Saturday, July 24, 2004

PDF vs. Paper: Reviewing in an Increasingly Electronic Market

posted by Matthew Pook

Recently I had a request turned down for a pair of complimentary books to review. This is from a respected publisher whose books I have been sent and reviewed in past, and the publisher had been happy with the results. Then I had another request turned down, again from a respected publisher, but not one from whom I have been sent anything before, although I have reviewed one or two of their books. In both cases, their reasons were the exactly the same. The cost. They wanted to cut down on the expenses incurred, not only of the books sent out, but also of the cost of postage and packaging.

Instead they offered me a PDF version of the books that I asked for. Although I was grateful for the offer, I had to decline. Initially, this was because the computer I use could not handle PDF documents of the size that these books represent. Yes, by the standards of the day, the machine I most often use is antiquated. Yet there were other reasons that why I declined both offers, which I want to explain and explore in more detail below, but before I do, I want to make clear that I am in no way angry or upset at any of these publishers. They have every right to take the decision that they have, and indeed, they are right to do so. Further I respect them for doing so, but remain saddened that our “semi-professional” relationship has been forced to end.

Yet this change in complimentary product format, from the paper to the electronic, has the potential to change how someone who reviews games actually works.

The position of the reviewer with regard to the games industry is currently rather vague. Certainly, there is no such thing as the ‘professional’ reviewer, and for the most part, it is a game’s fans that write reviews after they have bought copies from their local gaming store. But there are a few people, myself included, who will approach a publisher, and ask for what is in effect, a free book. In an act of trust, the publisher sends out the requested book, and in return, the recipient is expected to read it, write a fair review, and see that it is published somewhere online, since there are few magazines that publish gaming reviews these days. In all but a couple of instances, the book itself, and the kudos that goes with being published, is the only payment that the reviewer will receive for his efforts.

This lack of payment, which has come about because of the death of the RPG magazine and the immediacy of the Internet, also means that there is no capacity within the industry, or even alongside it, for the ‘professional reviewer.’ And barring Ken Hite’s mini-reviews in his “Out of the Box” column, reviewing games remains solely the province of the amateur.

But the move from offering complimentary product in paper to electronic format changes this vague situation further. First it does not actually give the reviewer a copy of the product that the publisher wants its customers to buy at their local gaming stores. Arguably most of their sales will come from the print edition, and not from its PDF version made available from vendors such as and Unless it was designed in that format that is, such as the many titles released by Deep7 and Politically Incorrect Games. Surely publishers want reviews of their games and supplements in the format that they will make the most sales from?

Secondly, receiving a PDF version of a book is actually a disincentive for the reviewer to want to review the book, because his reward for doing is greatly lessened. What the publisher is doing, is passing the physical costs onto the reviewer, who must pay for the paper, the ink, the binding, and so on. Since it is unlikely that the reviewer has access to a professional book printing service, the resulting product will invariably be of an infinitely inferior quality compared to the book he could have instead purchased, or indeed, been sent by the publisher. And while it might be cheaper for a publisher to send the reviewer a PDF document, let us not discount the dangers of piracy that come with that format.

So if the primary motive for this change is one of cost, is there a solution? Perhaps a tighter relationship could forged between publisher and reviewer, with the publisher building a stable of still independent reviewers that they know can be trusted. And again between publisher and the intended destination for the review. Either might work to reduce the number of wasted review copies that get sent out, and ensure that the publishers get results from doing so

Perhaps in my case, I should buy a bigger computer, either that or move to the USA to cut down on the postage and packaging costs of getting a book across the Atlantic. In the meantime, it remains to be seen if I will be reviewing the books that I have asked for.



Thursday, July 22, 2004

The Church of What's Happening Now

posted by Bruce Baugh

This week I made my first foray into PDF publishing, with Monstrous Advanced Classes: The Vampire. It was a very interesting experience, and very different from how conventional RPG writing goes. It's been a while since I posted, and I'm going to bore you all with some happy burbling.

The biggest difference is the sheer immediacy of it. I've been watching James Maliszewski having fun with his Dozen This and Dozen That products, and thinking about what I could do that would be comparably fun for me. On Friday, I got an idea. On Tuesday, I finished writing it up and sent it to Phil Reed to see if he'd like to publish it. He did, and on Wednesday it went up for sale. On Thursday it was #44 on the monthly bestseller list for d20 products.

In the sort of gaming work I'm used to, it's always a matter of months from completing the writing to a book going on sale - editing, developing, producing, printing, and distributing all take time. When I'm developing a project, it can easily be a year or more from conceiving and outlining a book to the point the public gets to see it. So working in gaming means always living in a sort of temporal discontinuity, knowing things you can't talk about. Everything that's now out exists in a context you can't fully share, since it's not your individual secrets and choices about confidentiality. I must say that I really, really like being able to get such immediate response to an idea, and to have no worries about accidentally leaking it or anything like that. This time I get to talk about an idea while it's still fresh in my own mind, and comments from customers and bystanders can influence how I handle future entries in the series.

