A collection has to start somewhere. Here’s my Frankenstein collection so far ..
“Frankenstein“; Mary Shelley (1818 edition)
I’ve been reading this great book ..
.. and it came to me as a surprise that I don’t think I’ve ever read a detective story before.
The book is a short story anthology called “The Book of Cthulhu II” edited by Ross Lockhart and published by Night Shade Books. The particular short story I was reading was “The Big Fish” by Kim Newman. In it a detective uncovers a Cthulhu cult in LA harbour during the days following the attack at Pearl Harbour. It’s a great example of a short story in that it tells the tale of a single character, in this case a detective, caught up in a single plot.
It’s a great story and, I think, a great way to get a handle on what investigation could be like within a Cthulhu-based roleplaying games – or perhaps any investigation game for that matter. As I read the story I kept thinking how it could easily be made into an rpg adventure.
A Thing Robin Law’s Always Says is that the first adventure published for a new roleplaying game can have a lasting effect on the way it is played thereafter. I think the takeaway was that publishers should be careful to make that first adventure the best it can be and to make sure it explores the types of activities that the game supports well.
Having read “The Big Fish” I think a short story can also be a great way an rpg publisher can influence the way their products can be played. A series of great short stories can quickly showcase the range of possible scenarios the game can support and be especially important for people like me who have had little experience in say the investigative or horror genre.
Releasing a few well written and entertaining short stories along side the games would allow players a quick “IN” to the core activities of the games.
I’ve just finished reading these five trades.
They collect the 40 issue Gotham Central run of Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka, and Michael Lark for DC comics that ran from 2003 to 2006. Apparently it never sold well as monthly issues but was kept around because the trades did well. It also received several awards.
And the stories are great. They are police procedural stories set in the superhero world of Gotham City focusing on the members of the Major Crimes Unit of the Gotham City Police Department. They are in fact the first police procedural stories I’ve ever read and I really liked them. I’m glad DC stuck with them even while the comic sales were not that great. They are a great way to get a different view of the superhero universe.
It makes me wonder why DC aren’t developing these types of books more with an aim to expand their market. I think a new Gotham City Police Department comic paired with a Daily Planet comic would be a great angle on the Batman and Superman families of books and attract new readers who may not be initially interested in superhero comics. I think it’s an untapped market that DC should exploit.
Each book would act as gateway comics for those readers into the world of Batman’s Gotham and Superman’s Metropolis.
I’m looking again at rpg publishers’ business models as they really interest me and make me wonder how they could change with the change in distribution that the internet brings.
In episode 87 of the “Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff” podcast, Ken and Robin answered a question of mine and explained some assumptions roleplaying game publishers have had up until now regarding the typical path to roleplaying.
The bigger publishers have always assumed that most players learn roleplaying not directly from their products but instead from people who already know how to play. Additionally, gamestores have offered some guidance to new players, explaining what products to buy and perhaps giving some roleplaying fundamentals and hooking people up with existing game groups in the area. For the second tier publishers, the assumption has been that they were writing their games for people who had already figured out what roleplaying is from playing the games of the larger publishers.
So here are two business models, neither of which are set up to specifically court new players and expand their markets. They each have bottlenecks to growth – and publishers have no control over the quality of those bottlenecks.
There’s been a group of potential customers that these business models have up till now left untapped.
These are the people who for various reasons prefer not to join existing gaming groups but who instead would rather start up their own group drawn from people they already know. For these people the bar to entry into roleplaying up till now has been too high. Learning the game cold, from existing gaming products for most people is too difficult and there have never been products written exclusively for first time players.
Roleplayings’ loss has been boardgames’ gain I guess.
But now, the internet allows publishers, regardless of size, to advertise their products directly at this untapped market. And, from the other direction, potential players are able to hunt out and find publishers and their games. Therefore I think publishers need to expand their thinking about who they see as potential customers and, most importantly, to design some of their products with this new market in mind. They need to cater to people who have never played roleplaying games before by producing a range of products that are entry points to the entire roleplaying hobby. These products need to be written specifically for new players and shouldn’t try to also appeal to experienced players – each group has different needs.
What might a beginners gaming product aimed EXCLUSIVELY at new players be like?
The core of the product must be a tightly scripted adventure – It is through this adventure that new players and GM’s will learn the game as they play it. Unlike typical adventures written for experienced players, it should be tightly scripted. Players will need to accept certain narrative constraints to their play so that they can experience all the typical core activities of the game and learn the rules surrounding them. For this to happen the adventure will have to railroad players to an extent that would make experienced players baulk. As long as the reason is clearly explained to new players I don’t think this will be anything near the issue it would be for experienced players. Finally, this adventure may be the first roleplaying game the players will ever engage in so, above all it should be a fun experience, showcasing the best of the game written by the best writers. This should be a showcase product.
