A Tumultuous Time for Part of the RPG Industry.

Then there’s Star Frontiers: New Genesis. I really don’t want to give this product or this company any free press. There are literally hundreds of RPGs that I’d rather invest my time and effort it. Yeah. It’s that bad.

I’ve been following the recent news about a game company that many of us in the community had a world of love and respect for back in the day.

I was genuinely excited when I heard someone was bringing back Star Frontiers. Taken at face value, it’s one of the coolest things to happen since D&D 5E! Freakin Star Frontiers! It’s back. YAY!

Here’s the Bell of Lost Souls article.

The original Star Frontiers cover art by Larry Elmore.

Did I mention it looks awesome on the surface?

I keep my somewhat banged-up copy of the original with my D&D boxed sets. I’ve kept up with the game on and off. It’s a really amazing classic Sci-Fi RPG. It’s been available in reprint form on DrivethruRPG. That in and of itself is enough for some of us old school gamers.

Then there’s Star Frontiers: New Genesis. I really don’t want to give this product or this company any free press. There are literally hundreds of RPGs that I’d rather invest my time and effort it. Yeah. It’s that bad.

There are two notables among many out there fighting the good fight.

In case anyone wonders, I always type it out as T$R to honor this old logo. It’s a dragon, not a dollar sign.

Tom (Jedion) at Table Top Taproom on YouTube has been embroiled in an ongoing conflict with the person behind this revival version of T$R. Another soldier in this battle is Tenkar of Tenkar’s Tavern. They have both been up to their proverbial eyeballs in harsh trolling on Twitter. (Gonna leave those links alone, because it’s pretty brutal.) They have both been making videos in support of one another and are very critical of these guys at the “nuTSR.” From what I’ve seen between Tom and Tenkar, there’s no way I’ll touch the new Star Frontiers.

In fact, from all of the internet brawling I’ve seen over Star Frontiers: New Genesis and other “nuTSR” properties, I won’t touch anything the authors do. Ever. Please note, it takes a lot for me to be openly offended this way.

I’m just peeking in on this insanity that is “nuTSR.”

The old T$R had its flaws before and after the Lorraine Williams era. Gary Gygax, (Rest in Peace) had his own personality quirks and flaws that people have called out. It’s all water under the bridge now, but we do owe Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson and others credit for putting RPGs on the map.

There are so many award winning authors and RPG designers who passed through the hallowed halls of old T$R, I can’t name them all or we’ll be here all day. Some of the luminaries from the T$R golden age of prosperity and even a few of the later hires are still HUGE names in the RPG business.

Despite the popular culture overtones of the time, many of the games from the 1980’s and 1990’s are still thriving in one form or another. Some of them are five, maybe six editions in. (It happens.) Many old campaigns and modules in reprint now come with a disclaimer from Wizards of the Coast.

The disclaimer as it appears on DriveThruRPG and DMsGuild.

I would bet my collection of Polyhedron magazines none, absolutely none of the old T$R crew would sign off on anything these “nuTSR” guys have been doing. From everything I’ve seen, most conscientious gamers won’t touch the stuff these new guys are putting out. We feel bad for the ones who have.

It’s not just Star Frontiers, either. This “nuTSR” has acquired the licenses for Dungeon Crawl and Cult of Abaddon (module.) Apparently they have not shipped as promised. Seems a bit suspicious at best. At worst, it’s awful customer service. (*Here’s a thought- don’t screw people who are giving you money in exchange for your product!)

Crowdfunded efforts unfulfilled. Designers/Writers blasting fans publicly on social media. One incident on social media involved threats against someone’s family. Star Frontiers: New Genesis is a hot mess from what we hear. Lore and backgrounds aside, it is rumored the editing is a total disaster. The museum and several old T$R intellectual properties are on the line, too. Oh, and apparently WotC has issued a Cease and Desist order and set their crack ninja death squad of elite hit lawyers on the perpetrators from this “nuTSR.”