There's also a, um, purity of essence about the whole thing. A single advanced class entry would be one part of one chapter in a typical book. When I asked for advanced classes in Gamma World books, I asked for three or more (depending on the project), and that seems fairly usual for d20 books. Here it's just itself. I hope to reuse the format, and working out the structure of the thing was a significant part of the writing time (particularly realizing that I wanted lists of options for qualities rather than fixed progressions). But I could and likely will customize it for each one. This particular document has no need to do anything but fit with d20 Modern mechanics in general and the attitude I want for it in particular.

Working with open content is a lot of fun. Gamma World, which has been the bulk of my d20 effort so far, is of course all closed, being proprietary and licensed, and the Scarred Lands work I've done has been released in accordance with White Wolf's policy of deeply finicky open-content declarations. I don't know if the intent was to make it too tangle for others to want to use, but it seems to have had that effect. Since the Monstrous Advanced Class series is purely mine, though, I could and did choose to make it all open. I'm hoping others make use of it; I'd love to see what contexts it may fit. And I had fun drawing on the open content created by my friends Gareth Hanrahan and Jim Kiley. I could have done it without their neat stuff in (respectively) OGL Horror and Adventure! d20, but my work is the better for it, I think. Reinventing the wheel has been part of gaming from the beginning, and I can do it about as well as anyone, I think, but it's tedious as well as wasteful. Judicious (and legitimate) reuse of open content let me focus more on the stuff that's distinctively mine.

Finally, I hadn't realized just how much of a rush I'd find having a copyright statement list my own name instead of a corporation's. I don't mind doing work for hire, when it's a project I'm interested in...but yes, as someone who thinks of his work as both art and craft, it gives me great pleasure to feel that I genuinely do own this one. Phil Reed made it look spiffy and deserves the cut he's getting for that and the advantages of selling it as a Ronin Arts product, but at the end of the day, it's mine mine mine and I feel better for it.

There's a recurring note here, and it's "fun". My association with White Wolf got badly strained over the last year or so - and I'm not claiming to be the pure unsullied victim here, as I had misfortunes of sorts that made problems for them and also made some just plain unwise decisions at various points. All that's the tale for another time. The point here is while I never stopped enjoying working with my authors and their manuscripts, very little of the rest of the job was very satisfying. Doing MAC: The Vampire was very satisfying, and provided me a strong reminder that I was in fact not foolish to ever get tangled up in gaming, that I can do it well, and that, yes, it feels good to do it well. All of that is very good to have in mind as I embark on the next phase of my writing career, in and out of gaming.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

D20 Sacrilege?

posted by Doc Blue

I realize I have been remiss in my posting duties. For this, I apologize. I can only offer one excuse - City of Heroes. As predicted, this game is attempting to eat my soul. I have managed not to lose wife or job yet, but the temptation to just lock myself down in the basement with standing orders for the pizza guy to pass food through the window once every couple of days is distinctly there....

***** ***** ***** ***** *****

My Exalted: Sixth Age game (a campaign for Mutants and Masterminds) is continuing a pace. The PCs have stopped a behemoth (who turned out to be a golden age Lunar trying to get their attention), obtained a manse (the Lunar's secret lair), and hearthstone bracers (belonging to the Lunar's deceased partner). They fought a battle against Task Force X of the Vigilance League on a Super Brdige project that was designed to never be completed and unknowingly befriended the ghost of a Golden Age Solar.

This week is *Lunar Week*. The PCs are going to start on the stepps of the ruined Lincoln Memorial and learn just what's dwelling in the forests that are dominating the East Coast. They are going to help settle a rebellion and learn the fate of the original Green Man (they met and fought his replacement last session). And maybe, just maybe, they will gain new allies in the process....

What does all that have to do with the topic? Well, running this game (as well as the Gamma World game) has got me thinking alot about the D20 system. On many levels, I love the crunchiness that D20 allows me. I love tweaking my own character or the ability to spend hours poking at creature stats to get them 'just right'. But in practice, I *dread* the actual stat'ing of NPCs and opposition. Writing down and tracking all those details, all those options. So much so, in fact, that we ran the last episode of Ex:6A diceless. I just talked them through the session and described combat rather than worrying about what the dice said.

I've also noticed that for players unfamiliar with D20, leveling doesn't really happen without a lot of involvement of someone else. Not that this is necessarily bad, it means that I understand their characters perhaps a bit better than other player's characters, but it does take up what should otherwise be playing time.