The adventure must come with a large amount of pre-generated characters – instead of the 4-6 pre-gens most starter games usually have, there should instead be at least 20 so that players will be able to find at least one character they can identify with. Mechanically these pre-gens should not be too different as they need to fit well with the adventure, but they do need to offer as large a range of gender and ethnic groups so as to appeal to as much of the market as possible. Additionally, using pre-gens will avoid having to spend time teaching the players about character creation, meaning the they can start playing the game much faster. Scope for making characters should be delayed for later game products. For experienced gamers the idea of being able to customise their own characters is at the core of the game, but for the new player it is a complication that should be delayed until later, once the fundamentals of the game are established.
The adventure must contain teaching elements – the adventure must act as Robin Law’s “Patient Zero” for the players and GM, taking them through the nuts and bolts of roleplaying while making no assumptions to any prior knowledge. As the play through the adventure it should explain all the roleplaying concepts needed at the time – nothing should be considered too basic to be mentioned. I’m sure Robin Law’s upcoming guide to roleplaying will fit nicely in here as long as it is integrated into the adventure itself.
It must contain narrative examples of the types of stories the game supports – an example of this would be a well written short story featuring characters acting out the core activities the game supports. Such stories can bring all the players quickly up to speed on the types of activities their characters can get up to in the game. But this is not to be confused with a settings book, instead it is an engaging narrative that would act as both a play-example and a springboard to the adventure. (In a future post I’ll try and expand on this in relation to a short story in the Cthulhu anthology “The Book of Cthulhu II”).
It must contain it’s own marketing – as this may be the first point of contact the customer has with the publishers product range it must inform them of how the product fits within the range as well as informing them on their next step. In the case of the new player, the next step would be another, more advanced adventure. I don’t mean advanced in level, but advanced in scope of play – more gaming concepts and activities can be introduced as well as an increase in narrative scope. Eventually players will be ready for products that give guidance for character creation and development of their own adventures – but only once they have a good preliminary grounding in roleplaying.
The one thing it SHOULD NOT contain is a book of rules – I think the traditional rule book is the least helpful part of any starter set for new players. While traditional rulebooks may arguably do a reasonable job of explaining the mechanics of the game, they rarely teach anything about actual roleplaying. This starting product should only lightly touch game mechanics and instead should explore and explain roleplaying while players are playing the game – hence the focus on the adventure as the main learning tool. Any game mechanics that need to be taught can be taught as they come up in the game.
Above all, every part of this beginners product must show the game off at it’s very best. This may be the one chance for the publisher to catch and keep a player so it’s essential that publishers make a big investment here as these products need to act as the flagship that captures new players – not a secondary product or afterthought.
I “asked-Ken-and-Robin” and, in episode 87 of the “Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff” podcast, they answered. Here’s my question:
“Why aren’t rulebooks organised for newcomers to roleplaying? If you haven’t played before, the standard structure with character creation first and GM advice way in the back, doesn’t help to learn how.”
It was interesting to hear their comments regarding common assumptions in the industry to do with the path to roleplaying – how players are brought into the game:
Robin said that as a whole, the industry assumption has always been that players usually learn roleplaying from someone else – that person being the one person in the area who had managed somehow to work out how to do it from reading the rulebook/s.
“You would learn from the “patient-zero” of roleplaying games.”
The other path was through local gamestores where the staff would point potential players in the right direction, offer some advice on how to play and perhaps direct them to a bulletin board of gaming groups looking for players in the area.
So, for the publishers, if it was true that learning to play mostly happened via some kind of neighbourhood uber-nerd, staff at the local gamestore or by joining a current gaming group, there was little reason to include the necessary 10-20,000 word explanation of how to play the game in any of the rulebooks. The books could be better filled with more mechanics or more setting information.
I can’t help thinking there’s some kind of mad circular reasoning going on here. There’s no point in making our rulebooks more comprehensible as most people learn the game from the small amount of people who manage to understand the rulebooks as they are. And if any player can’t find someone to teach them the rules, there’s always the staff at the local gamestore to help.
Regardless of them being true or not, neither assumption seems a sensible business model. Each avenue to gaming rests on factors outside the control of the publisher – the finite resources of the helpful gamestore owner and the friendly neighbourhood uber-nerd.
But of course the fact that the hobby is stall around is a testament that these business practices have worked. I do wonder how much bigger the hobby would have got if some effort had been made to write a decent “how-to” section in their books – to rely on the product itself to spread the game.
Next time: Where do Ken and Robin think this leaves the industry now?
The retro design of the 2011 D&D Starter Set .. what was that all about?
The Starter Set tried to court two markets – the new player, and the experienced or lapsed player of previous editions.
And that was a mistake. Here’s the Starter Set surrounded by the Essentials Line of products that were released around the same time.
I’ve talked about my thoughts on the look of a new Starter Set here, concluding that what it must do is stand out from the rest of the range, declaring itself the starting product for new players. The 2011 Set certainly does stand out – but what’s with the retro style? Why doesn’t it look like the other products?
From what I can gather the Starter Set had two purposes. One was, as you’d expect, to be the starting point for new players to the game. From there, new players are advised that the next step was to buy the new D&D Essentials products.
“When you’re ready for more adventure look for the other D&D Essentials products.”