Trauma and drama aside, the true disservice is done to the fans at this point.

No offense to Tom and Tenkar, but that’s what hurts most about this entire debacle. There are some real Dungeon Crawl fans out there. If there was a successful, well thought-out, well edited remake of a classic game, who knows how many fans could have been introduced? The same can be said for Star Frontiers.

Old school T$R fans from all over are shocked and appalled at what has gone down with “nuTSR.” No matter how freaky and controversial the old guard T$R might be, they would never have stamped their imprint some something shoddy, undeliverable, unedited, blatantly offensive, or promised but not delivered. Then to go on social media (*sorry, not much 1980’s or 1990’s comparison,) and treat fans and buyers like absolute dirt? Ouch.

My humble advice regarding “nuTSR.”

I sincerely hope this all dies down soon and we can get back to gaming. Star Frontiers really was a good game. Please, my advice will always be, put your energy toward that which you love, not creating more hate. Love Dungeon Crawl. Love Star Frontiers. Please give Table Top Tap Room and Tenkar’s Tavern a listen over on YouTube.

My other earnest advice, from someone who used to be somewhat anti-WotC, please watch the manufacturer listed on the product! If it comes straight from Wizards of the Coast or old T$R via WotC, then you can reasonably assume it’s authentic. I also find that knowing a little of the product history helps when I’m looking at older modules. There are plenty of other companies reprinting or revising old T$R modules and they’re fine.

Good times are on the horizon. Please stay hydrated. Stay safe. Thanks for being here. You are appreciated.

Please Put Me In Charge For a Month or Two, Part Two.

As a GM/writer, I would rather have two or three monster books, a guide full of advice for GMs along with new items or NPCs, and a setting guide rather than a GM screen and a bunch of prefab modules. Why? Because I’m probably going to tailor adventures to my campaign and the characters. No premade module I’ve ever seen/run has ever fit directly into the game for our characters specifically.

I have some thoughts for a new game company that I would love to share more directly with them.

I know roughly how arrogant I sound. But, I’ve been around a while and I have a pretty good gut instinct when it comes to the RPG industry. Some things are like any business. Some things are like any publishing business. Others resemble the retail industry. Still others yet are a platypus unique to the RPG business.

That’s where I come in. I love a good platypus, or rather RPG. There are formulae at work. You’ve got players, obviously. You’ve got a GM in most cases. In some instances you have fans of whatever setting or genre the game is based on. There’s lots of moving parts here.

Every game company I’ve ever seen grapples with at least one of the big three components I just listed. Most game companies tend to overlook the poor Game Masters for some odd reason. Do we GM in a vacuum?

Here’s how I would do it for the GM.

Telling the GM to make up everything is not an OSR mentality. Honestly, it’s just plain self-sabotage for game companies. Maybe there are just too many GMs out there saying, “I usually toss out the rulebooks and make up my own.”

If a GM says that about your game, your product? Y’all have a problem. That means a company can make up anything it wants, but chances are, it’s lost some potential buyers. RPGs function on word of mouth advertising as much as anything. If the GM is tossing your rules out, it’s pause for concern that you’ve lost your audience. (Except good old D&D, but that’s a deeper rabbit hole.) If a GM loses faith in the product, what message does that send?

Remember, most game companies aren’t WotC/Hasbro. Most companies don’t have a big money actual play podcast/animation franchise on Amazon Prime. Most game companies really can’t afford to have their initial product releases flop horribly or they will not be around for another year to do it again in all likelihood. Likewise, if a GM is pulling in books from other games or pitches the system out the window, the sales on future supplements might not look so good.

Here’s my theory.

Really, the formula is simple. Start out with a solid core book that includes literally anything/and everything basic within reason that players and GMs alike are going to need. Unless you’re dropping a two or three volume set, it is best to include all of the character creation, system, combat, gear, spells, monsters, and items in one book. It is highly advisable to include GM basics in every core book such as how to create adventures and adjudicate the system because not everyone is a 40 year veteran GM. That first book has to be dynamite!