This leads to my sacrilege. I have half a dozen or so NPCs to stat up for the next session (probably for each of the next few sessions). I find myself wanting to ignore points, levels, etc., and just stat them in "Over The Edge" format. That is, pick a handful of defining traits, apply modifiers to each of these traits, assume base modifiers for any other rolls, and run. This completely circumvents one of D20's strengths (the crunchiness) but somehow feels more satisfying to me for the way I run games.

Does anyone have any thoughts and feelings on this? Has anyone done anything similar and if so, what have been your experiences?


Doc Blue

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Wire Paladin, San Francisco

posted by Dave

Paramount Home Video has released the first season of Have Gun, Will Travel on DVD.

If you aren't familiar with the show, track down a copy for rent or purchase, and watch the first two episodes. Don't worry, the web page will wait.


On the surface, the character of Paladin would be great for inclusion in an RPG. Suave, educated, an honorable man, and one of the deadliest gunmen in the world, without being overly enamored of violence. But too often, this way lies destruction.

Most of us have seen it. The GMNPC, the person the GM really wishes he or she could be, who is great at anything they set their hand to, and comes in to solve the problems, leaving the PCs to side, impotent and useless. So how can we integrate a Paladin or Paladin-like character into an RPG without ruining the game?

The answer is that the NPC has to be turned into a commodity. An asset, something earned by the players, or purchased, which can be used in extremis.

So, let's look at one example. If we were to cast Paladin into the World of Darkness, the character would be a superb Toreador 4 or 5 dot Mentor. By integrating the appearance of the NPC into the mechanics (a player has chosen to pay the points, and in an ideal world, has built parts of the character concept and other purchase decisions around this relationship) we justify the appearance of the GMNPC, and put it under some degree of player control. Moreover, the game world also brings with it a whole set of obligations (both on the player, and on the NPC) as part of this background, and the player has the option to use additional merits, flaws, or backgrounds, to exert further control over the shape of the relationship.

Now, let's consider the case where the players are not purchasing a pre-existing relationship during character creation, but are rather earning one during the course of play. This is trickier -- there isn't the explicity social contract of "I bought this as part of my character, and you agreed to it", instead, the players are being presented with an opportunity, for good or ill.

The players could first observe Paladin in San Francisco (or indeed, have their early interactions in San Francisco, or a setting-appropriate equivalent), which is a far less explicitly adversarial situation than coming across a gunfighter.

Conversely, the first interaction could be witnessing the Paladin involved in a gunfight (those familiar with it might consider the introduction of Calo Nord in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic). This has higher risks, the players might decide to get involved, potentially on the wrong side. This could result in serious injury or death to the PCs, or, depending on how much of Paladin's survival in similar situations the GM decides was due to having others decide not to get involved, the death or serious injury of the NPC. If the players don't get involved, they have information. If they do get involved, things may get trickier for the GM. It is important for the GM to think about consequences -- if the players ever feel that they are being forced into letting an enemy GMNPC survive to keep the GM's pet plot alive, it can be detrimental to the gaming group.

The players could first encounter Paladin on the other side. Since the GMNPC in question is always willing to talk before fighting, the players would have a chance to convince him they were on the side of right (or, for that matter, be convinced that he was). If, however, your players are inclined to shoot first, and think later, this is probably not a wise introduction.

The players could find Paladin in need of help and assistance, and therefore place him in their debt. Again, know your players. If your players are the sort who would be more inclined to kill him, and keep the high quality firearm, and any spare assets, this is probably not the best way.

However the introduction is handled, the earned relationship is perhaps best expressed as one of near equals. The players may owe Paladin a favor, or he may feel he owes them one, but neither should be a supplicant of the other. Even in the mentor relationship given as the first example, where there would be an in-game power imbalance (mitigated by any other backgrounds and merits), because the player has paid for the ability, there is less of a feel of supplication or GM fiat.

Finally, since Paladin is often away on business, the GM has a useful and credible means to keep him from being the eternal crutch and easy get-out-of-trouble card.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Tracking the wily intermediate freelancer

posted by Mur

So I entered this year's Origins con with the following stats:

Number of books contributed to: 8 (6 on the shelves, 2 to come this year)
Number of words written: 163,000 words
Number of books currently contributing to: 2
Number of words contracted: 60,000
Number of years in da bidness, 3

I have no idea whether this is good or bad. It just is. Last year I felt I had lots of work, and yet by June of this year I only had two jobs. I sent out emails to developers I knew and companies I'd like to work for. The developers I knew said, "Sorry, not hiring," and the companies just didn't bother to return emails.

