Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Feast of the Unicorn

So, Blue Rose is possibly returning. I suspect it will make its Kickstarter target. This isn't Green Ronin's first rodeo, after all.

Blue Rose is an RPG modeled on what the designers termed “romantic fantasy.” We're talking about authors like Anne McCaffrey, Ursula K. Le Guin, Barbara Hambly, Anne Bishop, Jacqueline Carey, and many more similar authors. I'd also include Wendy and Richard Pini and the Foglio's for “Girl Genius” among them.

I do still encounter, on occasion, comments that equate this sort of fiction with stuff like “My Little Pony.” Folks wonder why a mechanic (d20 in the original Blue Rose) built around combat would be used for a game about making friends over tea parties and resolving conflicts through mediation and...

And I have to wonder what books these people are reading.

Actually, no I don't. I know they haven't read any romantic fantasy. They look at the pastel covers with the prancing horses, manes blowing in the wind, and the heroine gazing mistily into the distance, and assume.

Well, neighbor, if that's your assumption, reality's ringing your doorbell and has a whole case of bitch-slap to deliver.

Let's start with a classic of the genre: the prologue to Anne Bishop's Daughter of the Blood.

Very, very NSFW. Also, if you require trigger warnings, romantic fantasy is not the genre for you.

Want more? Try the prologue to C.S. Friedman's Black Sun Rising.

Keep in mind, these are not the meat of the stories. These are the prologues. They're just the hooks (though, like good hooks, they're short, sharp, and dig into your flesh).

And this stuff isn't unusual. Jacqueline Carey's original Kushiel trilogy starred a masochistic sacred prostitute. Melanie Rawn's Dragon Prince pivots around the rape of a male character by a female villain. Mercedes Lackey's Arrow's Fall (sporting one of the most pastel-and-merry-go-round-pony covers ever) includes fratricide, rape, torture, and attempted suicide. The conclusion includes a violent execution and a pitched battle between two armies.

Sure, there are talking animals, gorgeous clothes, weddings, friendly dragons, and the occasional unicorn or gryphon. Why not? The target audience has proven through their buying habits that they love that stuff.

And yes, there are openly gay characters and bouts of polyamory now and then. But the sex isn't always the happy-happy hippy-trippy lovefest some would lead you to expect. Because the minds of teenage girls are full of monsters, and, as Ursula Vernon says, sex is “the mommy monster at the bottom of the well, with fifty lazily blinking eyes and muck settling across its back” and they want to drag those monsters into the light, see them, be terrified by them, and then toss them back into the well.

The truth is, all good writing is vicious. An author lulls you into caring for a character or three and then spends the next handful-hundred pages abusing them terribly. If the misfortunes of the characters resonate with your own life, the book will be all the more powerful for it. Nobody enjoys pre-chewed pablum. Most will enjoy a vicarious and dangerous thrill that flirts with the monsters lurking inside their own skulls.

Now, having said all that, if you want to argue about how well the Blue Rose game communicates and invokes that sort of thing, then we'll have something to talk about. :)

Friday, March 20, 2015

Thoughts After My First GAMA Trade Show

Nobody in this industry has any idea how to do this.

This isn't the condemnation it might seem at first. Yes, there appears to be way too much “amateur hour” at nearly every level of the industry, but if you think that's unique to hobby games, then you didn't work in the internet during the '90s. (And I'd be shocked to learn it's much better than it was; today it appears more people have credentials to hide behind, but...)

Rather, I'm talking about how hard it is to even define what the professionals try to talk about. On the obvious end, questions bedevil attempts to quantify the industry. Is Cool Mini or Not's Zombicide a boardgame or a miniatures game? Should Monopoly be counted as a “hobby game?” What about Star Wars reskins of Monopoly?

And then there's the dance of trying to figure out just what's happening. Did D&D steal some wind from Pathfinder? Scuttlebutt in the halls was that Pathfinder's appeal appears to be weakening. However, the folks who make their money attempting to guesstimate actual market activity say that D&D's 5e mostly grew the market with Pathfinder staying fundamentally strong.

(And keep in mind, please, as I talk here, that the GAMA trade show is heavily tilted towards the interests and concerns of your FLGS. How many people play a particular game isn't nearly as important as what people actually buy. Unless they're lining up to buy A Red and Pleasant Land, people playing 1e D&D or the like are completely invisible to most of GAMA's members. And they're only a shadowy mass in the mists if they're buying online.)

What everyone agrees on is that things are good now. The best guesstimates I saw (again, by the pros who get paid to guesstimate, largely based on interviews since everyone plays their cards close to their vests), is 15% to 20% growth across the hobby games market in North America every year for the last four years. Things are good and 2015 looks to continue the trend.

China rules in manufacturing. If your game is all paper, there are North American sources that have become competitive, but if your game includes plastic or wooden pieces, nobody right now can compete with the Chinese. However, Chinese manufacturing, while cheap, may not be as big as you think. When WizKids needed a big order of dice for their Marvel's Dice Masters game, they pretty much took up all of China's dice-making capacity. There's also a six-month delay between placing an order in China and delivery to stores in the US. Delays, quality issues, and inventory headaches were all big topics. Those of you who are fans of Fantasy Flight's x-wing game probably know all about this.