Then, the next releases are pretty crucial. My angle is support for the GM. Is a GM screen crucial? No. Is a book full of monsters going to help? Oh yeah.

New GMs especially need something to keep the game from becoming stale and redundant. Trust me, reskinning the same orc, skeleton, or goblin a hundred times over gets pretty droll after a while. Giving out the same +1 glowing shortsword of orc detection, likewise pretty boring.

Modules are okay, but if you set GMs up for success within the first few releases, modules are icing on the cake. Yes, it’s okay to have a module available early on to get players interested in the game for the first time. But after that, the GM is on his/her/their own anyway. Please set the GM up for success!

If a GM says good things about the core book, and buys into the next three or four books down the road, word will spread about what a wonderful game it is. It’s not set in stone, but a lot of people do look to the GM when it comes to what books to purchase next. This is really crucial if the players are new to the hobby.

Sourcebooks aimed at players are cool, but…

As a GM/writer, I would rather have two or three monster books, a guide full of advice for GMs along with new items or NPCs, and a setting guide rather than a GM screen and a bunch of prefab modules. Why? Because I’m probably going to tailor adventures to my campaign and the characters. No premade module I’ve ever seen/run has ever fit directly into the game for our characters specifically.

As a side note, if your game is not specifically a miniatures wargame, figures are probably not mission critical. Many fine RPG systems run off of minds eye theatre or rudimentary blocking with coins, dice, or tokens. Minis might look shiny, but the real RPG money is in the books/pdfs. *Unless we’re talking about Games Workshop.

The player driven stuff is great. We all love new character options, spells, weapons and magical gimmicks. I mostly go after that stuff to see what I can loot for ideas and to get an impression of what the players are likely to want next. Some things catch my eye as a drooling fanboy, such as all things mecha.

Okay, enough about my obsession with giant robots. New game companies can still benefit from listening to old veterans. No one has all the bases covered. We’re all human, and as such, prone to errors. Living is learning. What works for my game company may not work for someone else’s.

Have a great weekend. Thank you for stopping by. See ya soon.

Gah! Just Let Me Drive!

At some point, you absolutely must cater to the GM. What do GMs need? If the game involves slaying monsters and grabbing loot, it’s probably best to have a book with monsters and a GM’s book detailing all kinds of cool loot. That mentality of “set up everything for the players and tell the GM to wing it” is going to go stale pretty fast.

I’m having an egoic moment, but I have to say something as a fan and “Old Grognard.”

First impression of a game should not elicit shock and dismay.

I’m not going to name and shame any game companies, but I noticed the 2022 release schedule for a new RPG that just released this year. For a brand new game with a brand new system, this thing looks anemic. I’m incredibly underwhelmed by what I’m seeing. If it were my company, I daresay we’d be doing things a little differently.

Maybe it’s the drooling fanboy in me. Maybe it’s the writer talking. It could be the guy that’s been on the retail end of the RPG industry for years. I just have a sinking feeling that this company could do better with a flagship release. The second half of the book made me cringe. The subsequent releases made me start looking at other games again. My quest for “the One” may yet continue, sadly.

Honest disclosure: I’ve never run a game company.

Most of us can probably say the same? However, I have seen dozens of companies come and go over the years. I have an RPG collection on paper larger than I can easily catalog. Then there’s pdfs. Let’s just say I’ve seen a lot of game settings in a lot of systems. Could I do better? Maybe.

Here’s the thing. I’ve seen some definite winners over the years. Games that came out with a solid core book or books and followed up immediately with things they know fans will be clamoring for. Some games even go so far as to promise certain expansions in their core rules because they know there just isn’t room to cover depth and breadth without creating a 700+ page nightmare to the tune of $65.00 or more.

