Friday, September 03, 2010

Power to the People

I’ve ranted about capitalism before, and so far as that goes, I have to disagree with JB on this score. Capitalism has made our country great, but greatness isn’t measured in the philanthropy of our wealthiest. It’s measured in the breadth of our wealth, and in the fact that a truck-driver and factory worker can pool their money, buy a nice home to raise their daughters in, and give those daughters dance lessons and horseback riding lessons and send them both to college, while still having enough left over for when the Red Cross calls for donations in response to disasters around the world. Granted, most of that happened midway through the previous century, but it did happen and it did happen in America, and it happened because of capitalism.

But I’m not writing now to disagree with JB, but to agree with him. Capitalism works best when buyers and sellers send clear signals to one another. Unfortunately, advertising is frequently a murky business. But when you buy something, especially when you buy a lot of it, that’s a signal that’s heard loud and clear. You’re saying you value that thing, you’re saying you want more of it. You’re making it possible for the people who made it to spend more time (time they might otherwise need to spend keeping the lights on and putting food on the table) making more of whatever it is you liked so much before.

This gives you power as a consumer, power you need to wield responsibly because, yeah, it really is voting. And, at the end of the day, what products rise or fall is entirely up to what you buy and what you pass up.

I used to love reading DRAGON magazine. I never had a subscription, but I probably should have through my junior high years, when I purchased three of every four issues published. It was a fun read, with a wide range of articles, some of which had nothing to do with D&D, and saw me through brief periods of gamelessness. But, as time went on, I read it less and less. During my college years, it was an occasional read, and I was down to probably buying two a year. By the time 3.5 came out, I was buying maybe one every two or three years.

And here’s where things get interesting. I was still playing a lot of D&D back then (usually two games per week, and rarely as few as one), but I wasn’t buying much of anything. So far as the market was concerned, I was invisible. TSR and the others couldn’t tell what I wanted because I wasn’t buying anything they were selling. So far as they could tell, I (and, apparently, many others like me) simply vanished. In response, TSR flailed around; they tried making a CCG thinking maybe we’d left to play Magic, they tried converting Ravenloft into a gothic setting to lure us away from White Wolf, they made new game systems thinking maybe we were just tired of same-old D&D.

Nobody seemed to know much of anything about this hidden market, lurking about playing old games and having fun, until the OSR popped up. And then, as if from nowhere, there were magazines like Fight On! and games like Labyrinth Lord seeming to spring up out of nowhere. Only it wasn’t “nowhere” really; we’d been here all along. We’d just been ignored.

And that brings up another aspect of capitalism most folks miss: there’s very little preventing a buyer from becoming a seller. That’s why I bridle a bit at the “we don’t need no stinkin’ industry” talk that sweeps through the blogosphere every now and then. The truth is, we are the industry. Or we can be. The barriers to entry are pretty low these days in RPGs. There’s nothing stopping any of you from throwing together a module, a supplement, heck, even your very own boxed set. Raggi’s shown that you can push pretty damned close to industry-standard visuals and production values. He’s about sold out of his original run on his box. Swords & Wizardry did damned well with their box sets, too.

You think WotC hasn’t noticed?

Seriously, where do you think the idea for a nostalgia-focused boxed set came from? Sure, they may have come up with it on their own, might have realized the conventional wisdom about boxed sets was flawed without having watched what’s happened with Mythmere and LotFP, but you really think they haven’t noticed? You really think our enthusiasm and productivity didn’t plant a few idea-seeds?
So WotC’s come out with their boxed set. I’m pretty sure we’re not the target audience; it may have Elmore on the cover, but it’s 4e inside, and we all know that. Sure I could have bought it, but instead bought the LotFP boxed set which costs more than three times as much. Why? Because the WotC box isn’t much use to me, but I’ll play with the stuff in the LotFP box.

Really, how much more of a “duh” decision could it be? ;)

And I’ll likely also buy the more-than-double-the-cost-of-WotC’s-box Pathfinder GameMastery Guide because it looks like a great companion to Gygax’s DMG, the most used and abused book in my gaming collection. And I’ll almost certainly be getting JB’s B/X Companion because my players may be using Labyrinth Lord’s rules, but I’ve got Moldvay’s and Cook’s books sitting on my desk right now, and I reference them nearly every game.

So now the ball’s in your court. This is a golden age for RPGs. There’s never been such a wide array of products out there. The reviews are being posted all over the ‘net. It’s up to you to vote with your dollars, either by buying products that improve your gaming, or in making products you haven’t seen yet but would love to have. What happens next, as in all good RPGing, is entirely up to you.


Nick said...

This is why I like reading your blog, as infrequent as the posts tend to be.

The OSR to me is a great thing, because it's a great big group of guys who, seemingly overnight, realized that they weren't the only guys still playing old D&D, no matter how much WoTC tries to flail around and make pastel-hued adventure paths.

The simple fact that WoTC "ripped off" the old Red Box speaks volumes to the community's strength.

Telecanter said...

What if we didn't worry about products, but made things and shared them with each other?

JimLotFP said...

