I report the death of another beloved term. Yes, "retro-clone" has finally passed on. It fought a long battle of self identity, but in the end it became associated with too many ideas and has passed gently into meaninglessness.

I started using the term not long after I released Labyrinth Lord, and according to the all-knowing source of modern information (Wikipedia of course) I am responsible for coining the term (was going to post a link but it won't load). So, you can send the nasty letters to me for getting the madness started in the first place.

As the term "retro-clone" started catching on, it wasn't long before people started calling Castles & Crusades a retro-clone. For people new to this discussion, I've tried to talk about what I think a "true" retro-clone is here and here. At first it didn't bother me too much, because at that time, in 2007, there was still a decent amount of "CLONES aRe teh IlLEEgAL!!z!" so I thought if people started to place them in the wider context of other OGL games like C&C it might help usher in their acceptance.

Also, at that time there just weren't very many clones anyway, so it was easier to classify them. There was only OSRIC and Labyrinth Lord for the "true" clones, then BFRPG as a sort of near-clone. Today, only two years later, the entire landscape has changed and it looks like the future will only bring on more change. Interestingly though, in 2009 just as in 2007 there still are only two games that I would call "true" clones. When I set up my threefold model of neo-retro classification it was before I'd had a chance to look some of the other games over more carefully, so here is the model as it would look today (there are now other OGL spinoffs of these, but I am not familiar with them).

Now what we are seeing are games released based on the OGC content of the retro-clones and near-clones. Many of these games hybridize to one degree or another the older style of games with 3e, or take them in different directions altogether. I predict there will be dozens and dozens of these games released over the next 5 years or so. All of these games are being called "retro-clones" out in the wild (that is, forums) even though according to MY model that the world should be paying attention to most of them would be near-clones (I hope you sense my sarcasm, I'm not actually that self-important!). Compound that with the fact that some of these games will claim to be cloning 0e, or Original Edition D&D, or delivering the feel of one version, or another version, etc. and the whole concept of what constitutes a clone has changed. By my usage a "true" retro-clone is a game that attempts to emulate as closely as legally possible the rules of a particular game.

I think in retrospect we can now say that the term retro-clone was doomed from the start. It saddens me to announce its demise at only the age of 2, but that's life.

May fast wings take you to everlasting peace

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

All Old-School Games Promote Tinkering

I came across this post by Matt Finch here, and wanted to offer a small comment on it. The specific quote is reproduced here:

"The tack I've taken with Swords & Wizardry is more along the lines I would have taken with OSRIC if I'd had all the benefits of hindsight. And Swords & Wizardry, unlike the other clones, has an outside agenda of promoting the idea that hobbyist gaming is about taking a basic, open-ended rules framework and then building the custom van at the gaming table itself."

I don't think it is accurate to create this dichotomy of pro-tinkering vs. anti-tinkering. I always assumed by default that all games, and especially old-school games like the retro-clones, promote hobbyist customizing. It's always been in the nature of gamers to do this. I would suggest that there is no way to specifically "promote" this in a game other than to support open gaming by making the material open game content. We shouldn't confuse a product that is more polished as not promoting tinkering. BFRPG, then Labyrinth Lord, and then Swords & Wizardry made their text open game content, in that way supporting open gaming and open development. I think the only clone one might perceive as discouraging tinkering is OSRIC. Part of the reason the whole thing was not made open game content is because some of the contributors to the project are afraid people will change 1e and publish 1e variants.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Placing in the Lulu sales contest for July

Matt Finch over at the Dragon's Foot boards alerted me to the fact that I'm currently 4th place in the Lulu July sales contest. It was a big shock because I haven't told anyone I entered; I just entered so people could use the discount code! I don't have anymore new releases coming this month, so I don't anticipate reaching the top three. Still, it's neat to see that one of the OSR publishers can place even without a big sales drive.

As always, thanks for all the support everyone!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Defending POD

Recently there have been a lot of negative comments about Lulu and print on demand fulfillment in general. I just wanted to make a very brief post about this. There is not doubt that POD, Lulu in particular, can cause issues. Sometimes the printers ship shoddy products, whether it be low ink prints, missing pages, etc. However, I've only ever been informed of one problem with one of my products from Lulu (knock on wood). It happens, but not commonly, and when it does happen the situation is corrected (even though dealing with Lulu customer service can be nerve wracking).

Beyond that issue though, there are some very good advantages to POD products. As a small publisher who creates products for a narrow niche market, I generally don't want the financial risk of a print run. I will make an exception for the Labyrinth Lord core book and some other books that go into distribution, but only with certain print numbers because I have a feel for how well they sell. For some products, though, POD is the only way to go. In addition, Goblinoid Games is not my main job. It's my hobby. Many people don't realize that it is the same for many small publishers, even though they probably wouldn't phrase it that way. I don't want the hassle of fulfilling orders. I can do it for the short term, for special short print runs or sales, but in general I just don't have time to fulfill orders daily indefinitely, so POD is a godsend in that regard. I can upload products, and they deal with fulfilling the order.