For example, if a new modern combat game comes out; after the core rules, what does everyone likely want? Well, if you’re like me the order is usually first guns, sometimes a setting book, next vehicles, and then a GM’s book. Then the order probably depends on the setting. You have various factions, cyberware, hacking rules, monsters, magic, and so on to consider depending on the game.

What did I see?

Without naming and shaming, the company in question flopped hard on their first release. The core book was lacking and a bit mediocre. The system in question is a solid B+, the art is an A-, and the rest is pretty lackluster. But then it got kinda mopey. I can’t give too many details because I want to teach and not offend.

What would I have done differently? So far the writers have done a great job catering to the players. The art for a game is make or break in a lot of cases and they did that fabulously. The question I think the company needs to ask is, who’s running the game?

At some point, you absolutely must cater to the GM. What do GMs need? If the game involves slaying monsters and grabbing loot, it’s probably best to have a book with monsters and a GM’s book detailing all kinds of cool loot. That mentality of “set up everything for the players and tell the GM to wing it” is going to go stale pretty fast.

Maybe it’s because we’re in some freaky modern era of game design?

I think there is a LOT more to designing an RPG that just handing everything to the players and oh, yeah that person behind the screen. Unless you’re branding the game as GM-less or some other wacky players-only mechanic, that person behind the screen is important. That person behind the screen is going to need a lot more than a screen last I checked.

I’m going to go more into depth on this in my next article. There’s a lot more to pulling together a first product release and subsequent supplements than anyone could really cover here in one article. The problem is, I have a pretty fair idea of how to do it, but not the resources to actually build a company and release an RPG. So, I’m playing armchair quarterback for now.

Have a lovely day. Please stay safe. Thanks for being here. See ya soon.

Old School Somewhat Conflicted GM

It’s sad to think some people lean on OSR style games to justify the same old attitudes of hate, fear, and separation in the real world.

This is now my third take on this article.

I keep getting partway into this particular subject and then bailing out. This is mostly due to the fact that I am concerned about offending someone. I want you all to know I am grateful you are here. Thank you!

I see something of a conflict between new and old gamers, at least on social media.

This usually takes place in the form of the D&D edition wars. Some people learned the game in Fifth Edition. Some of us have been around since BECMI or even White Box D&D. And of course every edition in between then and now has its own rabid fanbase.

Some designers even miss the old editions so much that they’ve redrawn the old rules in newer books. Collectively this is called the OSR movement or “Old School Renaissance” I usually say Old School Rules or Old School Revival. It’s all basically the same idea. Someone takes the original Basic, First Ed AD&D or Second Ed AD&D and puts it back out under their own banner with a few minor adjustments here and there.

The conflict “is not what you think” as one of my favorite YouTube channels likes to say.

The biggest problem I’ve seen lately seems to stem from one of two sources. “Old” gamers who have gotten frustrated with all the immense rules changes and add-ons in 5E who want to go back to simpler times. This is in contrast to the 5E players who have grown up in a more social and political environment who see the older editions as inherently racist, homophobic, or transphobic.

I’m going to pick on @matthewmercer for a moment only because I know good old Matt won’t ever read this or comment on it. (I’m too far below his station.) “The Matt Mercer Effect” as it is called causes tension and sometimes divide at the table because us “Old Grognards” have been running D&D for literally decades without a camera on before Critical Role came around. I’m not saying anyone’s take is better or worse. But sometimes it is a bit daunting to compare one’s own game to the shiny TV/Internet version of D&D. Honestly, I think a lot of new players are intimidated by anything that isn’t D&D 5E or Pathfinder 2E.

Photo by Anete Lusina on Pexels.com
Please understand: These are my observations and opinions based on said. Please run your game at your table your way.
Also, I do not hate Critical Role, Matt Mercer, or anyone else for race, gender, political orientation or sexual preferences. Let’s focus on love, please.