The second purpose of the Starter Set was to encourage lapsed players and players using older editions to move on to the 4th edition rules. Wizards of the Coast spent a lot of time emphasising the similarity of the starter set to starter products from back in the day. The reason for the retro look was to remind older player of previous starter boxes – to appeal to their nostalgia. After watching unboxing and review videos of the Starter Set by experienced players, I get the feeling that for them, the contents of the box was a disappointment, and obviously so. There was nothing in the box for them, that couldn’t be found in the Essentials line proper. If the product did in anyway resemble the kinds of products that had first introduced them to D&D in the past, this kind of product was not what they needed today.
It seems obvious that a product aimed to bring new players into roleplaying needs to be very different to one aimed towards updating experienced players on a new rules set. The 2011 Starter Set appealed to one group on the outside and another on the inside. I’d love to know the thinking behind the decision to bring these two different ideas together in one product. If I’m being cynical, was it simply a way to boost the sales of the product – by selling experienced players a product they didn’t need? Does this show a lack of commitment to people wanting to start playing the game independent of existing game groups? Has D&D ever produced a satisfactory product for new players?
I don’t know. Certainly, if you listen to D&D and other roleplaying podcasts long enough, you will hear variations on the same anecdote:
“My introduction to D&D was the [insert old product name] book. I didn’t really understand what it was on about and I’m sure we never really played exactly by the rules ..”
For potential new players the initial effect of the look of the 2011 box can have only been one of confusion – why is this old looking product sitting among the current line?
A person coming cold to any product line, especially one with such a vast array of products from many editions as D&D, needs to be completely certain what is the latest edition. Even to assume that a new customer knows that there are different editions to the game is a mistake as is relying on the staff of game stores to point people in the right direction.
So any future starter product needs to be:
Exclusively focused on one group only – the new player – not experienced players coming from previous editions.
Assume the customer has the absolute minimum of knowledge of the game and product range and rely on it’s own packaging to explain where it sits within that range.
Where should the Starter Set position itself?
The core of D&D Next should obviously be the Players Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual (packaged in whatever form D&D choose). But it must be realised that these products are only useful for experienced players or new players joining an already experienced group. For the new player, or new group, these products are not adequate in themselves – in fact I’d say that they are not suitable at all and buying them with the aim of learning how to roleplay is a waste of money. The Starter Set should position itself as the essential first item to buy for these people – it should be their “introduction to roleplaying * “.
Perhaps a renaming is needed to emphasise this. Instead of calling it a “Starter Set” it should be called “THE BEGINNERS BOX”. The “Starter Set” is not the starting point for ALL players, but it should be the place where roleplaying begins.
* Speaking of which, roleplaying designer Robin D Laws who co-hosts the podcast Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff, was spurred into action by a question I sent him and Ken asking why roleplaying rulebooks emphasise Character Creation over the techniques of roleplaying. Here’s the episode link. He’s now begun writing an introduction to roleplaying for the rpg publisher Pelgraine Press. He says that it will feature Pelgraine products as examples obviously but that it will be able to be licensed by other publishers for inclusion in their products.
It’s such a shame that it’s too late for it’s inclusion in the D&D Next Starter Set due out in July. This is exactly what is needed in any Starter Set – or Beginners Box!
Since listening to a recent episode of the NPC Cast podcast I’ve started wondering if roleplayers use the word “game” slightly differently from the rest of us when discussing rpg products. In an episode devoted to Fate Core, NPC-del expressed surprise and delight that Evil Hat were selling their Fate Accelerated product for $5.
“That’s a whole game for $5″.
I love the NPC Cast (they have the only actual plays I’m able to stand listening to), and I’m not trying to have a go at Del, it’s just that the words “whole game” jumped out at me and whacked me on the head. I’ve read the Fate Accelerated book, it’s great, but I hadn’t thought of it as a “game”.
I’d describe it as the rulebook to a game, or perhaps a tool-box for making a game.
This reminds me of my first attempt to play a roleplaying game back in the day … and my first rpg surprise.
On opening the Runequest box and going through the various booklets we finally realised that it was up to us to “make” the game, that is, one of us was going to have to invent an adventure before we could start playing. DM’s writing adventures is such an expected part of roleplaying that I wonder if roleplayers can understand just how weird a thing that seems to outsiders. I’ve been trying to think of any other games where such a thing is asked of the players and I can’t come up with one.
And finally there’s this quote from the 2011 D&D Starter Set Player’s Book:
“You can find a number of ready-to-play adventures, both in print and online, that will provide hours of gaming fun for you group. But part of what makes the D&D Fantasy Roleplaying Game special is that you can build your own adventures, tailoring them to the players and their specific characters.”
A strange down-playing of published adventures against DM written adventures – particularly in a product aimed at beginners.
All of the above is by way of pointing out the importance of the published adventure for new groups of players and say, for those people at least, if it’s anywhere, “the game” is in these adventure books.
And I’d like to suggest to roleplaying rule-book writers that they add a statement like those other hobby products have such as “Some assembly required”, or “Batteries not included” so as to manage beginners expectations.
Perhaps something like: “Beginners are advised to buy one of our Published Adventures to really get anything out of this rule book”.