Back To Gaming Basics (or The Revolution Will Be Pamphletized)

I’m quoting two different posts below because they are part of the same greater conversation, even though the writers, to the best of my knowledge, do not know each other, nor are aware of the other’s post. Read the quotes at the very least, read the whole post to get an even better context, then come back.

The first quote is from Berin Kinsman of Dancing Lights Press, from his post The Man in the Arena:

“Tabletop roleplaying games are punk. […] Individual, do-it-yourself, unburdened by other peoples’ expectations. […] What attracted me to roleplaying […] was the economy of it. With as little as one book, some paper and pens, and a fist full of dice, my friends and I could build worlds. […] I have nothing against full-color, heavily illustrated, hardcover tomes. Best wishes to the people who run crowdfunding campaigns, laden with all sorts of fancy rewards, in order to finance the production of those things. It’s cool to watch attractive young people on streaming channels acting their hearts out. There’s nothing wrong with people who watch those shows, and collect those books, but never actually play. That stuff’s just not my jam, personally, is all I’m saying.”

The second quote is from Olivia Hill from a thread (collected) on Twitter:

“So game design. The more I’m exploring, the more I’m feeling that essays and pamphlets work better than books for the form. […] I want games small enough that people can write rebuttal games as diss tracks. I want games that can be torn up and made into mixtapes. I want games we can lend to our friends without worrying about ever getting them back. I want games we can give to strangers because they expressed interest and we know we can just replace them. I want games that we can give to new players as welcoming presents at LARPs. I want games we’re not afraid to write in the margins of. I want games we’re not afraid to bend at the spine and fold back to the page we want to reference. So yeah. Pamphlets. Designers of the world, unite! The only thing we have to lose, is, um, terrible shipping costs, unfair expectations, shitty wages, and games nobody has time to read!”

We’ve seen in the roleplaying game hobby/industry a number of changes that have thrown whatever the status quo is at the time for a loop as they introduce something new to the field. In the last fifteen or so years I can think of the OGL and the explosion of third-party publishers, the advent of small PDF releases—and really, of PDF publishing at all—non-8.5×11 books, Forge/indie/story games, and the Old School Renaissance/Revival movement, to name a few. Each expanded what tabletop roleplaying games were and could be to the delight and chargrin of people. I feel that the conversation to which the two quotes above belong represents a new change to come to the hobby/industry, a return to the roots of the hobby in terms of form, content, accessibility, and price.

Dungeons & Dragons was first published by TSR in 1974 as a brown, then white box with three digest-sized booklets inside at a cost of $10.00 (equivalent to $54 in 2018). Compare that to the cost of the three core books for D&D 5th Edition at $49.95 each (you can get them for cheaper online, but that doesn’t change the list price). In terms of page count, the original box presented a whole game in 112 combined pages, compared to 992 combined pages for D&D 5th Edition. Yes, I know the game has grown in complexity in the last forty years, I will not deny for a second that the new edition books are absolutely gorgeous, and I know from many friends whose opinion I trust implicitly that it is a great game, but the point remains that $150 and almost a thousand pages of rules for a game is absolutely ridiculous.

If that appeals to you, then awesome; we certainly don’t have a lack of roleplaying games with glossy, high-production-value books these days, so there’s lot to choose from. I say this honestly, without sarcasm. I’m not here to tell anyone that what they like is wrong. What I am saying is that it isn’t for me, and I’m not alone. I want games that are short in page count, low in price point, and rich in options. I want games that are less about the presentation and more about the content, games that I can read and be ready to run in a day, games that provide the scaffolding and let me build the world however I want it.

Booklets, pamphlets, zines, this is the format I want to return to, a format that’s economical, unpretentious, concentrated, agile, easy to produce. I want complete games in 40-80-page digest-sized or half-folded stapled pamphlets (there’s a reason I absolutely love Fate Accelerated Edition: 6×9″, 48 pages, $5). In her thread, Hill says, “If you cannot communicate your game’s essential concepts in 80 pages, your game doesn’t know what it wants to be.” I can’t help but agree. It’s time to distill, to let go of the padding, to boil it all down to the essentials, then let the audience build up from there.

There’s more to this conversation, and certainly more that I want to think and discuss about, so it’s a topic I will be returning to soon.

Photo: 1974 Dungeons and Dragons set, Xmas morning, London, UK by Cory Doctorow, CC BY-SA 2.0.

8 thoughts on “Back To Gaming Basics (or The Revolution Will Be Pamphletized)

  1. What was interesting to me, and convinces me even more that TTRPG need to be punk, was the backlash to Olivia’s thread. On one side was the argument for instant gratification, based on her idea of making VtM5 a pamphlet and releasing a clan per month; “no one will want to wait” amounts to “I am impatient”. On the other side I saw arguments that trickling expansions out rather than doing a megabook was a cash grab. Yeah, because there aren’t ANY games that start with one megabook and then keep adding new megabooks on a regular schedule. Of course, there were also people who dismissed anything she said because she’s a woman, and because they hate the type of games she likes.

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    1. I didn’t check the follow-up comments on Twitter so I missed this. I first saw her post on G+ and over there the reactions were more in agreement. I’ll take a look, although I’m not surprised at all at the backlash, sadly.

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  2. I agree with this.

    One of the first things I fought was how Rogue Games’ games look. 6×9, softcover, b&w, not color, and not slick art for many equates to not a professional game. It was a uphill climb with retailers and fans because of this. I stuck to my guns.

    I was not the only one who went to this format. I will not be the last. I embrace this format for the simple fact that I create games not coffee table books. I am not trying to appeal to the gamers who does not want to play but read. When talking to these “gamers” all there comments are the same: “I will not consider a game unless it is full color, 8.5×11. and printed on good paper. Oh, I want a full index and full cross referencing. Oh, and a pony.”

    Ok, not a pony, but the rest is what I get.

    When I explain that the books are designed to be used at the table, they say they don’t play, they just read. These are not the fans I want.

    This is wandering.

    Anyway, I’ve reached the point where I don’t care any more. I put a sign up over my desk that reads simply: “Fuck the non-gamer reader & collector.”

    I have been happy ever since.

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    1. I love that I can hear you in my mind saying all this.
      I’ve no problem with the reader collectors; their fun, have at it. It isn’t what I want to consume or produce, though, and if whatever I do doesn’t make a blip in that audience’s radar it’ll be no skin off my butt. I want to make and buy/play games made for playing, that respond to the needs and realities of the table and of the economy. Big glossy $50+ books are nice to look at but exactly the opposite of what I’m talking about. And there’s certainly enough of a gamer audience that we can all do our thing without bothering anyone else. So it’s time to do it.

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