Last year at Origins, I had a Clever Plan for meeting people and shmoozing and I felt It Could Not Fail. You see, I got into the bidness because I Knew Somebody. A good friend got me my first job, and put in good words for me, and (hopefully) I've carried it on from there. This dear friend decided he would introduce me around to people he knew at Origins to help me get me more work. Well, the people he introduced me to were so excited to see him and ask what he was up to, they barely spent enough time to shake my hand. One even mocked my only credits being from White Wolf, "Oh, everyone's written for them..."

This year I went in alone. I surveyed the dealer's room on the first day, trying to figure out who to talk to. Well, in my excitement of being at Origins (because, you know, I do go there to play games and shop as well), I did little more than look around. I was intimidated. I'll admit it. I had no idea how to shmooze.

Some industry professionals were holding talks this year, one in how to get into the freelancing bidness, another on how to keep freelanceing once you have some credits. I went to this second talk. These were all names I knew, Ken Hite, Spike Y. Jones, Matt Forbeck, but had never seen in Real Life. When it came time to ask questions, I asked mine about networking. I have my 8 books and my two publishers, and I've never missed a deadline, so how do I get more work? How do I schmooze Origins?

The answers were interesting. The best way, it seems, is to buy people beer at the Big Bar on 2 (the Hyatt bar that everyone hangs out at). Considering I know many more names in the industry than I know faces, I felt this was a dodgy idea, but I wrote it down. Other ideas, such as heading to Vegas to attend the GAMA show, seemed impossible for me at this stage in my life. "Honey, I'm heading to Vegas for a couple of days, you don't mind watching the toddler, do you?"

So I decided to hang out at the bar. I have no problem with that, honestly. After the talk, I managed to talk to Ken Hite and Spike Y. Jones. Ken told me that Steve Jackson games isn't hiring now, which I appreciated because it's better to get the news up front before you start your spiel. Spike was helpful, and I didn't as much schmooze him as just listen to his advice, talking about how the industry isn't terribly good right now. I saw Matt Forbeck later in the show, but never got the chance to talk to him.

The first night, I saw no one but women who put sticky glittery decals on their cleavage, drunken gamers and some of my friends.

The next day I opted to spend some time running around the booths playing Button Men, as exhibitors were open to being challeneged to games in order to collect stamps. While playing a guy at Pandahead, I noticed they were selling d20 books. One of the women offered me a groovy pandahead temp. tattoo, and while I was having my (incredibly long-lasting, as it's still here) tattoo applied, I asked if they hired freelancers. Ta da! They did! She seemed really interested, so I dropped off a card. Huzzah for me, I schmoozed!

I actually spent a lot of my time either gaming or in talks (superhero discussion, game design, etc), and found myself not spending a lot of time in the dealer's room making friends. The forays into the Bar on 2 still proved unfruitful, as I tried to find my "new friends" from Pandahead to buy them beer, but I never saw them. I never saw any of the guys from the panel, and most everyone else was only identifiable by their company shirts. Bar schmoozing was proving unfruitful.

Saturday was my last day in the dealer's room, as I had to head home early Sunday. I realized I had either procrastinated or been too busy, and suddenly I had 20 minutes to schmooze. I ran by Kenzer Co. to complain (politely) about never receiving a rejection letter for a piece I had sent their magazine last fall. They said they moved offices and it was probably lost. They gave me a calender and a card, inviting me to re-submit or just submit something new.

I ran by Eden and met a very nice man who was in the art dept. who promised to pass my card along to the design dept.

I asked at Fantasy Flight, but was referred to their website.

Only four. But I got information about Green Ronin and WotC, and plan on trying them too.

So, once I got home, I got to work doing the follow-up, "Great to meet you at Origins!" (or "sorry I didn't get a chance to meet you at origins" as the case may be) emails. So far:

Pandahead: Sent. No reply.
Eden: Sent. Art guy forwarded on my stuff. Design guy wrote back in a day and said "not hiring, but you can contribute to our Eden Studios Presents." I know little about this but will look into it.
WotC: Sent (today). No reply (obviously).
Fantasy Flight: Not Sent. They want a writing sample and I need time to decide what is the best thing to send them.
Green Ronin: Not Sent. Fantasy Flight is my priority at the moment.
Kenzer: Like Eden, this work will be on spec instead of contract, and I plan on writing another post discussing that...

I look at my list and wonder if I didn't do a good enough job looking around for different places to schmooze. The Bar thing never worked out. I guess this still separates me from the experts. People aren't seeking me out for work right now, so I have to work harder. Sad thing is, I only have two cons left this year, and one is not terribly gaming oriented (dragoncon). So I guess I have to work on the kick ass "hire me" letter.

Which leaves this post unresolved, but that's the life of an intermediate freelancer. You want more jobs, and even if your current developers like you enough to use you again, that's still only so much work. Branching out is necessary, and I'm still not sure if I've got the hang of it. I will update, good or bad, as the information comes.

Next post, discussions on working on spec... this has me thinking...