Want to start an argument at GAMA? Ask people about Kickstarter. While the manufacturers and publishers are almost universally fans, retailers tend to blow hot or cold on it. Retailers can also be very thin-skinned when it comes to the topic of online shopping. Many feel like they're being taken advantage of by shoppers who will try a game out in a store and ask the store staff for advice, but then buy the game online.

Fate is a serious contender in RPGs, frequently showing up in the top 5 in terms of sales, but usually at number 5. That may not seem impressive, but keep in mind that it beats GURPS, Savage Worlds, Cubicle 7's Tolkien-based The One Ring, and Mutants & Masterminds. And sometimes Shadowrun. FF is also a serious contender, especially if you combine all their Warhammer 40k and Star Wars lines.

Collectable card games make up more than 60% of sales in terms of dollars spent by gamers. Blind packaging leads to more sales; make it collectable and you'll see an easily measurable jump in sales. Miniature games (mostly Games Workshop) make up roughly 20%. Board games, non-collectible dice and card games, and RPGs combined make up something just less than 20%. While everyone recognizes that RPGs gave birth to the modern hobby gamer market, it's now a sliver of a niche.

Again, do keep in mind that all of these are at best guesstimates, only apply to North America, and are measured in terms of sales in dollars; who's buying what rather than who's playing what. Raggi's almost completely invisible to this crowd and Mearls stated he thinks the numbers given for RPGs are too low.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Variations on a Theme by Mearls

Part of Mearls’ talk at GAMA was supposed to be about the future of RPGs. He ended up not having a lot of time to get into that (and I’d forgotten about it when I had an opportunity to speak with him, so I utterly failed to follow up on it). Still, he did touch briefly on where he saw the hobby going.

And that is toward simplicity in mechanics. He constantly mentioned Numenera and Fate. Numenera, I think, is the better example. It’s got a crazy, wahoo, Saturday-morning-cartoon meets ‘60s post-apocalyptic fiction meets Dying Earth meets Gamma World as illustrated by Deviant Art setting. It can get pretty dense in sections.

The mechanics, however, are bog-simple. Want to spend points from three stat-pools to boost your roll? Decide, roll, rinse, repeat.
There’s little in the way of tactical minutia to occupy the GM’s frontal lobes. Heck, if you’re playing the game RAW, the GM doesn’t touch the dice during combat. The GM’s principle job is to watch for good points for intrusions, giving the fight context, and creating fun at the table, not adjudicating bonuses, facing, or distance.

Now, this is old hat to the OSR crowd. We’ve been crowing about this for over seven years now. Grognardia launched on March 30, 2008. That’s the same year the Old School Primer was published. And, as some demonstrated to my previous post about what Mearls had to say, a common response ‘round these parts can be largely summed up thusly: “Duh!”

But it’s interesting how slowly but strongly this idea is percolating through the collective consciousness of RPGing. I’m not sure most folks even recognize it yet in D&D. They’re still expecting to find rules for every situation. If it’s not out yet, it’ll be released in a supplement, right?

Only Mearls has said, there won’t be that many supplements. So maybe a free-to-the-web pdf or something?

Or maybe not at all.

Mearls pointed out that, for many designers, D&D sets the tempo. It’s assumed that players have played D&D, so D&D is your baseline for expectations, especially in terms of complexity. People see the rule-for-everything of 3.x or the giant-wall-o’-combat-options from 4e and assume that people coming to their game bring expectations shaped by that sort of thing. And thus you get monstrosities like Shadowrun 5e.

This stuff we’ve been raving about for seven years now is starting to seep out, but kinda below the surface. Have people noticed what’s happened to D&D in 5e? Will it still be seen as a success next year when there aren’t three brand-new core books everyone wants? If it is, will they recognize the value of simplicity? Or are the punch-clock designers too set in their ways, and too deep in their bubble, to notice?

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any RPGs ripe for a new edition. When we start seeing new editions of games, it’ll be interesting to note if this move toward simplicity is found in them.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Mearls at GAMA

Mike Mearls gave a talk on RPG design at the GAMA trade show on Tuesday afternoon. Much of it was based on the playtest for 5e, so keep that in mind as I delve into the meat of his discussion.

He started by discussing the perception that RPGs are in decline. This was something of a shock to me and with the retailers I mentioned this to. While RPGs are not the tent pole products FF miniatures games or M:tG are, they don’t seem to be in decline to us. Nor to Mearls.

Granted, the man certainly doesn’t want to come to a show like GAMA and say something like his industry is fading fast. And he wasn’t willing to risk his job by releasing WotC sales numbers.

That said, he reported that internal numbers show peaks and valleys, but overall slow but steady growth. Organized play has grown with each edition of D&D since 3rd. He also said that the numbers they had showed a skew towards younger gamers. The assumption that the kids are playing MMOGs and old farts are playing pen-and-paper games is the opposite of reality. The average age of D&D players appears to be around 30 years of age; the average age of MMOGers is 35.