I think this is where much of the "industry" will end up in coming years, with a few exceptions of the big companies or the old well established brands. Nonetheless I am going to go into traditional distribution to see how things go, but only in a very calculated way so that if things don't go well I'm not hurt very much.

Anyway, the point is, yes you can be a "real" publisher even if you only offer print products as POD titles. The stigma of POD, to the extent it exists, must and will disappear. It has to simply because we have no choice. It's where things are going.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Additional Points from Mishler's Publishing Post

James Mishler wrote a fantastic break down of publishing costs and issues. I just want to add a couple small things or elaborate on a few issues.

The PDF price war is definitely getting worse. People want PDFs for nothing, essentially, and many people will argue that PDFs aren't worth anything on one hand, yet complain if a PDF isn't available along with a print book. So clearly, it's not that PDFs aren't wanted, and they must be useful. I think another thing that has emerged is a POD price war. As James rightly points out, game consumers want prices that are very low in relation to cost of production and all other costs to get a book into the store. Now with POD, we have people offering POD products often at cost of printing or barely over it. Thus we are already starting to see complaints in the pricing of POD products where someone can simply go to Lulu, use their cost calculator to see that a book costs 5.68 to print and the publisher is charging 15 bucks. My GOD they are making money hand over fist!! They're gouging us! Right?

No. So I'd add to what James says about consumers feeling entitled to low PDF prices by stating that people are now feeling entitled to low priced POD books. We are in this shape for probably one main reason. That reason is the people who price their POD books for nothing have a cost of $0 to produce the book, because they either write it themselves, had volunteer writers, did the art themselves, or had volunteer artists. They just want to sell as many of the books as they can cheap, as a vanity press, without the worries of recovering production costs. People see these very low prices and wonder why a product of similar page count can't be so cheap, too. more than that, people are now starting to expect that the POD books be priced for nothing much like PDF books.

Ok, so assuming a publisher hires out this work, why should a POD book be priced at, say, 3 or 4 times the amount Lulu charges to print it? Well, if you go back and look at the price breakdown James gives for how much it costs to produce a book, then also figure that sales volume is very, very low for these POD books, these specialty hobby products must be sold at these rates to cover production costs within a reasonable amount of time.

James mentioned that these days a company really is lucky to sell 500 copies of a book in distribution. Even that is optimistic. Many small publishers are looking more at 200 copies. Mind, this is in distribution, not at Lulu. Sales at Lulu generally will be much lower, though in a few cases lately we are seeing more sales in a shorter time. I don't think that is sustainable.

I want to give a cost breakdown of a theoretical book, using a typical model many small publishers are using. Let's say that I'm sending a 140 page book into distribution, with an MSRP of $20. Here are the costs only of getting it there per unit. These are very close approximates, working backwards.

MSRP $20

Retailer buys it from the distributor for about $10

Distributor buys it from the consolidator for about $8

Consolidator takes 18% of the $8, plus a shipping fee, paying the publisher around $6.30

The publisher may be able to get printing done for about $3.30 per unit, and we should add maybe 50 cents per unit for shipping, just as a rough estimate, to bring total "profit" per unit to around $2.50 per unit.

Ok, so what has happened here? We've made enough on our print run to cover the initial investment, but we haven't made enough to recover that investment. In other words, if you think of the money for the print run as a "loan" we make enough to reinvest it in another print run, with a little left over to pay off that investment, but not enough to expand. This is all assuming your production cost was zero. Virtually nobody who bothers to get their book into distribution will have a development cost of zero, so out of those "profits" you better be able to recover cost of development, which for a small print run is at a bare minimum double the cost of your print run, and likely more. If you also consider that many of these print runs will not sell the same number on the second printing, or third, etc. you can see how you might be luckily to just break even in the end, unless you get really really lucky and have a product that turns into a modest hit.

Add all this together, and it is still no surprise that even many of the well known small press publishers are essentially hobby publishers. Almost no one makes a living at this, and they all do it for the "fun." In the end James is right that consumers don't need publishers. I also think he's right that the situation can't change, because for it to change one thing that would have to happen is that consumers would have to be both willing and able to pay higher retail prices.

