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Cats 1, Dolphins 0: An Interview with Keith Baker


During the course of my career in the games industry, I have had the good fortune to work with a huge number of talented people – sometimes more than once. Keith Baker is one of those people, and over the coming months I hope to feature others.

 

I first met Keith in 1995, when I went to work for a Georgetown, DC multimedia house called Magnet Interactive Studios. I was working on edutainment-infotainment products that included interactive CD-ROM adaptations of Donald Silver’s One Small Square nature guides; Keith was working on a CR-ROM game for a client who had a great idea about a water-ball orbital station where dolphins programmed computers using sound. That game never saw the light of day, and after we both ended up at Boulder, Colorado MMO shop VR-1 Entertainment in 1996, neither did several other projects, including an audio MUD (think multiplayer online interactive radio drama) and the highly-anticipated pulp-horror MMORPG Lost Continents.

 

Lesser souls might have given up and gone into insurance, but not Keith. In 2002 he won the Wizards of the Coast Fantasy Setting Search with Eberron, which made him a household name in the D&D community. Not content with that, he created the hit card game Gloom for Atlas Games, which has now turned into almost a dozen products and expansions. Now, he has founded Twogether Studios to get more of his games out into the world. The latest one, Action Cats, is a feline-centric storytelling game with crowdsourced images, which could make your moggy a star. Yes, I know: that’s just the way his mind works.

 

But enough from me: Keith is more than capable of speaking for himself.

 

 

 

Hi, Keith, and thanks for this interview. We’ve just seen how I would introduce you – now, how would you introduce yourself?

 

I’m Keith Baker, and I’m one of the luckiest nerds in the world. I got into D&D when I was in elementary school, and from that time I knew that there were people whose job was to make games and I wanted to be one of those people. Of course, I had no idea how to actually get that job. After college, I stumbled by chance into an opportunity to work at a computer game company — the long-defunct Magnet Interactive Studios – where I had a chance to work with many RPG legends, like Ken Rolston (Paranoia), Zeb Cook (Planescape), and, of course, Graeme Davis (Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Colonial Gothic). This was a great opportunity to hone my skills, and over the course of years I worked my way up to the position of lead game designer.
I worked for a number of other computer game companies over the years, and along the way I finally made inroads into the tabletop industry. I did freelance work for Atlas Games, Steve Jackson, Green Ronin, and Goodman Games. Finally, in 2002, I got frustrated with the computer games industry and decided to try freelance RPG writing full-time. I should have been doomed, but that was the year Wizards of the Coast announced its Fantasy Setting Search — eventually choosing my world of Eberron as the new setting for Dungeons & Dragons 3.5.
The first Eberron products were released in 2004, and the same year saw the release of my transparent card game Gloom. I’ve been tinkering on various projects ever since. In 2014, my wife Jenn Ellis and I founded our own game company, Twogether Studios. We released our first product — the tabletop RPG Phoenix: Dawn Command — in 2016. This year we’ll be releasing Illimat, a classic card game we created with the band The Decemberists, and we’re currently Kickstarting our next game, Action Cats!
 
