Monday, August 12, 2019

Wherefore Gorgeous Hardcovers?

Noisms asks, “How did the publishing model for RPG books, particularly OSR ones, become so skewed towards high-production values and hence high costs?”

For the larger industry, the answer lies in the fact that most professional RPG shops are really more book-publisher than game-maker. The glossy, full-color, door-stopping coffee table tome looks more like quality than the thin booklets or magazine-like specimens that dead-tree RPGs have alternatively looked like. You can get away with charging $50 for these coffee-table monsters; you couldn’t do that with thinner, “cheaper” books, forget PDFs. And, while the coffee-table tomes are more expensive to produce, they’re not that much more expensive to produce. On top of that, the industry is so comfortable with this sort of thing, both as publishers and consumers, that nobody questions the choice and everyone feels they know what they’re getting into. So if you want fancy downtown Seattle office space and medical insurance and full-time staff, this is your tentpole product. It may not be the only way to go, but it’s where the “smart” (meaning “cautious and not-rocking-the-boat”) money is going to go.

But what about the OSR? Well, therein lies a tale. Actually, many tales, which can still be read on the old blogs, including Noisms'.

Return with me now to those heady days of yesteryear. WotC had saved D&D from the sinking ship that was TSR but something just wasn’t right. The 15 minute workday, the assumptions of a combat-focused design erected on a foundation that really didn’t support it, the terribly demanding math of encounter design that resulted in a single fight taking up a whole evening of playtime. There was a vague sense of dissatisfaction. Something wasn’t right. It was probably ’03 or so when I first heard someone say they’d rather be playing B/X if they could. (And Ferrus Minx, if you’re out there, you were a man ahead of your time!)

But then 2008 happened, and with every sneak peek at what D&D 4e would be, someone new experienced a visceral recoil from what they were seeing. The to-the-foundations transformations of not just the rules, but the setting info, of how parties were built and what adventures were about was bad enough, and it was coupled with an insulting ad campaign that literally drove people to seek other options. It had been fun back then. It wasn’t fun now. What had changed? Could we recapture the magic?

Yes, as it turned out, we could. And, when you read those old blogs, there’s a sense of shock and wonder when the old games were dusted off and played, followed quite often by a sense of betrayal and anger. It wasn’t something TSR or WotC had purposefully set out to do. They’d simply tried to improve the game, but they’d done so based on a set of assumptions very much not shared by fans of those older games.

The OSR knew that the old games were better (for certain definitions of better, sure, but as far as the OSR was concerned, those were the definitions that mattered). And the OSR wouldn’t just bring those games back, they would do it better than the Industry was doing! The rules would be better, the adventures would be better, and yes, the production values would be better.

James Edward Raggi IV was one of those making the most noise on this front. He was vociferous in denying all the “conventional wisdom” of the time. And he was right to do so; there was a lot of BS floating around that everyone “knew” was true about the hobby. (And keep in mind, among these was that RPGs were a dying hobby that could never recover; eventually, it would all be cheap little pamphlets printed from home, or deluxe luxury products like Ptolus, following the same pattern as the slow decline of the model railroad hobby).

James was determined to outdo the big companies, especially WotC. And, to him, this meant tossing aside what was expected. His books would be works of art. When his printing of McKinney’s Carcosa came out, it was shocking! Here was a beautifully bound book. The embossed cover felt decadent in your hands. The endpapers were not blank, but had hex maps on them. The high-quality binding meant it stayed open to the page you turned it to, and it didn’t crack and loose pages (like a certain PHB and MM of mine have done, not naming names, *cough*5e*cough*). It wasn’t full-color, and yet it still felt luxurious compared to the industry standard at the time (or even today, to be honest). It was a book that was meant to be used at the table and look gorgeous on a shelf. This was a book that was special, and you could tell that just by looking at it.