After that, he got into some details from the 5e play test. One thing he thinks the industry as a whole has gotten wrong is the desire for complexity. When 3e was released, lots of people just assumed their audience had played it and that was the benchmark for complexity. The result has been much denser games with rules for everything.

But players don’t appear to want that. He described watching people play 4e from behind a one-way mirror and just grinding his teeth at how everyone got the rules wrong. Yet, while the designers were squirming in frustration at everything going awry, the people playing were almost always having a great time. In short, the rules mattered much less than the group.

Even more, as they play-tested 5e, while the designers squirmed at the lack of rules to cover edge-cases, the players seemed thrilled with a simpler game. They found that players actively disliked complexity during combat. (Mearls assumes this is due in some part to the bad side of spotlight time; if everyone’s staring at you, waiting for you to take your turn, you really, really don’t want to screw up. The pressure to “get it right” makes more options less fun. Not entirely sure that’s what’s going on there, but I can see where Mearls is coming from.)

While complexity outside of combat is appreciated, Mearls firmly believes that adding to that complexity is a Red Queen’s race the publisher can only lose. Keeping something new constantly on store shelves may be great in the short run, but it leads to quicker burn-out. A smaller core-rules footprint, in short, is better for the longevity of the game.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

What's Up at WotC?

Joe Kushner of the blog Appendix N isn't happy with the support WotC has given 5e:

Wizards of the Coast just released something called "Unearthed Arcana". A few pages with no illustrations and no page design to them. It looks like something that fell off of some designer's desk that WoTC said, "Yeah, put that up online."

This is terrible. People, well, me, I expect some professionalism from WoTC. With all of the stock art they have, with all of the templates for designed books they have, with all of the trade dress they have, the best they could do is this? This half-baked mess? Well, you get what you pay for here.

Just how bad does Mr. Kushner think it is? “My opinion hasn't changed much from my earlier musings on the subject. Unless WoTC somehow surprises me, 5th edition will be the last print edition of the game.”

So what is going on? I think, I honestly do think, that WotC has no idea what they want to do with D&D.

Over at ENWorld, we have this quote from Mike Mearls on the non-publishing of the Adventurer's Handbook:

we've played things close to the vest is that it's a huge, open question on what support for the RPG should look like... we do a lot of stuff that may or may not end up as a released product. For instance, we now know that the high volume release schedule for 3e and 4e turned out to be bad for D&D. It wasn't too many settings that hurt TSR, but too many D&D books of any kind. lots of experiments ahead...

Ever get the feeling that, so far as Hasbro is concerned, WotC can do what they like with D&D just so long as they keep the IP alive and don't fumble the glorious gravy-train that is Magic: the Gathering?

Seriously, it very much feels like D&D is this tiny department whose directive from on-high is, “Don't go over-budget, but keep the name alive until somebody figures out how to make real money with this thing.”

Frankly, if that's true, it's very exciting.

The truth is, lots of supplements are bad for a game. Paizo recently launched a “core rules” version of their organized play. Why? Because, in spite of Paizo's slow-drip release schedule for rules, there's simply too much there for new players to master, and if you don't master it, you're going to get overshadowed and steamrollered by the veterans. Also, their original adventures crumble when you toss the new character options at them.

This sort of thing is bad for the an RPG. It inhibits growth, it alienates existing fans that don't want to always have to scramble to keep up with the latest-and-greatest, and, if you read between the lines, it looks a bit like some of the original classes may now be obsolete next to the new sexy hotness. That's not going to sit well with fans of the old classes.

The last thing Paizo wants to do is release a new edition of their game. Helping people keep playing 3.x D&D is how they got started. It's the very foundation of their success.

The last thing WotC wants is to be where Paizo is and be forced to shatter their fanbase by releasing 6e in four years.

So what to do?

This is pretty uncharted territory. Chaosium's really the only outfit I can think of off the top of my head to pull off a long-running RPG business without seriously mucking with their core rules. And they're not exactly know for a hot-and-heavy publishing schedule. Their big seller support product still appears to be “Horror on the Orient Express” which was first released in '91. And they've just kickstarted a new edition of the game.

Tori Bergquist thinks Green Ronin's go this thing down, able to keep a strong publication schedule rolling in spite of the current environment. Sure, they've got a robust schedule for 2015. But what's Green Ronin's flagship game? M&M? Only one dead-tree release is scheduled for 2015. Their Dragon Age RPG is getting what amounts to a new edition, replacing the boxed sets with a book, a revised DM's screen, and a dead-tree, expanded version of an old PDF adventure. You can maybe-sorta count the release of the Dragon Age mechanics in their own book with the setting stripped out as another book in that series, but that's kinda stretching it.

And the story is the same for their SoIaF RPG: one big adventure book, one rules supplement, and some PDFs. In short, while Green Ronin's publishing schedule may look robust, for each individual game it's a rulebook, an adventure that may or may not be in dead-tree form, and maybe some PDFs.

It sounds like Mearls wants to do something different. That sounds very cool to me. It also sounds like they're still figuring out exactly what that is. Here's hoping for something innovative and sock-blowing.