Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Backers in the Dark

My POD of Blades in the Dark arrived! I finally got around to redeeming the at-cost code sent out to backers (though to be fair it was a year late by the time it was sent, so my interest had waned a fair bit). It’s a great POD — nothing fancy, just right for getting dog-eared and creased at the table.

I will now talk about my subjective views on the BitD Kickstarter campaign.

A lot of people are up in arms about the BitD stretch goals. You can read about them here and here and here. Tl;dr:

  1. Some of the goals were promised as favours to Harper, unpaid, yet appeared against monetary stretch goals — but the KS funding levels were simply irrelevant because those goals weren’t being funded by the cash
  2. Swapping favours with each other’s KS is what was done “back in the day” between indie RPG authors
  3. Harper hasn’t been very communicative about the stretch goals until now
  4. The stretch goals are late… but as some people have said the timing for these should really be from when the game was finished, rather than when the campaign started
  5. There’s some debate as to whether the stretch goals are a deliverable, or just an added complementary perk (like airline food)

My thoughts are (1) why shouldn’t Harper monetise return favours for work he’s done for other authors, (2) there’s no reason swapping favours shouldn’t be fine these days either as long as Harper remains accountable, (3) maybe annoying but I stopped reading the comments a year ago anyway, (4) yeah, okay… (5) no idea.

I have no doubt that Harper intends to eventually make good, the contributors are quite happy to be doing an unpaid return favour.

I also think that even though BitD has been way off the original delivery estimate (Nov 2015) it’s also been really great value for money with 8 major releases before the final PDF. I ran using version 4 or 5 and it was already excellent. I would like to see the stretch goals realised (especially Jhereg) but I can wait.

But here’s the interesting thing. Half of the focus on the KS is the amount of money pledged — nearly $180k. This has lead to all kinds of comments re: whether or not people should be paid since this is clearly a successful commercial venture. At the same time the other half is around the handshake agreement, quid-pro-quo, barter system that exists between indie designers. I see zero conflict between these two areas but it’s obvious why it’s a source of confusion and tension.

And here’s the other thing: I anticipated this would be the case last year when the partnership with Evil Hat was announced. It was an obvious move from indie into corporate territory (and yes, Evil Hat is a corporate entity — at least, no less of a corporate entity than Chaosium or Pelgrane or other mainstream houses). That in itself didn’t bother me, it’s a natural progression for such a wildly successful campaign and the BitD brand.


The thing that did tick me off at the time was the upselling of the hardcover. From Feb 2017:

(Sean Nittner, with whom I interacted with more recently here)

Unfortunately I don’t have the “discounted” cost of the printed hardcover, but I do remember shipping costs — $25 dollars to UK. The book itself was probably around the same price. I also got the option to pay for the special edition instead for something like $75 total. Now for the record my POD copy cost me less that £10 delivered. It’s not nearly as nice, but it’s between a third and a fifth of the HC cost.

I’m cool with people trying to upsell and make money. At the same time I resent being upsold when I’ve mentally already set my price, especially with the limited time offer, act now approach.

And the thing is, this is an inevitability where indie designers are brought into contact with corporate entities — KS, Evil Hat, whoever — who will upsell to and exploit their fanbase for every last dollar. That’s not a criticism, even though it sounds like it. It’s exactly what corporations do and should be expected to do. The only difference is the brand and quantity of lubricant they use.

Friday, 7 October 2016

PDFs (Three Different Ones)

Here are three different examples of a RPG digital product:

1. The Legacy PDF


The Legacy PDF here is Weather the Cuckoo Likes for Over the Edge. Hard copies can be had for 20 quid or less if you’re lucky, but if you’re not the digital revoloution is a godsend for the RPG collector.

As you’d expect Weather the Cuckoo Likes is a compromise in PDF form. It was designed for the standard magazine print size (US legal? Foolscap?) so it’s not great for reading on a modern 16:9 screen smaller than 24 inches, let alone a modern tablet. There’s no hyperlinked table of contents. But it’s a black-on-white interior and should be fairly cheap to print (under 2 dollars) on a monochrome laser printer. It’s also not a crazy file size and it’s not a fuzzy scan of a physical book like some products (for example Engel) so the text is searchable.

The value proposition of an otherwise OOP book like Weather The Cuckoo Likes is the physical alternative will be hard or expensive to find so realistically it’s this or nothing; and with digital distribution I can get it right now. Unlike a modern PDF I don’t expect it to be supported with new errata since it’s 20 years old, so you take a chance.

2. The Freebie PDF


Trail of Cthulhu isn’t free, of course — but it’s a typical example of bundling the PDF with a physical product. You can buy the PDF only at half the price of the print+PDF bundle, but it’s obvious that the PDF is a free incentive for the full-price print copy.

