Monday, March 21, 2016

Diminishing Returns

This morning I've been spending my time drinking coffee and reading over the Taxidermic Owlbear's massive list of D&D retroclones and D&D-inspired games. It is, of course, incomplete, failing to list many pre-2000 fantasy heartbreakers and certain D&D-inspired games that borrow heavily from the original, "master game" (games like Palladium, WFRP, T&T, or Empire of the Petal Throne). But that's okay...T.O. has done a great service by providing a list of recent games from the latest "D&D Renaissance," giving interested folks (like myself) a lot of material to chew over.

Which is what I've been doing this morning...downloading and reading and "checking stuff out." There's a lot available for checking.

And in light of all this material...some of it "meh," some of it good, some of it much more I, personally need to do. How much more I need to contribute.

Well, actually "need" is the wrong word. I should be saying contributions to gaming have been fairly insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

[which is fine, by the way. It's good to have a wide range of voices contributing to any particular art, even if only a handful are truly innovating and "pushing" the art. Consider what music or film or painting would be with LESS artists. A lot less interesting, is what]

Since it is very difficult to make any kind of living wage in game work (let alone an income capable of helping support my family), I'm left considering the only real value to game writing and design is in what matters to me personally. What games do I want to play?

Not: what are some innovative rules? Not: what are some niche subjects or settings that have gone unexplored? Not: what are some ways to make games more diverse and/or inclusive for folks who have felt (traditionally) excluded? And certainly not: what are some games (or supplements) that I think will make me a buck? Because the amount of profit I make compared to the time put into any venture is so small as to preclude justification.

I think I might be wanting to get of "the biz."

I'm realizing (today) how both gaming and design are both incredibly personal. To many, the reaction to that statement is probably, "duh, yeah," but I'm talking about internalizing my understanding, not just knowing something intellectually. The creative process, whereby which we create any form of art (static, performance, gaming, whatever) always involves being channeled through an individual (or multiple individuals if we're talking about a shared or group activity). But for an activity that requires a continual "going back to the well" for on-going participation, the personal aspect is only emphasized.

To put it another way: if I write a novel, the book is going to be colored by perceptions, my vocabulary, my feelings on theme, and my particular use of grammar. The art (book) that is created is an expression of myself, but once created it is "out there" in the world, unchanging. Same with a film, a piece of theater, a culinary recipe, or even some types of game: board, card, strategy, war, computer, etc.

But for a role-playing game, that requires so much input from the participants' (players and GMs) own imagination...just make the game function! personal color is grossly overshadowed by the needs and desires of the people playing the game. My imagination is not going to be a tappable resource for the people who are playing my game...they have only their own imaginations to rely on when the text of the game fails to provide answers. As it must inevitably...RPGs don't script adventures like Choose Your Own Adventure books.

It matters little what my intention is with regard to game design, because intention is quickly discarded in favor of the needs of play.

I look at some of the great world settings folks have created in direct conjunction with their "rule hacks," things like Kyrinn's Urutsk, Gus L's Fallen Empires, Alexis's 17th century Earth, Barker's EPT...heck, even Chris Hogan's Small But Vicious that have evolved away from their D&D roots even as their setting and world has evolved to meet the personal needs of their creators. I look at these and I think, what the heck am I doing?

What am I doing?

My own games have been sloppy. Not in terms of execution, perhaps, but in the case of overall consistency of theme and setting. I haven't created and run a true "fantasy setting" for decades. I've just run games...sometimes with consistent characters and/or consistent rules, sure. But...


I look at my current "project list." I wrote this up to keep track of all the various half-baked (and half-written) ideas I currently have sitting on my hard drive. It's not even totally up-to-date (well, it's kind of, but I'm sure it's missing a thing or two). There are 27 working titles on it. 27! Those are projects in various states of repair. One or two are nothing more than titles and a couple hastily sketched notes! Others have scores of writing attached to them. And this isn't even counting one page, micro games I've written that could be developed further. That I'd like to develop further.

Twenty-seven. Only four or five of which have seen ANY play-testing. Just what am I doing?

What I should be doing is working on something that means something to me. Whether a system or setting (or both), that's what I should be developing...something that I want to play. No, scratch that (my designs are often centered on games that I'd like to play)...what I need to be working on is something I want to run. Because running games is what I do.

Running games. I've run a lot of games over the years. Most had some "fun" element to 'em. Many had problematic bits...and "tweaking" doesn't always fix that.

[sometimes the most problematic part of a game is that it doesn't appeal to the players. This is understandable; not every game appeals to every person. Personally, I hate Toon with a passion, and disliked much of the original Changeling, and while I really enjoy the themes and settings of Savage Worlds and HEX, their game systems leave me cold...or, worse, disinterested]

If I only focused on games I enjoyed running, or concepts that I wanted to run, my list of projects would dwindle significantly. Like, probably to...let me count...three? Maybe four. Maybe. Maybe less. Yeah, less.


I've been feeling angsty this week...I don't know why. Really, I don't. Maybe because I've been writing and writing and writing and am not loving what I'm doing. Or I'm looking at it and thinking, who will love this besides me? Or I'm rereading it and thinking, this is good but I don't think I'd ever want to run it myself. Or I'm thinking...well, any number of "stuffs." I said.

UGH. This post is going nowhere. I am very glad I'll be winging my way to Mexico in a couple days for a short's obvious I need one.


  1. You know a project I'd love to see done that might really appeal to your mechanics focus and rules archeology?

    Gold Box. No wait, hear me out - seriously. I mean it. Don't walk away. I swear it's not a bad idea.

    Yeah something more based on Journey to the West then The Twelve Great Olympians. Low level demi-god hijinx. An HP as Power system (maybe with SDC like god v. normal damage) for casting spells and abilities from a specific tree. Something still D20 and D&D but where the party can be a gang of random reformed demons, folk deities and newly martyred saint trying to work their way up the heavenly bureaucracy by dealing with mostly earthly problems.

    1. : )

      You are a funny, funny man. I've actually done some work in the past with both the "gold box" and the later Wrath of the Immortals (I penned a number of essays on the Olympian gods over at Vault of Pandius...though that was years ago).

      Gold was weird in a lot of ways. I have a copy back in Seattle. Maybe I'll pop it out next time I'm back home.

    2. Oh yeah Gold Box is weird, I want to see someone do it by scaling non-immortals down, rather then the scaling immortals up that TSR tried. Seems the only logical way - otherwise one ends up with a mess I suspect, a high level campaign is already a mess after all.

      I did like the idea of divine domains offering a set of powers (almost class like - but maybe a bit more versatile)that is found in the goldbox, but in general it's unduly complex if I remember right.

    3. Well, when your start talking about "4th dimensional entities," shit tends to get weird.
      ; )