Someone mentioned that most of us “Old, (bitter,) Grognards” hate Critical Role. I see a degree of pretentiousness on both sides and it makes me sort of sick to my stomach if I’m being honest. The “new kids” seem to think that only actual play podcasts like Critical Role are “real roleplaying.” All of us old guys shake our heads when we watch these younger pups with their political correctness and handholding ways. (I get that I sound divisive and dismissive there, but I’m trying to make my point.) Both sides are right and wrong at the same time.

I’m going to be blunt for a moment. The RPG industry was built by old, mostly cishet white guys. HOWEVER, that is not to say it has remained that way or has to remain that way. If the last couple of years have taught us anything it’s that the industry can change. People can change. We’re evolving.

1977 D&D is not even remotely the same animal as 5E D&D. If Gary Gygax and Matt Mercer could swap places for a day and each run the other’s game, I daresay people would be crying and running out of the room from both tables with bruised egos and hurt feelings all around. D&D’s origins are steeped in ___phobic or ___cist behaviors. Again, it doesn’t have to stay that way.

14 year old me was confused by the race relations table in AD&D Unearthed Arcana.

Please hear me out on this one. A LOT of older D&D games contain a high degree of racial tension between the Humans, Dwarves, Elves, and Halflings (The demi-human races that used to have their own classes.) and the “dark races” such as the Orcs, Goblins, Drow, Duergar, and Draconians. The origins of those racial tensions go all the way back to Tolkien and WotC is just now getting around to really changing the basic premise behind races in D&D which I will save for another article.

I’m sort of ashamed to admit it, but I’m a big fan of some of the older campaigns that had some pretty ugly racial blunders in them. My beloved Oriental Adventures, Birthright, and even good old Greyhawk were pretty much a product of an older way of thinking about race. I prefer to keep the stuff I love from those settings and toss out the rest. That’s just how I do it, not that it’s for everyone. There is never a good justification for hate when it comes to race, religion, gender, sexual preference, etc. So, just don’t.

So, yes, OSR gets a pretty bad reputation, mostly from people who use it to justify the same old, tired, closed, narrow mindsets that include hate toward other members of real world human society. It’s really sad to think that we’re in a global age of communications and people can still be stuck so far in the past. On the bright side, we have to learn sometime. Many of us have evolved in our way of thinking as it applies to people in the real world and in games.

On that note, I’m signing off for the night. Please keep praying for peace. Please be kind to one another today. Please keep gaming. Gaming is good. Thank you for being here. I appreciate you.

What to Charge Part 3

“Darn kids, get off my lawn!” (while shaking fist angrily.) Let’s talk about how bad it used to be trying to break into the RPG industry. “Wait, those are my kids…”

I used to want to work at a game company.

Remember T$R? Remember the RPGA? How about Dragon or Dungeon magazines? What about West End Games, Mayfair, Flying Buffalo Games, FASA, Alderac Entertainment Group, or GDW? While some of them may be around nominally, they are not the RPG powerhouses they were back in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. Some of them are gone entirely while others are back doing a fraction of what they did back then.

Time for me to tell a few stories of Ye Olden Times in the RPG Industry. See, back then, when I was a starry-eyed teenager growing up in small town Iowa, I really dreamt of working for a game company. That’s still my big dream. I’m not doing it to become a millionaire.

Some myths were shattered early on.

I asked around a lot during my college years about how to get started as a writer in the RPG industry. The most common answer I received back then was to put out submissions to anyone and everyone who would take them as much as possible (**FOR FREE**) until someone took notice. This usually meant writing modules for the RPGA for D&D and/or a small handful of other games, most of which were T$R properties. If one got a foot in the door for a small magazine or the RPGA’s publication, Polyhedron, one had a chance of getting printed in Dungeon (very rarely) or Dragon (More likely.) From those humble beginnings, one then had a vague chance of getting noticed by an established game company and a portfolio could be constructed. From there, real money could possibly be earned.

