Thursday, August 20, 2009

Regarding Mentzer, Ward, and Kask's new company, and the Grognardia comments

In case you missed it, the old timers are starting up a new company which is going to put out generic stat-less modules, with a booklet inside with the relevant statistics for most every older style game system out there, like C&C, LL, OSRIC, etc...including Pathfinder. They may even put out a new game system. They are obviously taking advantage of their names, reputations, and the current "Old School Renaissance", and based on their plans to hopefully raise $250,000 in startup cash, they seem to have a big vision of where to take the company.

Thinking this is a great thing, I was surprised by all the negativity towards it on Grognardia. Basically, it seems that James thinks because they aren't up to speed on, and a part of, the OSR, he's not sure what their contributions will amount to. I was kinda shocked at that. He also seems to think that since the OSR achieved so much on a shoestring budget, why the need for $250,000? When someone pointed out it might be used for marketing, he said "If so, it's going to be a waste. I just can't see anything they produce being sufficient mass market to justify blowing a lot of money on marketing, especially when nearly every potential buyer will know of their products' existence through word of mouth and/or reading about it online."

This kind of thinking is to me what will keep the OSR in the hands and on the gametables of existing hobbyists, and not grow the thing with new players. It shows a colossal lack of vision, and perhaps bitterness that someone else is playing in his sandbox and making a bigger better sandcastle without the need for him and his followers.

If you read further into the Dragonsfoot posts by Mentzer, he goes on to detail more of his plans and outline a vision, that while sketchy and obviously in its formative stages, is exciting. He actually has plans to market this thing for maximum exposure, for multiple systems, and make money by selling good quality creative stuff to as many people playing as many systems as he can.

What's wrong with that? Maybe if there were older style games on the shelves you might get new gamers coming to play. Jeez, imagine that, huh? Pathfinder is a great game, but it is written mainly for the existing 3.5 player base, and can be daunting for the newcomer. So far as I have seen, the OSR is mainly made up of a bunch of people who used to play older games, and now are playing them again---for whatever reason. My personal opinion is that a lot of the movement was initiated by Gygax's death, the fracturing of the D&D gamers with 4e, burnout on 3.5, and a good amount of nostalgia as well as a bit of empowerment in that people feel they can create their own game they want to play now, based on all their decades of experience. Said empowerment being reinforced by a lot of other people all doing and feeling the same thing. Those people were simply added to the ranks of people who never stopped playing older games, and voila, OSR.

When you consider that the OSR is a niche within a niche within a niche, the potential market for such games is small. When they are mostly given away for free, there's not much opportunity to make any real money at it if you just keep its exposure limited to "...nearly every potential buyer will know of their products' existence through word of mouth and/or reading about it online."

Just because it grew from a couple hundred people to a couple thousand people with no money in, and very little money being made, doesn't mean said growth is meaningful in any way commercially speaking. It's still just hobby level growth.

Now, however, we have a few guys who were around when the original hobby that started it all exploded commercially. They want to recreate that explosion, see if lightning can strike twice. Good for them I say. All the best. The are taking a different approach to the OSR than the existing members of the OSR are taking. They see a potential untapped market, beyond a few dozen bloggers and boards full of people who are basically playing some version of a game they played 20+ years ago. These old timers think that the Old School approach to publishing modules and perhaps a rule system, defined by them SPECIFICALLY as "rules-light, very dependent on DM quality, heavy on innovation & enjoyment" might have a viable market outside a couple hundred people. They think that with the right amount of money, mixed with the right amount of creativity and business savvy, it can work and new people can be brought into the OSR, perhaps people who've never played D&D in any way, shape, or form before. They are treating the OSR not as a hobby, but as a business opportunity and the players and potential new players as an untapped market. They have a vision of expansion. Imagine that. You might be able to actually walk into one of the few gaming stores left, open up a LL or S&W based module, and have people who recognize the game and want to play with you.

Why the resistance to such a vision? Why the need to have the expansion be founded in the existing OSR movement's charter and bylaws as propounded English Common Law style by a bunch of people's blogs and board posts? Is it resentment that the playground might be overrun by the 3 big kids coming to play and the friends they bring? Is it hubris? Is it like those guys who always say "I like such-and-such band, but only their EARLY stuff"? Is it resentment to someone co-opting the movement for commercial purposes? To being treated as a demographic? Sounds like perhaps all of the above.

James made some comments on the differences in systems he will be publishing for, stating "Similarly, the scattershot approach -- "addressing many different OGL-based game systems" -- is, if handled poorly, a recipe for disaster, especially since many of the games cited are very different from one another, both mechanically and esthetically (not to mention the fact that several of them aren't in fact "OGL-based" at all). Any definition of "Old School approach" that encompasses both Savage Worlds and Pathfinder is, I fear, so broad as to be meaningless."

