Last weekend was the second anniversary of this blog, and I've been reflecting upon how much the OSR blogging community has changed and grown in that time. Not only has there been a tremendous proliferation of blogs about old-school gaming - more than I can possibly follow, there has also been a veritable explosion of publishing ventures initiated by members of our community. I've even published my own game this year.
What really strikes me is the high quality of these 'amateur' publications. My last three gaming purchases, Barrowmaze, Vornheim, and Weird Adventures were all products of the OSR community and they are the best gaming purchases that I've made in years. Advances in desktop publishing and POD services make it possible for anyone to create products that are as slick and polished as any produced by a professional game company. And even those products that are not as slick still have an old school charm reminiscent of the games from the '70's and early '80's that we all remember so fondly.
This begs the question: what is to become of professional game designers, who are shackled by the need to sell enough product to make a living? This means that they need to produce new products on a regular schedule in order to generate steady revenue. These shackles become even heavier for corporations, which are not content to make living wages for employees, but need to produce profits for their shareholders.
Hobby publishers, on the other hand, do not depend on selling games to feed their families, pay their mortgages or enrich their shareholders. They can afford to take their time to produce games and products that are true labours of love. This probably explains why I get far more bang for my buck from hobby publishers than from professionals; because we are publishing as a hobby we can produce a better product for less money. I've long maintained that a labour of love always trumps a labour of profit and this has certainly proven true of the gaming hobby in recent years.
This is why I have no hope, whatsoever, that the next edition of Wizards of the Coast brand D&D will have any soul. This game is nobody's baby. It hasn't grown, organically, out of someone's home game, like its ultimate progenitor did, and which all of the above-mentioned OSR products did. Instead, it, like 4th edition before it, was the result of artificial insemination by the marketing department. This is no love-child, and neither 4th, nor 5th edition grew out of the needs of the game, but rather a need to generate large amounts of cash. That, in my opinion, is an ass-backwards way to run a game business.
In contrast, OSR products are almost always the by-blow from somebody's game table. Barrowmaze is Greg Gillespie's home campaign; Vornheim is the collection of rules that Zak S. uses to run his city adventures; and Weird Adventures is the setting of Trey Causey's pulp adventure campaigns. Likewise, the much anticipated Dwimmermount megadungeon adventure has grown out of James Maliszewski's own campaign. There is no way that a product whose only reason for being is to make money can compare, and it makes me wonder how much longer professional game companies can continue to compete with home-based hobby publishers who aren't forced to crank out product on a fixed schedule.
I've lost count of the number of times I've been badly burned by some over-priced and entirely useless game aid that sounded much better than it actually was. I've purchased a number of badly-written and -edited products from WotC that were cranked out to make money and will never get used - probably by anyone.
It isn't just Wizard's of the Coast, either. I've been stung by over-hyped, high priced products of limited value produced by Paizo as well. Even small companies, like Troll Lord Games have produced their share of disappointments. And it isn't that the writers are bad, or aren't capable of creating some amazing material, it's just that when you are forced to produce products, clockwork fashion, to pay the bills you are going to wind up with more stinkers than hits.
In the past we had to put up with it. That was just the way it was, so you plunked down your money, crossed your fingers, hoped for something special then, more often than not, came away with nothing more than a lighter wallet. But now we have a whole host of amateur publishers in the OSR who are turning out some very high-calibre work - often at prices that are so low that I'm a lot more willing to take a chance because, even if I don't like something, I'm not out a lot of money. But you know what? That hasn't happened to me yet. Every single OSR product I've bought, I've actually used. I've never been able to say that of any game company.
Now, there are some companies that are publishing labours of love, such as Dungeon Crawl Classics, which Joseph Goodman wrote for Joseph Goodman. I have a great respect for Goodman for having the passion and conviction to write the game he always wanted to play - that's how you make good games. Even though, from what I've seen of the DCC beta rules, it isn't the game for me, I have no doubt that it will appeal to many others. I don't know what Goodman's situation is; whether he has a day-job or supportive spouse that pays the bills, or is making enough money from his other products that he could afford to indulge in a pet project. But I suspect that most other companies couldn't or wouldn't take the risk of investing so much time and effort in such a niche product of potentially limited appeal.
Anyhow, the times, they are a'changing. We've seen Wizard's of the Coast losing ground to Paizo, and I have to wonder whether, if the proliferation of high-quality products from indie publishers continues, game companies might be in their waning days. For many years now, traditional brick-and-mortar game stores have similarly suffered from competition with online retailers, and to survive they've had to adapt and offer customers services they can't get online. Store owners have done this by fostering a sense of community, hosting events, and giving customers a reason to come into the store instead of buying, often more cheaply, online. Similarly, if professional game companies are going to compete they will have to offer a level of support that customers can't get from indie publishers. I'm not sure what might be, but I do believe that they may have no choice but to adapt to the new reality or face an eventual demise.
Welcome Back to the Labyrinth
"We have been away far too long, my friends," Ashoka declared, his face lit by the eldritch green glow of his staff. "But we have finally returned to the labyrinth whence our adventures first began."
"Just imagine the treasures that lie within," said Yun Tai, flexing his mighty muscles. "Wealth enough to live in luxury the rest of our days."
"And arcane artifacts of great power," added Ashoka his words dripping with avarice. "All ours for the taking!"
"Umm...guys?" Nysa interrupted. "Do you hear something dripping?"