This is possible when the cost to Pelgrane of bundling the PDF is probably low. Aside from a hyperlinked ToC the PDF doesn’t have any advantages of a modern digital file but it has all the disadvantages of the Legacy PDF (i.e. too big for comfortable screen reading). But on top of that it’s actually worse than the legacy file for printing out, because it’s not just B&W — like a lot of modern games it’s a full bleed, full colour document with a sort of grubby sepia background behind black text. Looks nice but it will muller your toner cartridge.

The annoying thing is of all my Trail of Cthulhu files, only Bookhounds of London has a printer friendly version with a white background. Was that easy to do? I have no idea, but if it was just a matter of turning off the background layer in the source file, then creating a printer friendly copy should add value for low effort.

I honestly wonder if this is a blind spot for publishers. Feng Shui 2 is a gorgeous PDF and at the same time completely useless (to me), because it’s edge to edge colour, white text on black backgrounds, etc. Try to print that out and your printer might not survive. Would a monochrome, white background version for printing have been hard? Maybe. But it’s clear FS2 was always intended to be a physical product, and it’s more likely Atlas just didn’t consider how a print-friendly version could be a value proposition.

This is the problem, I think: mainstream publishers are still focused on physical books, and digital products will always be second string offerings. They’re a value proposition as a free extra, which doesn’t incentivise any effort making the digital products any “better”. The result is a crippled product that ensures the print version from the supplier, dead trees shipped around the world, remains the most practical way to read the game.

3. The epub

My go-to example of a good RPG on epub/mobi is Sine Nomine’s Silent Legions, but there’s a more obvious and mainstream example:


Evil Hat have form for producing digest-sized, e-reader friendly RPGs going back to Spirit of the Century and Don’t Rest Your Head.

I wish I liked FATE Core more. As a digital product it’s really good, portable and device-aware.

Let’s clarify the value of e-readers. What they are not good for is use at the table — too slow and small to flip between bookmarks, and they render tables badly.

What they excel at — not least because with adjustable font size and e-ink they’re easy on they eye — is in the first read-through. I have a terrible habit of not reading my RPG books cover to cover on the first pass, and a Kindle version helps a lot.

Are they better than the physical book for the first read? Supposedly physical books make it easier for the reader to recall the sequence of plot events, and this may be something to do with the “haptic and tactile feedback” of books vs e-readers, where the point at which you absorbed certain content is connected to how the book feels at that time.

On the other hand a Kindle is without peer for reading one-handed while wrangling an infant, and I wouldn’t be without mine.

(here’s an interesting, not at all black-and-white article about comprehension and learning from electronic devices vs. physical books)

Value for Money

You can probably tell that I don’t think the mainstream PDF offerings are good value for money. But that’s OK, because I didn’t pay anything near “full price” for them — they all came free with print, or in Bundles of Holding.

Interestingly the RPG pdf market seems to allow for a lot of consumer price setting, with PDF prices anything from “full whack” (say 15 to 25 dollars) to “free” (free with hardcopy, PWYW). Customers who want it now will pay up the cover price, and those on the fence will wait for the next sale or Bundle of Holding.

Talking about value is difficult. I can say “Feng Shui 2’s PDF is terrible” and it’s a meaningless statement (and could start a fight). It’s subjective. On the other hand “Feng Shui 2 is a poor reading experience compared to FATE Core” can be objectively reasoned; at that point the consumer can decide whether the fact that they want to play Feng Shui 2 more than FATE Core outweighs the inconvenience. These are some value markers I could use:

  1. Is this thing free or low cost, or is it full price?
  2. Can I read it on my tablet, kindle or phone, or do I need the biggest screen possible?
  3. How flexible are my printing options?
  4. How much do I want to own and play the system?
  5. Are there other benefits, like supporting the kickstarter or donating to charity?

Honourable and Dishonourable Mentions

Here’s a short list of other games I like for their approach to digital distribution:

  • Nova Praxis for its “enhanced” (tablet friendly) PDF
  • Urban Shadows for being on epub and mobi
  • Nobilis 3rd Edition has Kindle-ready versions
  • Lamentations of the Flame Princess uses a digest format, which is probably a happy coincidence but I find it way better for tablet reading
  • Blades in the Dark’s landscape format for laptop reading, and printer-friendly releases
  • Apocalypse World’s approach to materials at the table, a great approach to play aids, no need to have the complete rulebook printed out (and digest format, so more-or-less tablet-friendly)
  • Durance includes an epub version (that you can probably play to in a pinch)

As far as I can see, most of the innovation in the digital domain is coming from the independants. That should surprise no-one given that it’s driven by a credo of self-publishing and digital distribution.