Call me unsophisticated and not a true connoisseur of the OSR, but to me LL, S&W, BFRPG, D&D, C&C, OD&D, OSRIC AD&D, 2E, and all the rest of the old school games or old school style games are basically 95% the same damn thing. Then you have the 3.0/3.5/Pathfinder world, with detailed skills, feats, and tactical miniature/grid combat as the main point of differentiation from the other games listed. All of those games are still so similar that you can mostly convert on the fly from one to the other while running a module. I've done it. So have many of you.

Disclosing my lack of sophistication in other areas and applying it here, I admit I can't tell the difference between most beers or between most wines. It's all alcohol to me. It all tastes basically the same, gives me a buzz if I take it in sufficient quantities, and I generally have a good time when I have a buzz. Same with all the older versions and clones of D&D. There's not a dime's worth of meaningful difference between them, I enjoy playing them all equally, and always have a good time. I'd play Rob Kuntz's Dark Chateau module with any system out there and have a damn good time doing so, either as a player or a DM.

Isn't that what its all about? Isn't it more important to share those good times with more people than just a small self-congratulatory echo-chamber of niche people? With the decline over time in new players to PnP RPG's, isn't any attempt to get people to play games of any and all systems a good thing? Who gives a shit if its not done one someone's terms, or within the auspices of the charter and bylaws of the established OSR? Sounds like snobbery, hubris and resentment. It's too bad.

20 comments:

  1. All of those games are still so similar that you can mostly convert on the fly from one to the other while running a module. I've done it. So have many of you.

    True enough. I currently DM a campaign using D&D 3.0 (not 3.5) rules, while employing the AD&D 1e DMG, modules, and various other subsystems "behind the screen" (when there is a screen). This is not my problem with this venture.

    My problem with this venture is that the three Big Names involved don't have the business savvy that they you presume they have (at least it's not proven acumen). Jim Ward's FFE was a monumental flop, Tim Kask left Dragon Magazine when it was just getting good to found Adventure Gaming magazine, which, you guessed it, was a monumental flop. And Mentzer's primary claim to fame is rehashing other author's (Gygax, Moldvay, Cook), repackaging it in user-friendly ways--oh, and he ran a bakery for a while...

    Coming out and asking for $250,000 worth of investments in $5K chunks on public message boards is tantamount to telegraphing amateur (or I guess "semi-pro" in this case) status. The "I know 30 people with $5K each" statement Mentzer made in the Original Post pretty obviously refers to his hopes that the double handful of actual big money guys at the Acaeum.com will shell out for this. I'd bet he's overestimating by about double.

    Sure, he'll get a few takers, and that would be more than enough to put out a few small press-style offerings. But why the heck do they need a quarter million bucks???! They are definitely aiming higher than they should here, and that means major crash and burn.

    Plus, the inchoate, goofy plans that Mentzer feels perfectly free in bandying about just won't work. A booklet-within-a-booklet with stats for 7 different game systems? I don't see that working out too well.

    But heck, at least Rob Kuntz isn't in the mix. Talk about taking a trip to F'up City.

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  2. "Isn't it more important to share those good times with more people than just a small self-congratulatory echo-chamber of niche people"

    Yes, Yes it is.

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  3. Who knows how they will do. It might pay off, or crash and burn. But at least they are trying to expand it beyond the echo-chamber. Expansion can only be good, in that it has the potential to bring more people to the hobby. That's why I was shocked at the negativity.

    You never know. If they use the money to publish great modules, in paper format that you don't have to go to Lulu to buy, and its on the shelf in gaming stores, they build their brand recognition amongst existing gamers. From that, they can develop the new system with old school sensibilities that might sell to those gamers. That gets on the shelf, it might attract new gamers, old ones due to brand recognition, or those who have gotten out of the hobby for a while who are attracted by the name Mentzer. From there, if sales are good, it gets distributed (please in a boxed set format) perhaps in regular bookstores or even toy stores.

    Hey, we can dream. It might just be possible to have a new game on the shelf with old school sensibilities attracting new gamers to the hobby. You never know until you try. I give them kudos for giving it a shot, amateurish or not, poor past track record or not.

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  4. If Pathfinder is an "older style game system" then so is 4e.

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  5. That gets on the shelf, it might attract new gamers, old ones due to brand recognition, or those who have gotten out of the hobby for a while who are attracted by the name Mentzer.

    I don't bear any specific ill-will toward them and their desire to make a comeback. Hell, I think Ward's Metamorphosis Alpha, aside from being the first scifi RPG, is among the best ever done. It's just that I feel like they're trying to capitalize on the OSR (or whatever you call it, I hate the term "Old School" myself). I'm not especially attracted by Mentzer's or Kask's involvement, to be honest. I feel like they're just trying to milk to OSR, and specifically the Acaeum (which both have been inexplicably courting for years), for all they're worth.

