Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Invisible Railways

Between the time when the OGL rejuvenated the hobby and the rise of the sons of Dragon and Dungeon (that would be Paizo and their Pathfinder game), there was an age undreamed of. Actually, it was a sucky time full of despair and the gnashing of teeth. With the coming of 3.5, the bottom fell out of the d20 market. Lots of companies went belly-up. IPs traded hands swiftly. The FLGS was an endangered species. Even Steve Jackson of Steve Jackson Games felt the need to get a day job, and he was roundly praised for his sagacity. RPGs were doomed to follow the same decline as model railroading and wargames before them.

Casting their eyes towards what remained of the war-gaming and model-railroad industries, the chattering classes that infested RPG.net at the time noted that the survivors had largely adopted a boutique model. That is, they sold high-quality, luxury offerings at a very high price point. Doing so would, of course, only doom RPGs to eventual death, discouraging new blood from entering the hobby. But the kids were too deeply sucked into those damned MMOs and besides, we’d at least get some cool games out of it and Ryan Dancey’s kitties would be kept in kibble.

While there was a lot of talk about the boutique model, and how both publishers and players needed to learn to treat RPGs as luxury goods, not much was actually done about it. The full-color coffee-table book had long cemented itself as the mainstay of the industry, and nobody seemed to be eager to buck that trend.

Nobody, that is, except Monte Cook.

Cook’s Ptolus, a campaign setting and adventure path in one came in a GIANT book, clocking in at 672 pages. It was a wonder of organization and layout, included ribbon bookmarks, and a CD with extra goodies like an additional adventure plus lots of printable handouts for the players. It also had digital versions of previous Malhovic books that Cook had associated with Ptolus: The Banewarrens and Chaositech. Monte called it the “most deluxe roleplaying product ever published.” In an era before Kickstarter, Monte goosed sales of the book by signing and numbering the first thousand copies pre-ordered, and threw in a printed copy of the adventure on the CD plus five printed copies of the player’s guide.

It needed some goosing because the MSRP was $120.

Keep in mind, at the time, the D&D 3.5 PHB had debuted a few years earlier with a $30 price tag. (I’m going by memory here, so if you can find a better number, please let me know.) You could pick up all three of the core books for under $100, and you’d need them before you could play Ptolus. Ptolus was just a setting and adventures, not a game in itself.

I have no idea how well Ptolus sold, but I can say it did nothing to hurt Cook’s reputation. The book earned glowing reviews and took home the 2007 Product of the Year ENnie.

Fast forward to today, past the Numenera kickstarter which had a funding goal of $20k but broke records pulling in over $500k, and the Invisible Sun kickstarter. Where Numenera was conceived of as a familiar coffee-table tome of a game, Invisible Sun is, like Ptolus before it, a boutique luxury item. If this does reasonably well for Monte, that black cube is going to become iconic and I’d expect a few other publishers to take a closer look at dipping their toes in the boutique luxury market. The proposed smart phone app for handling between-session chat and gaming is intriguing, and while it is, to me, the most exciting thing coming out of Invisible Sun, I suspect that will prove a bridge too far for most publishers. But decks of cards, bizarre resin statuary, and a funky-looking box? Yeah, Fantasy Flight is going to be all over that like a duck on a June bug.

And then there’s the “experience” aspects of this thing: the internet clues, the geocaching challenges, the “secrets,” and most of all, the Directed Campaign. A resin statue hand that holds cards seems a little silly to me; getting setting and adventure ideas emailed to me regularly, and physical props mailed to both the GM and players, sounds like an awesome idea and certainly something that more publishers could embrace.

Note that I don’t think this will be a huge revolution in RPGs. But do keep in mind when Ptolus was released, it was still the conventional wisdom that boxed sets had been one of the nails in TSR’s coffin. Three years, and numerous fun and cool boxed sets from Raggi and Mythmere, later and WotC was releasing a suspiciously familiar boxed set of their own.

The RPG industry is being dragged kicking and screaming out of its coffee-table rut. Slowly, but it’s being dragged, by Raggi’s work, by Zak’s lovely and well-laid-out cloth-covered books, by The Dracula Dossier, and by Monte Cook. We’re slowly peeling the roof off this hobby, not because it’s in its death-throes but because it’s enjoying a new Renaissance. I don’t think the future will look like Invisible Sun, but I do think we’ll be able to draw a line from Invisible Sun to whatever the future looks like.

1 comment:

JDJarvis said...

A side note (of meager relevance) : One of my Grandfathers was a clerk in a Train Shop and Hobby Shop in the 50's and 60's and earned enough to support his family and own a house. I have a hard time picturing a hobby shop employee being able to own his own house these days. Back during the depression his wife had the only full time job in a small apartment building as a bank teller and this was enough cash to keep the owner of the building from losing the building and to be able to keep folks with part-time depression era housing in their apartments. What it takes to make a fair living has sure changed over the years.