>>What if we didn't worry about products, but made things and shared them with each other?

It worked that way for years and while and it didn't get very much attention or growth, did it?

JB said...

@ Trollsmyth: I was kind of running around this morning and just wanted to get thoughts down on blog so please forgive me if I wasn't as thoughtful as I meant to be. My real feeling (perhaps not adequately described) was:

Wealth (our entire country has it pretty good) + Good People (like the kind that give their money to Red Cross, etc.) = Greatness, i.e. Great Country. And if capitalism enabled that wealth than "yay" for it. These days it's not doing the job it once was, which is why I call it "Bad." But regardless, capitalism (or wealth) BY ITSELF doesn't make the country "great."

Everything else I agree with...though I think you mean the ball is in OUR court, don't you? You're part of this thing to, and I think your own example (as you've described it) speaks volumes...and positive ones for that matter.
: )

Telecanter said...

I hope your game does well, James. Hell, I hope you usher in a new pop-cultural acceptance of gaming. But:

"It worked that way for years"

Really, because I'm not aware of this happening. The internet isn't that old and it facilitates sharing in a way never before possible.

But, my attention was elsewhere in the 90's early 00s, maybe you mean then? What I've heard of that time was something called d20 happened and it was all about products and everyone seems to talk about that time negatively now.

I don't mind people selling stuff, what I mind is people whose only conception of success is . . . selling stuff.

trollsmyth said...

JB: Of course! But since this was meant as a sort of nudge-to-action, I judged the use of the second person as potentially more effective. And thanks. :)

Telecanter: The only problem with giving stuff away for free is that it doesn't really facilitate the making of more and better stuff. I don't think there's a one of us who wouldn't prefer to do more gaming, more writing, and more sharing, but there are only so many hours in a day and many of those need to be devoted to putting food on the table and the like.

A good example is artists who are returning to doing art associated with our sort of gaming, like Russ Nicholson. They can do this because they're getting commissions. Otherwise, the time they spend working on art for us has to be spent making a buck, and that probably means designing corporate letterhead and decorating real estate web sites, when they can't get cool jobs illustrating educational materials and magazine articles.

If more people thought they could earn their daily bread making Old School gaming materials, the flood we've got now would look like a trickle. And while I'm certain I wouldn't be interested in most of it, I'm certain there'd be a lot more useful to all of our individual tastes and styles.

Telecanter said...

I feel for anyone having to scratch out a living doing something they don't enjoy, but this assumption:

"The only problem with giving stuff away for free is that it doesn't really facilitate the making of more and better stuff."

is one of the worst our society holds today. Limiting access to ideas does not lead to better ideas. We make nothing from whole cloth.

And I'm not talking about something as naive as never making money off of what you make. I actually think of James Raggi as a great sharer; he shared a lot of his process while designing his game, he shared his experiences with marketing it, he even has his rules as a free pdf on his site. I was more likely to buy his game because of all that.

I just want to push the conversation a little bit so that people start thinking: "Hey, there is actually value in sharing," or even: "Wow, my products are selling well because of all the ideas in it that the community shared with me. Maybe I'll give something back."

JimLotFP said...

>>"It worked that way for years"
>Really, because I'm not aware of this happening.

... which would kind of prove the point. ;)

rainswept said...

Thanks for this post. First of all your observations about TSR and the invisible consumer are both apt & interesting. Second, it captures the level-headed side of my reaction to JB's post(s) nicely, saving me fretting about it further, and enabling me to read B/X Blackrazor in peace once again :)

Alexis Smolensk said...

"The only problem with giving stuff away for free is that it doesn't really facilitate the making of more and better stuff."

That's very funny, since I hear back from people everyday about how the free distribution of many of the ideas that I have put forward on my blog causes them to tell me how they are making similar systems now and that their worlds are better.

Maybe it's a question of the base material?

trollsmyth said...

Alexis: It's a question of time.

The current hobbiest model can produce some neat stuff in limited quantities, based on the amount of time people have to sacrifice to the hobby. The quality is much higher than I would have predicted; Fight On! has exceeded all of my expectations.

That said, it's still a hobbiest production and it feels the weight of its limitations. It's still only quarterly, the layout is very simple, the editing is acceptable, and the quality of the art covers a very broad range.

One of the reasons I can call Raggi's Weird Fantasy RPG the first not-quite-a-retro-clone is because he had the time to really go in and tweak things. He had time to rewrite all the spell descriptions, to write two introductory choose-your-own-adventure style walkthroughs, to write an introductory adventure and an example sandbox setting, and playtest all of it and then, on top of all that, had the scratch to hire professional artists to do his art.

Raggi's is the first retro-clone to be Old School Plus. He didn't just repackage what had come before, but actually polished and tweaked and focused his game. The closest the hobbiest OSR has been able to come to something like this is Carcosa, a single, small book with nearly no art or editing. It's clearly not fair to compare the two, and that's mostly because Raggi had the time to give his product the extra time and love that only a professional can really devote to his craft. The rest of us have to do something else in order to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table, and that something else will always come first, before the hobby.