    I refuse to be anyone's retirement plan. I won't be purchasing their products unless there is some SERIOUS buzz about how great they are. They aren't even proposing to write the stuff themselves, at this point... They want submissions! Where's the creativity, where's the jazz?!

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  6. "Why the resistance to such a vision? Why the need to have the expansion be founded in the existing OSR movement's charter and bylaws as propounded English Common Law style by a bunch of people's blogs and board posts? Is it resentment that the playground might be overrun by the 3 big kids coming to play and the friends they bring?"

    Bingo.

    There is a bit of territorialism here, sort of if back in 1979 The Who announced their decision to come out with a punk album along the lines of The Clash's Give Em Enough Rope or The Jam's This is the Modern World. That would have raised some hackles too, and provoked the same sort of criticism and snide remarks ("What do those old blokes think they are up to?")

    Despite what a lot of bloggers think, the world does NOT need another Simulacrum system to add to the starting-to-be-confusing plethora of abbreviation systems already out there. From what I have read Frank and company seem to realize this, and instead are offering adventures that can be multi-statted for the most popular 3rd party systems (Pathfinder, Hackmaster and C&C) along with any number of DIY retro-clones and simulacrums. Pretty much looks like a win-win for the old school crowd.

    Frank has enough 1E material to publish for years and years..he has hundreds of fully completed adventures, along with his own campaign world complete with megadungeon...so I think his appeal for other material isn't because he and Tim don't have anything "game ready". Tim has written several adventures in the last year he's run at Gencon and NTRPG Con (with a lot of good buzz) and Frank ran 3 AD&D adventures at NTRPG Con after running four completely different scenarios at a con earlier in the year.

    I'm with you, Joe. I just don't see what this hurts, succeed or fail.

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  7. I think I can sum up the resistance and resentment thusly:

    It is very hard to thumb your nose at those youngsters and The Man, when someone is trying to *le gasp* turn your brave tiny rebellion into something outsiders -- and the youngsters, and even The Man -- just might actually find and enjoy.

    If Mentzer et al go ahead with their plans, the OSR is no longer the few, the proud, the rebellious typing away furiously at their blogs.

    Or something.



    I think it's a fine idea, myself. I'll be curious to see how it all pans out.

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  8. "perhaps bitterness that someone else is playing in his sandbox and making a bigger better sandcastle..."

    Uh, there ain't no sandcastle yet, Joe.

    I thought James' comments were pretty reasonable, though I don't share the Jim Ward-Hate of some of the more rabid Grognardia posters. Talking about $250,000 on DF seems like a mistake - no one's going to give you $5000 on the basis of a bulletin board post. That kind of thing is best kept on a strictly interpersonal level, preferably over a good beer.

    Maybe James went a bit more towards the critical side and less to the gushing fanboy-ism than I would have liked, but he wasn't kneejerk trashing the project.

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  9. Howarth:
    "They aren't even proposing to write the stuff themselves, at this point... They want submissions! "

    Yes, that didn't sit well with me either. We need to see some genuine top-quality Mentzer/Kask/Ward stuff before they can put "Frank Mentzer Presents!" on some anonymous's adventure.

    I dunno; don't they have a whole slew of adventures and such in their closets waiting to be cleaned up and published?

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  10. "I dunno; don't they have a whole slew of adventures and such in their closets waiting to be cleaned up and published?"

    After seeing Frank run 3 different 1E adventures at NTRPG Con, along with running four completely different 1E adventures at another con earlier this year, coupled with the fact he's putting another group through adventures in his Aquaria home-brew setting every other weekend or so (complete with megadungeon) I asked him how many adventures he had "ready to run" in his files. The answer was "hundreds" (or a hundred, now I'm not positive). Frank's been writing stuff for 30 years so he's got a bunch to choose from.

    Since Tim's return to gaming a few years ago he's been hard at work creating OD&D adventures for conventions. I know he's written a handful that have gotten a lot of great reviews from players. He's run these at NTRPG Con, Garycon and Gencon, and his audience has been exactly the old school type that would probably be th customer in such a venture.

    Don't know a thing about what Jim Ward might have in the can, I guess if it was Metamorphosis Alpha related it might be cool.

    I'm hoping the submission request stuff is more along the lines of trying to find "different voices" out there who might have a great idea or two.

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  11. Taichara is exactly right.

    This is mostly about a set of self-styled rebels getting irked that somebody might try to turn their rebellion into something more, thus rendering them obsolete.

    A perfectly natural human impluse, of course.