And for the record, here’s a number of mainstream PDF products I own that are stuck in the 90s, format-wise:

  • Wild Talents (and Monsters and Other Childish Things)
  • Runequest 6 (a.k.a. Mythras)
  • Shadows of Esteren
  • Lords of Gossamer and Shadow
  • Trail of Cthulhu
  • Hillfolk
  • Feng Shui 2

Don’t get me wrong, these are all great games full of quality writing; and in many cases the PDF looks great right up to the point where you start reading. If you can get over the compromised reading experience, go for it.

(well, maybe not Wild Talents)

Monday, 5 September 2016


James Spahn moans about being respected as a GM here. It boils down to

  • People didn’t turn up on time
  • People didn’t bother to learn the rules, after I put effort into making it easier for them to do so
  • People came with their preconceived notions about the game that weren’t aligned with everyone else’s
  • People didn’t say thanks

We don’t know whether “people” is more than one person, a repeat offender, or just a generic “that bloke” indicating a type of ingrate who turns up from time to time at your table. And I think we can all sympathise with (a) how awful these people are and (b) the need to vent. The question is, what comes after the venting?

If it’s nothing, if you just want to let off steam but otherwise have no desire to effect change well, that’s your prerogative — but this shit will happen again, guaranteed. Whatever the social circumstances that led up to this point it boils down to one fact: the person you’re cross with does not value the thing you value as much as you do. Above all it’s a failure to empathise, which may be benign or malicious. It’s 100% repeatable, because most people you meet will fail to share your values in some way or another.

You may want to do something about it. What you do can be either passive or active. Passive actions might include writing a blog post and hoping your offender reads it and has enough (a) intelligence to realise you mean them and (b) enough empathy to care. Active steps are confrontational, and could be empathetic appeals (“when you do this, I feel…”) or transactional (“if you don’t stop/start your behaviour, I will…”). The active steps are an ultimatum, setting down the stakes for change vs no change. For empathetic appeals these are around bad feelings and loss of integrity of relationships (with the DM, or with the other group) and for transactional ones, it’s about loss of service (i.e. get the fuck out of my game).

All of these actions, passive or active, have a cost. And the cost of taking action vs. no action is what being a leader is all about (and I don’t know exactly what James means by “a DM worth their dice bag” but I’d say leadership comes into it).

Every hobby will have unpaid or underpaid leaders — from organising charity cake sales to book groups to RPGs to martial arts. And leaders will generally do their unpaid work for two reasons:

  1. They desperately want something to exist (an event, a game session, a project), and are prepared to pay their own time to make it happen, or
  2. They want fame or recognition for being a leader and/or expert.

These two are complementary and most folk will sit on a binary axis between two extremes. And all leaders have to decide whether some combination of 1 plus 2 are equal to the effort they put in. If it’s not, they should stop what they’re doing (bitching and moaning to sympathetic ears isn’t payment, it just offsets the cost in the short term).

Back in 2002 when I became a HEMA instructor, what did I want? If I’m honest, it was the second one. I wanted recognition from a sub-culture I was invested in. 14 years later, has that changed? Yes, sort of. I haven’t been to a gathering of groups for a few years, nor participated in online forums — and those are the places I need to go to if I want peer recognition. Instead I’m happy just to train weekly, and while recognition still strokes my ego I get more from just being part of our school — so when I’m called upon to stand in for our head instructor the benefit to me is the continuation of the school and having students walk in.

I have been thinking about respect in HEMA, though. We have our share of problem students. There are some who just turn up to a few classes and then leave for whatever reason — and while some masters will complain, the fact is these students have done a cost-benefit analysis of their continued attendance vs. whatever personal development they get out of it. And just as leaders should be honest about whether or not they want recognition, students should be honest about whether learning is worth their time and money.

An honest decision to stay or leave is respectful. The real problem students are the ones who come with their own pre-conceived notions about what the school does or behaviours it tolerates, and proceed to amuse themselves at the expense of others. Talented students who deviate from the lesson plan because they want to “win” all the time are the biggest problem — they tend to be self-serving and not interested in training cooperatively with their partner, only defeating them. There’s a lot you can train out of someone but being an arsehole is one of the hardest things to correct. Usually these students will respect the master as authoritarian, but not their peers, and honestly I’d prefer it the other way around — not least because not respecting your training partner by deviating from the lesson plan is a recipe for accidents. As the leader in that situation I’m not invested in winning that individual’s respect, I’m far more concerned with the damage (physical or emotional) they may cause to the rest of the student body. But at least it’s fairly clear when they’ve crossed a line and I can just dump them outside on their arse.