indie rpgs – a rambling bunch of thoughts

April 6, 2007 at 10:42 am (gaming, nonfiction, rant)

hmmm. so anyone who knows me, or is big, geeky kind of gamer is probably aware of a growing trend in the role-playing game world these days. independently designed and published games.
whether i like it or not it seems pretty damn clear that the hobby gaming “industry” in general is on a downward slope right now, and i can’t help but think that the role-playing game publishing business especially is slowly but inevitably dying off.
don’t get me wrong: i don’t think gaming will ever die. board games and card games will probably continue to be a fairly viable business, and i’m sure there will always be people that play rpgs, but i think the days of rpg publishing being a realistic business for a company are limited.
but this could actually be a good thing, in some ways.
i’m sure a lot of fans of the hobby might be confused by a statement like this.
“How could the collapse of the companies that produce role-playing games – my favorite hobby – possibly be a good thing!?”

well, my thinking ties into what happened with text adventures.
anyone remember those? text adventures were actually pretty damn popular in the 80s. that’s right, kids! people actually paid good money to play video games that had NO GRAPHICS WHATSOEVER! they were ALL TEXT! Infocom was one of the biggest of these companies, giving us the classic Zork series, among others. i loved some of these games, and i still play them every now and then. but the problem with them was that they were always constrained by the necessity of trying to make games that would make a lot of money. don’t get me wrong, they still made some pretty interesting, inovative games – A Mind Forever Voyaging and Suspended particularly come to mind – but for the most part they were shooting for financial success, as all companies do. the text adventure as a viable commercial product died off, of course, as people (shockingly!) began to expect pretty pictures and sounds with their video games. but, and some of you may be surprised by this, the text adventure never went away completely.
these days the fans tend to call them IF, or interactive fiction. there are quite a lot of them being created even now, by fans, for fans. the people that write them do so because they love the games and they want to share a story that perhaps can only be properly told this way. and freed from the constraints of needing to try to produce games for a company and a paying consumer base, IF authors have been able to create some truly amazing games and stories, the best of which blow the old commercial classics out of the water. games like Spider and Web by Andrew Plotkin, Floatpoint by Emily Short, and Slouching Toward Bedlam by Daniel Ravipinto and Star Foster are some of the coolest stories I have ever experienced in any medium.

some of this is what i see happening now in the rpg community.
i’ll preface my next statement by pointing out that i have a pretty strong negative bias towards Wizards of the Coast and Dungeons and Dragons so fans of that game and company may very well disagree with me. it doesn’t really seem like WotC is doing anything particularly interesting, exciting, or innovative with D&D. it’s still basically the same game that it always was. it might do what it did better than it used to, but it does pretty much the same thing.
i think White Wolf is slightly better, but not much. i think they did some interesting things with their reboot of their World of Darkness line, and i think what they’re doing with Promethean and Changeling is pretty cool (a planned limited release schedule – allowing them to put something out that might not have the staying power and popularity of Vampire), but other than that, things are still pretty much the same.

fortunately, the indie rpg community didn’t require the full and complete death of the rpg publishing companies to start to grow.
for those who might not know what i’m talking about, when i talk about indie rpgs i just mean games that are designed and published by their creator without needing to go through a bigger publishing company.
i only really started learning about indie games last year, primarily through listening to the excellent gaming podcast Have Games, Will Travel by Paul Tevis. consequently, i know very well there are a lot of games out there i’m not familiar with. mostly what i tend to talk about when i mention indie rpgs are those that tend to be discussed around places like The Forge and the Story Games Community, and get sold on places like Indie Press Revolution.

one of the big reasons these games have begun to spring up so much in recent years all boils down to technology, of course. i have no doubt that people have been creating their own rpgs for a long, long time, sometimes writing down the rules, sometimes not. some of these games certainly went on to become the well known commercially produced games of today. but publishing books and games used to be difficult. not so much anymore. these days it’s pretty damn cheap and easy to write up a set of rules and share it over the internet, for example. the range of options for production quality and sales are wide just for electronic formats alone, and now there are print-on-demand companies like Lulu to make selling physical copies cheap and easy as well. so if you’ve got an idea for a game that you think people would enjoy and/or pay for, there is almost no reason whatsoever NOT to publish it.

still, the market is small. so like the modern-day interactive fiction community, the people who make indie rpgs are doing so because they love the games and they love the hobby, not because they want or expect to get rich from it. to a certain extent this is unfortunate – some of these games are really tremendous (and i speak just from the experience of reading the books) and i think their authors deserve financial rewards for such quality work – but i think i am also glad. i really like the fact that i know each and every one of these games was a true labor of love. no one is writing these things just to try to make a buck.

so i’m excited. these new games i’ve checked out are really interesting. they are a very, very different animal from Dungeons and Dragons or any of White Wolf’s games. people who think they know what role-playing games are all about would be shocked by some of these things, and i think that’s fantastic. D&D is great for those who like what it does, but it shouldn’t be the end all and be all. after all, sometimes you need more tools than just a hammer. sometimes you want to go on a dungeon crawl and shoot magic missiles at knolls, and sometimes you want to do something else.

anyway. this turned into much more of a rambling rant than i intended. i was going to talk about the specific indie games i’ve acquired this far, but since this post is getting so damn long, think i’ll put those thoughts into separate posts of their own.

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