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  12. I like this thing being with the hobbyists. Once you get a bigger audience you run the risk of mistakes being made as was the case with TSR, and now TLG. New players are good but expansion needs to be done carefully to preserve the fans being in control other than the company being in control.

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  13. Aw taichara, I thought you were of a better opinion of the likes of me. That's kinda sad. :(

    Here's my take - 1) If those guys want to try and make a buck, more power to them. It's a free world and if they put out truly good stuff, then that's cool.

    2) The problem I had is this perception that there needs to be a "big dog" to make this "explode". I don't think it needs to explode because it's going to grow and continue much as it has for the past 30 odd years. You're always going to have people interested in the old stuff.

    To be honest, I've not had a problem attracting the people I want to have at my table with old school materials that are out there. I've got young kids, older guys, women of all ages and even my children playing. It's playing the games that counts, in my experience and I don't see that stopping.

    What I do think is a case of pause is this idea we have to have "one" retroclone to rule them all. I think that way lies the same mistakes that were made in the 80s. The lifeblood of the hobby is the hobbyists.

    As far as the rest of the semi-fatbeard comments... well... if it makes you happy to sling mud my way, go right ahead.

    (And trust me, those old guys aren't going to put us hobbyists out of biz anytime soon. That genie's long out of the bottle.)

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  14. I think there's enough room in the sandbox for everyone. If James et al feel threatened, then they need to play smarter.

    Those who wish to contribute can, those who don't won't and people will still be blogging about it in any event. The market will decide.

    I actually wouldn't mind seeing what Frank Mentzer is capable of (D&D War Machine FTW!) but asking for $250K is a disincentive unless there's some kind of detail what it'll go on other than margaritas and donkey shows in Tijuana...

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  15. James never said he felt threatened, he said he was skeptical, and with good reason based on what little info was (is) available. I myself am curious how Frank's company will market these "adventures" to the different fanbases of the RPGs, each of which seems to want different things from an adventure. For example, the Savage Worlds fan community likes and generally expects the plot point format campaigns, Paizo's fans love their adventure paths, most of the OSR buzz is about sandbox campaigns, etc... will slapping some system-specific stats on a D&D-ish adventure be enough to satisfy or impress these various fan groups? Frank seems like a smart guy, so I hope he does know what he's doing dipping into all these markets ('cause it's not just one). The only thing I can say for sure about the whole situation is that it's going to be amazingly interesting to watch unfold over the coming months.

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  16. Yes, ADVENTURE GAMING went bust; funny thing was that it made money every single month on paper. Ronnie Rayguns' "trickle down" economics managed to put 70 to 80 percent of all the "mom & pop" hobbystores out of business, as well as virtually all of the small game distributors; sadly that was my distribution network. When I was getting bankruptcy court settlements of 11 cents on the dollar, with 12 years to pay it off, the magazine was no longer feasible.
    Another point to ponder; I was the only the first to leave (or be forced to leave) in what became an incredible exodus and disposition of talent from TSR. Ever wonder why that happened?

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  17. I guess Regan is also responsible for 3rd edition, 4e and Lorraine Williams as well? Maybe it is time to shift blame to those durn kids of today who are all whiners or of the 'entitlement' generation that you like to insult. You know, the kids that we need in the hobby to keep it going.

    As long as we keep comments like this up we'll drive a good portion of new players away.

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  18. @Chgowiz:

    As I never had you in mind, I think you've nothing to worry about in that regard.

    Neither do I think that we need a "big dog"; nor do I think that one way of promoting the OSR must needs have predecent over another. Which indeed is my reason for displeasure here, because that is indeed the attitude which I see being bandied about -- that it must be handled this way, and no other.

    And if there is room for hobbyists and publishers -- which I believe that there is -- there is no need for people to be getting up in arms over this new endeavour.

    Someday I will learn to keep my opinions to myself *shrugs*

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  19. Badmike:
    "I'm hoping the submission request stuff is more along the lines of trying to find "different voices" out there who might have a great idea or two."

    That'd be ok.

    Personally speaking, I have a lot of disposable income and not much to dispose it on other than RPG stuff. I've spent many hundreds of dollars all told on mostly not-that-great Mongoose,and Goodman Games product, and variable-quality Necromancer and TLG product. I'm keen to slap down a dollop of cash on new works from Kask, Mentzer and Ward (the one FFE book I got, I quite liked). If the first one or two I buy are good, they'll be getting lots of my money.

    Now, this requires that they put the effort into product development: writing and editing, rather than flashy tricks. I am definitely hopeful, though I have worries - in particular that more effort will go into attracting investment than into getting their own stuff out there.

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  20. "I have a lot of disposable income and not much to dispose it on..."

    Not counting the fortune that goes on my child as disposable, and my wife has her own income slightly bigger than mine.

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