And Raggi wasn’t alone in this. We were told you could only hope to break even with six-digit print runs; OSR publishers printed high-quality books in the handful-of-thousands. We were told that print magazines were passé so Fight On! and others were created. We were told that boxed sets were too expensive and had lead to the death of TSR, so we got the Swords & Wizardry White Box, two boxed sets from Raggi, and, finally, when WotC got into the act, their boxed set looked like this!

The books of the OSR were experiments in usability, shrines for what we considered to be important in our hobby, and shots across the bow of a staid industry wallowing towards obsolescence. Probably the ultimate expression of this was Raggi’s hard-cover Free RPG Day offerings, each chock full of new, never-before-seen material, when everyone else was sending meager quick-start rules or thin pamphlet adventures.

I think there’s still a lot to be done with the book. I think Kiel’s Blood in the Chocolate is an amazing start, but I think we can push the functionality of the hardcover even further. I also think that electronic formats have been neglected by the OSR, and there’s lots of room for amazing things in that arena.

As for Noisms, he appears to see the high prices for these books as a gauntlet to be taken up. I very much look forward to seeing what he does as a shot across the bow of the rest of the OSR.


AndreasDavour said...

I was a bit wary when I saw that post about high prices, but as it was squarely aimed at OSR/DIY producers to go forth and prove their worth I did not comment. But, now when you bring in "medical insurance and full-time staff" let's do a reality check. There are no big business in this business. Except for one or two producers of game books, there are no full-time staff. RPG books are mostly produced as a side line for tip money, even at the big established names.

Does that mean that rpg books should be cheaper? More expensive? That will show itself when someone publishes, and people buy... or not.

trollsmyth said...

AndreasDavour: When I mentioned the "larger industry" in that second paragraph, I meant the "big" publishers, folks like WotC, Green Ronin, Paizo, Steve Jackson Games, Cubicle 7, etc. They're all pretty firmly wedded to the coffee-table and splat-book formats, and show no signs of straying from those beyond the occasional "starter" boxed-set (except possibly Cubicle 7, who keep making noises about a big Moria boxed set). These folks might occasionally dip a toe in the OSR world (SJ Games re-releasing Car Wars and Man to Man), but nobody really thinks of them as OSR.

(Goodman Games makes an interesting edge-case here. While they have some of the trappings of the mainstream publishers, they are firmly rooted in the OSR and they publish in a wide variety of formats, from a more traditional coffee-table book for the DCC core book, to dead-tree magazines and fold-and-staple binding adventures, to massive, oversized hardbacks like their Judges Guild reprints. Their broad range gives you lots of options, even before you start talking about electronic offerings.)

For the OSR crowd, the attraction to high-production-value books was largely rooted in the need to surpass the mainstream. Starting in at least '08, the goals moved from keeping the old stuff alive to producing books that were better than the mainstream offerings in production values, aesthetics, and utility. The sewn bindings look good and last longer, sure, but they're also about laying flat at the table. The gorgeous end-papers don't just look nice, but give you a handy reference to find stuff quickly or give you the maps you'll be referencing most often. The repetition of map segments means less flipping-back-and-forth through the book. The smaller size means it takes up less real-estate behind the GM's screen.

For the most part, I approve of these goals, and watching the OSR publishers explore what a book can do has been fascinating. I'm also totally down to see some stuff printed in A5 format with folded maps and die-cut counters sold inside ziplock bags, more magazines like Fight On! or Tales From the Magician's Skull, and I absolutely want to see the same sort of creativity and innovation taken to the realm of ebooks.

AndreasDavour said...

I kind of knew you had a focus on the OSR side of things, but I feel I have to chime in every time someone mentions the "big" publishers, as even they really are not very big. Most people have a very conflated idea of how big game companies are, and how much people earn in the business. It's peanuts at most, and mostly a few guys in a garage, and I always want to mention that.

When it comes to smaller diy publishers, I think it's amazing what you can do these days. But, content is key. Always.

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