I will add, though, that the only reason hobby publishers can keep publishing is because they are at least breaking even. If the current trend of valuing PDF and POD books at nothing continues, then the only people who will be able to keep publishing are those who have all volunteer writers and artists. Whether that is good or bad I suppose each person can decide for herself/himself, but it definitely will mean less new material out there.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The OSR at Noble Knight Games

Some of you may or may not know that there is an OSR genre category at Noble Knight Games. More and more of us are trying to get old-school products out there, and NNG is very receptive. If you have retail quality products, you might consider contacting them about carrying them. One of the new additions to this category is James of Lamentations of the Flame Princess. James sent me the products he has listed here and I'll post some comments once I get a chance to look at them more carefully.

So, if you shop online, you might consider Noble Knight Games as an online retailer of choice, especially for products that aren't listed at Lulu.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Comments on Mike Mearls' RPGnet Post

Some of you may have seen or will see a post by Mike Mearls in response to a thread started by James Raggi here. I'm reproducing parts of it here with some of my thoughts.

I don't believe that all of that those things are possible only in older versions of D&D. The truth of the matter is that a lot of that stuff is still in the game. 4e is no more or less deadly than any edition of D&D, because at the end of the day the DM determines how deadly the game is.

And I think that's the root of it. All too often I see "problems" with 4e placed on the players and DMs. Players are precious snowflakes who want everything handed to them on a silver platter. DMs are wimps who feed players a steady stream of disposable enemies. Real, bad ass men flip a coin to see if their character is dead or alive.

I think the OSR catches so much flack because, for those of us who have been in the hobby for a few decades, we saw this all before when White Wolf launched Vampire. It's the same thing, just with the added attempt to co-opt the "true" nature of D&D. Back then, it was role vs. roll. Today, it's new vs. old, and it's just as tiresome, time wasting, and banal as ever.

I can't agree with this, even though I do agree that the OSR as it is right now is a reaction to current versions of D&D. Vampire, or at least some people who played it, definitely were reacting to D&D, to make a game experience much more like acting or a play, rather than a game. The difference here is that we (meaning many of us involved in publishing or playing "retro" games) are not trying to create a "new" experience, but get back to the experience D&D used to be before the advent of 3rd edition and 4th edition. I beg to differ that "the game remains the same." Many of us fee that the people co-opting D&D are the current publishers, making D&D into a very different game that has lost all resemblance to what it was. If we're guilty of anything it's of having greater loyalty to the game instead of the brand.

There are many, many fine qualities to older versions of D&D. They're more freeform. It's faster and easier to crank out a character. Combat zips by. When you pull away a lot of the rules, it can be liberating.

However, the Puritanical drive some OSRers have to bemoan what other, lesser games dare do at their tables is counter to everything that RPGs are about. Quoting Gygax chapter and verse to figure out the right way to play, stuff like that, is the antithesis to the creativity, freedom, and intellectual curiosity RPGs, at their best, can and should encourage.

So yeah, old games are cool. The gaming Taliban? Not so cool. Let's enjoy retro games without getting all bitchy about new ones.

I actually do agree with a lot of those, though I think the last bit is harsher than it needed to be. There are really two issues here. Definitely it is the case that there are probably half a dozen or a dozen jerks out there who may or may not worship the old AD&D manuals like a saint-kissed bible. Those few people are sometimes very vocal. The other issue, though, is that people are just going to have to understand, especially people responsible for creating games, that many people don't approve of the design direction. Sometimes people are unkind in their criticism, and make it personal, and that's unfortunate. On the other hand, I don't think we should err by being too polite to point out that we don't like the design of a game, it's aesthetics, or its cultural and corporate origin. I don't think anyone can in honesty disagree with the idea that recently the primary reason for a new edition is to earn new revenue from the brand. In so doing, many fans who prefer the old game will bitch about it. That's life.

I'm editing this to add that at the same time, I think it's great that some people enjoy 3rd edition and 4th edition. It would be sad indeed for those people not to have some game that appeals to them. Personally, even though I don't like D&D post 2nd edition, I do not in any way wish failure on the current version. I don't like it, but I don't wish ruin on those who designed it!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Brave Halfling Publishing and Labyrinth Lord

As many people already know, John of Brave Halfling Publishing recently made an announcement that he would be reducing support of product lines, and as a consequence would no longer be supporting Labyrinth Lord.

I've gotten several emails inquiring about what happened, and I just wanted to make a brief public statement to put peoples' fears to rest. John contacted me prior to his announcement, and explained his situation. He and I are on on great terms, and his decision is based entirely on the reasons he cites in his announcement. As I told John, life is too short to feel trapped in things that bring you no joy, so he has my full support and understanding regarding his decision. I wish him the very best and much happiness and success in his new course!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Labyrinth Lord and Google searches

If you go to Google Insight you can track the search trends of key words or phrases. A Labyrinth Lord search is here.