For those familiar, this is also the old tried-and-true formula for the publishing industry at large. Newspapers and magazines have functioned this way for decades, taking advantage of college students and freelancers having to “work their way up through the ranks.” What sucks is that it’s merely a system perpetuated by seniority. It worked that way for them, so obviously it has to work that way for everyone.

Gary Gygax had to start somewhere, right? I understand if you start a company and you want to keep making money, there have to be standards. A lot of hard work went into early game giants such as T$R, Games Workshop, and the Judge’s Guild. Many RPG companies went from a small family business in a cottage industry to major powerhouse with a few major successes. Then, many of them fell apart completely because of one or two poor selling products, bad investments, divorce, or selling canned beer in the office vending machine. (True story.)

Needless to say, a few things became apparent to my starry eyed younger game designer aspiring self. First, I probably wasn’t going to get rich selling RPGs. Second, it’s hard as heck to get a foot in the door in anyone else’s franchise. Third, no one’s hiring without a portfolio built on blood, sweat, and free tears. Last, starting one’s own company is fraught with peril and should be considered a last resort.

Things are changing?

Technology is scary for some, but not me.

Okay, I’m somewhat skeptical about this, but I’m told a couple of the authors of a major D&D supplement, Strixhaven, were hired straight out of college. Great for them. That’s not what I’m used to seeing in the industry. Maybe WotC/Hasbro has turned over a new leaf? I’m not holding my breath just yet.

I know. It’s the old Grognard coming out again. I could say, “By golly, we had to give a pound of flesh and a quart of blood just to get rejected again, so these kids should too. Everyone should be as miserable as we are.” Again, that’s how we’re used to the industry working, up until technology changed dramatically.

The RPGA is defunct last I heard. Polyhedron has definitely gone the way of the dodo. Dragon Magazine hasn’t been a thing in years. (Dragon+ looks like it might be going away, too.) Dungeon is pretty much gone except in back issues. Really, RPG magazines in general have defaulted to small time electronic publications. Then again, look at the magazine industry as a whole.

Maybe WotC, Paizo and a few others are hiring people off the street to write RPGs. I’ve seen more rise through the ranks of DMsGuild and have offers extended to them than I’ve ever seen a job ad posted anywhere, ever.

We’re not still living in the Stone Age, though. Websites like DriveThruRPG, Patreon, Ko-Fi and Itch.io have emerged that allow product to be sold or even donated usually in pdf or another electronic format.

Some friends on RPG Twitter have a good thing going.

Idea!

I’m new to Twitter. I avoided it for years, especially during a certain Republican’s administration. Some of my new friends on RPG Twitter seem to have quite a successful formula going.

They’re producing super short RPGs- a couple of pages with streamlined, light rules and selling them at Pay What you Want or extremely low prices on platforms that don’t take out huge fees. They’re also putting out a lot of free stuff and promoting themselves well. So far as I can tell, it seems to be working.

Once a foot is in the door using one of these small engines, the writer can then optionally move onto larger, even freelance writing projects or move up to larger sites. I love and admire some of these fine folks. It seems like a good way to go.

I may be following suit, but I’m not sure yet. At some point the freelance question is going to come up again. The RPG industry is more oversaturated with product and talent than ever. Competition for the coveted positions is tougher than ever. The industry is booming thanks to promotion from Critical Role and other actual play podcasts.

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” –Snake Pliskin, Escape from LA.

Needless to say, I’m kind of still on the fence with this whole thing. Hey, it took me three articles to get here. I believe that writing job still exists. I may never get to write Star Wars RPG stuff for WEG, but it’s possible I can put out something fun for any number of other game systems, genres, or specific properties.

I ain’t getting any younger, but then again, the RPG industry was basically started by guys who more-or-less match my description. I ain’t giving up any time soon. They might be wheeling me into the old gamers home someday, dice, pencil, notebooks and whatever game we’re on in hand, but I ain’t giving up.

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