Eberron still has a great many fans. Tell us how you came up with the idea. Are there any future plans that you can share?
I submitted seven ideas to the Fantasy Setting Search. Eberron was the last of them — one I added in just because it seemed like fun. It incorporates a few things I enjoyed. The first is the idea that since arcane magic in D&D behaves in a scientific manner (it’s reliable, repeatable, you can teach a spell to another wizard or create a new spell), why wouldn’t it be worked into society in the same way we use science? How would the world evolve with magic as a tool instead of in the hands of a few wizards? I blended this with two themes I enjoyed, film noir and pulp adventure. This was further influence by the fact that between 1999 and 2002 I’d been working on a pulp-themed MMORPG called Lost Continents – so I had pulp on the brain.
At the moment Eberron is in the WotC vault. I post Q&As on my personal website (keith-baker.com) every few weeks, but I can’t do any more with it until WotC opens it up. I think this will eventually happen, but I don’t know when.
Gloom is a unique game in  many ways: transparent cards as a mechanic rather than just a gimmick; a goal of making your characters miserable and other players’ characters happy; and a quietly twisted sensibility. How did you come up with the idea? What can you tell us about future expansions?
Gloom had two points of origin. The first was that I saw a deck of transparent plastic poker cards and thought If you can print on transparent plastic, I want to make a game that actually DOES something with that. The second was that my significant other at the time had a really hard time with games where she had to do mean things to other people — which meant that when we played such games with friends, she’d always do all the mean things to ME. So – as a longtime fan of Edward Gorey, the Addams Family, and similar things – I made a game where you do NICE things to other people. It was a purely semantic twist, but it worked.
As for what’s next for Gloom, we recently released Gloom in Space, a sci-fi twist on the concept. There are a few things in the works, but nothing I can talk about yet.
The Doom That Came to Atlantic City is another unique idea: it might be described as “Cthulhuopoly.” Its journey to the market was a hard one, but I’m sure anyone who has played the game would agree it was worthwhile. Once again, how did you come up with the idea? How long was it in development before you were ready to Kickstart it? What lessons can other hopefuls take from your experience? Do you have any plans for anything similar?
The original idea for The Doom That Came To Atlantic City came from my friend Lee Moyer. A talented artist and connoisseur of all things Lovecraftian, Lee created a strange blend of Arkham Horror and Monopoly. It was interesting, but not really a game… and as I was a budding game designer, he asked me to take a crack at it. We kicked around various ideas for years before hitting on the final formula: the idea that you were playing the Old Ones themselves, stomping around and destroying the city.
We didn’t originally plan to Kickstart it; we had a contract with Z-Man Games, and it was just about to go to print when that fell through. So we had a game that was basically ready to go to print. When Erik Chevalier came to us and wanted to kickstart it, it seemed like a fairly foolproof idea… but it turns out those fools can be surprisingly clever. Lessons learned: Never get involved in a Kickstarter where you’re not in control and you don’t know the person who is. I trusted that Erik Chevalier was being up front and was an honest person; neither of those things turned out to be true. He lied to Lee and me, and to the backers; he spent the funds on everything but making the game; and ultimately, we had to cancel the project. Cryptozoic came to the rescue, making the game and giving it to backers of the Kickstarter at their own expense. But I’ll never give my name or a game of mine to another Kickstarter campaign unless I know everything about the project and the people running it.
While Doom is a fun game, board games aren’t a primary interest of mine, and I don’t have any particular plans to follow up on it.
Phoenix: Dawn Command was Twogether Studios’ first release. What’s it all about, and what sets it apart from other titles in the increasingly-crowded tabletop RPG market? How do you see that market, and how has that insight shaped your approach to designing, producing, and marketing the game?
Phoenix: Dawn Command is a traditional fantasy RPG. A gamemaster guides a group of players through an unfolding story. You are heroes in a fantasy world besieged by a host of supernatural threats. The dead are rising to prey on the living. There are ghosts, skinchangers, plagues, mass hysteria. You are one of the only people with the power to face these threats, but you may not live through the experience.
But that’s OK, because in Phoenix, death is how your character grows stronger. When you die, you eventually return stronger than before — but you don’t return right away, you don’t return where you died, and you can only return seven times. So each death gives you more power, but it also brings you closer to the end. Phoenix uses cards instead of dice: while there’s still an element of randomness, this gives players more narrative control. You know what your character is capable of, so there’s never a wasted action. If you don’t have the cards you need to pull off a particular action, then you must figure out something you can do with the resources you have in the moment. Alternatively, you have a pool of mystical energy you can burn to push beyond your current limits, essentially buying success… but when you run out of that energy, you die. So in Phoenix, death doesn’t happen because you failed a saving throw or because an orc rolled a critical hit; it happens because you chose to make a sacrifice. Nine times out of ten, deaths in Phoenix feel like a triumph: it lets you have these amazing dramatic moments you just don’t get in stories where death is a failure.
With that said, the tabletop RPG market is a small thing. We overestimated both the demand and our own reach. Phoenix is a beautiful game, and I’m proud of both the design and production. But we have a lot of work ahead of us to get more awareness of it out into the world. We are going to be continuing to support it, but honestly we are still figuring out the best approach, especially given our limited resources as a two-person company.

Illimat is another unique idea, and has done very well on Kickstarter. What’s it all about? How did you come to work with Portland indie band The Decemberists? When will it be available?

 