The stats make a lot of sense really. The searches begin in 2007, obviously, because that is when LL was first released. It looks like there was a sort of flat trend in searches until April 2008, but with major highs and lows, until May 2008 when we start to see a steady rise. That is about the time of the Labyrinth Lord distribution drive, and after that searches have been on a definite rise, but again with highs and lows, but lows haven't been nearly so drastic.

I don't want to read too much into this, but at least as reflected in Google searches there seems to be an ever steady increase lately in interest in Labyrinth Lord. I can say that sales, especially hard copy sales through Lulu, have been steady since May 2008, with a tendency to rise over the last 3 months or so.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Chocolate and Vanilla, great apart, better when swirled!

When I go to Dairy Queen and get an ice cream cone, I like to either get a vanilla/chocolate swirl or a vanilla cone dipped in chocolate. Sure I like either flavor alone, they stand up on their own very well. But there is something about that mix of flavors that offers a unique experience.

Yes yes, I'm getting to something RPG relevant, I promise! Ohhhh, the chocolate sprinkles! Labyrinth Lord and Mutant Future are a lot like that. I see LL as the vanilla, and MF as the chocolate. Alone they rock pretty hard, but mixed together and suddenly you have AC/DC meets Queen, and you better look out.

One of the challenges of such a delightfully unholy union is achieving something resembling balance. I addressed this in the Mutants & Mazes section of Mutant Future, and I think it worked out pretty well. The thing about "balance" in relation to these games is that it is a subjective thing. There is no hard and fast formula for it, like there are with other games that use for example a point buy system, or something like that.

The philosophy I used when approaching the M&M section was that mutant players in an LL game need to be able to have powers that increase with increased levels. In a straight up MF game, players start out powerful, so many components of a character are not as relevent to level advancement. So to achieve this incremental progress the powers had to be treated in many ways like spells for spell casting characters. Mutants become a class unto themselves, with the defining element being that they are mutants, just like the defining element for spell casters is that they can cast spells.

The result is something that I think works very well. A mutant can rub elbows with a thief, a cleric, a magic user, and still fight pretty effectively and whip out some mutational effect every so often (depending on the effect, every round, or twice a day, one a week, etc.). But....what if you want to be a mutant human thief, or a black-hearted simulacrum sorcerer?

Then the approach is going to have to be different. The mutant powers, for the sake of "balance," must be greatly reduced. Being a mutant or a biological android shifts to be a little more cosmetic. First, I suggest casting aside the idea that every race should be designed as its own class. If you want to create a variety of mutant/android races to use in your game, this is not only going to make it tedious from the design perspective but you will inevitably introduce a mess of different experience progression charts etc. In the end, it is cleaner and more efficient to treat the mutants as humans by separating race and class.

Whoa, hold on! Separate race and class in Labyrinth Lord. Sure! The tools are already there. If you want some help, I wrote a very straight-forward article on how to do this that can be found here.

Don't get me wrong, you certainly could design an awesome simulacrum sorcerer using the Elf class as a guide, with it's own unique spell progression and a few mutant powers. It would be cool. There is a place for those sorts of classes too. But I also think offering a flexible set of mutant "races" that can choose any class or a few restricted classes is an easy, great way to add diversity without having to wrestle with whether XP is balanced for each race.

Ok, so how to do this? First, use what you already have as an example. Look at the sorts of special abilities the demi-humans have, and shoot for a similar thing with a mutant race. Let's create one together.

I love the idea of a vat-born character becoming a sinister weaver of magic, so lets create one version of a biological android that can be a magic-user among other things. Here is one possibilitity:

Simulacrum variant race

Requirements: INT 9, DEX 9
Ability Modifiers: INT +1, CON -1
Prime Requisite: As class chosen
Classes Available/Level Limit: Fighter/5, Thief/7, Magic-User/10

The khorlans were designed to be the intellectual slaves of the Elder Race. Their initial purpose was to serve as scientists to develop ever increasingly destructive weapons for the Armageddon that eventual ripped the world apart. Khorlans are unable to reproduce on their own, and their communities are often centered around the remains of highly guarded functioning vat-machines, so that new arrivals may be brought into the community and educated. The ability to work with abstract scientific formulas has transferred easily to the concepts involved in working magic. Khorlans may be fighters, thieves, and magic-users. They were designed to look different from humans, and completely lack all pigment, having white hair, pearly white skin, and black eyes with no visible iris (i.e. bizarre appearance). In addition, they have the mutation neural telepathy, which was used to communicate with their highly mutated and alien masters. Khorlans receive the following saving throw bonuses, +1 versus spells, and +2 versus energy attacks.


Now of course I whipped this together fairly quickly and it hasn't been playtested, but this is just one example of how races might be created when combining LL and MF. When doing it this way, characters will advance in levels, to-hit, and saving throws exactly as the class chosen.