Many years ago, the band The Decemberists did a promo photoshoot where they were a secret society playing a mysterious game. They made a board for this nonexistent game, took some pictures, and never did anything with it. Fast forward to the future. They’re Gloom fans, and we cross paths over Gloom. They say “We’ve got this weird board… could you make a real game out of it? And could it feel like it might be a hundred years old and people have just forgotten about it? And be a little like a card game and a little like a Ouija board?” And I, of course, said “Yes.”
Illimat has the bones of a classic card game, drawing on games like Cassino and Scopa. But it’s new and different, and has a dynamic twist that will appeal to modern gamers. It’s played on a cloth board, but the game box itself is also a component. You set the box in the middle of the board, and its orientation determines the seasons of the different fields on the board, which in turn determines what can be done in those fields. As you play, you can change the seasons and thus interfere with your opponents’ plans.
I’m very happy with Illimat. I feel it accomplishes all our goals. It feels familiar and compelling to anyone who’s played a classic card game, but it has twists that make it unlike any of those games. And it’s visually beautiful and enigmatic. We expect it to be available in early October.
Action Cats has just been announced. Could I really get my cat (if I had one) featured in the game? Where did this idea come from?
Action Cats is a simple storytelling game. Each card has a picture of a cat on one side and two story prompts on the other side – the beginning and end of a sentence. So one card might say “This cat is a famous game designer…” and “… and would like some appreciation for that.” Each round, the judge takes the top cat and tells everyone what its name is. Everyone else combines two cards from their hand to create a story about that cat, and then presents their story. While you can just let the card text stand on its own: “This cat is a famous game designer”, you’re encouraged to elaborate on the story. Which particular games did this cat design? Did he create Settlers of Cattin’? Call of Cathulhu? Why does he (or she) feel so underappreciated? Like Gloom, this is where the real fun comes in… and the pictures themselves give a lot of inspiration for colorful stories.
This began as a simple idea I just put together to play with friends. I took pictures of my friends’ cats and did a print-on-demand deck. But we had so much fun playing it that we decided to make it a real thing. It’s a simple game, but it’s fun, family-friendly, and great for people who have little experience with games, but who love a cute cat picture. We’re running the Kickstarter campaign now, and we’re keeping it very simple. Anyone who backs the game can submit pictures of their cats, so your cat could be in the game! We aren’t doing any complicated add-ons, and we’re printing the game domestically — so we expect to have the game in the hands of backers by the end of the year! The Kickstarter only runs until August 1st, so if you want to get in on it, act now!
Is there anything else we should know about Twogether Studios? What does the future hold?
Jenn Ellis and I officially launched Twogether Studios in 2014. I’ve been making games for decades, but while I might love game design, I have no head for business. Jenn’s history is in product development, and she’s the people and products side of Twogether: I come up with games, and she makes them real. While our products – Phoenix, Illimat, Action Cats – are extremely diverse, they’re all games that bring people together, and they all share an element of whimsy and creativity. In the immediate future, our focus is on supporting Phoenix and getting the other games into the hands of backers and stores, but we’re always thinking about our next project!

What is your favorite monster from all of mythology and gaming? Why?

 

It’s a hard choice, especially because gaming often messes up the myths – such as the rakshasa that can be killed by an enchanted crossbow bolt, thanks to Kolchak the Night Stalker. I have a fondness for D&D‘s medusa thanks to my novel The Queen of Stone, but again, that’s a very different entity from the gorgon sisters of Greek mythology… though I do love the name “Euryale”, and I’ve used it in a few different places. I like exploring aspects of creatures that often get overlooked. In the case of the medusa, I liked thinking about what it means to have living hair. Can the medusa control her hair, or is it like a cat’s tail, an instinctive indicator of mood? Can she see through the eyes of her hair?
But if I had to pick just one, I might pick the Yule Cat of Iceland. Because it eats children if they don’t get new clothes for Christmas, which is the best excuse ever for why you should be GLAD you got socks as a present.

 

What do you read for inspiration? For fun? 
I love mythology and folklore from almost any culture, both for entertainment and inspiration. I’ve enjoyed some modern reimagining of such stories, such as Kat Valente’s Deathless. History is always useful; at the moment I’m reading The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk.
What do you watch for the same reasons? What do you never get tired of re-watching, and why? 
I’ve been watching Game of Thrones. It has its ups and downs, but it’s generally fantastic fantasy. I’ve gotten a little worn out from all the superhero shows, but I loved Legion, and I’ve already re-watched that, some episodes more than once. I love the writing, the cast, and the general approach of being a show set in a world of mutants that’s not in any way a superhero show. I loved both Fargo and Mr Robot, again because of the plotting and writing. And I’ll always go back to The Middleman for a laugh.
Re-reading, same question?

The Dictionary of the Khazars (Milorad Pavic) and the Irish epic The Tain. I enjoy the style of each, and there’s always something new in The Dictionary of the Khazars. And if I’m working on something for Eberron, I’ll often go back to The Big Sleep, which I definitely prefer in written form.

Many thanks to Keith for taking the time out for an interview in the middle of so many game projects! You can find him online here:

What are you still doing here? Go and check out Action Cats right now!

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My Complete and Utter D&D/AD&D/d20 Bibliography

August 11, 2015 14 comments

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For me, as for most people, Dungeons & Dragons was the first roleplaying game. I started playing around 1977 and I started writing articles and adventures while I was in college. My first article was published in 1982, and my most recent adventure was published in 2010. Along the way I also wrote a D&D novel and worked on an unsuccessful pitch for a Greyhawk MMO game. Here they all are:

Products

Pathfinder Adventure Path #41: The Thousand Fangs Below, Paizo Publishing 2010 – adventure author Buy it here
Pathfinder GameMastery Guide, Paizo Publishing 2010 – contributing author Buy it here
Pathfinder Bestiary 2, Paizo Publishing 2010 – contributing author Buy it here
Moons of Arksyra, Hypernova Games 2005 – co-author/developer Buy it here
Mythic Vistas: Eternal Rome, Green Ronin Publishing 2005 – author Buy it here
Creatures of Freeport, Green Ronin Publishing 2004 – co-author Buy it here
Tales of Freeport, Green Ronin Publishing 2003 – author
Slaine: Teeth of the Moon Sow, Mongoose Publishing 2002 – author Buy it here
AD&D Celts Campaign Sourcebook, TSR, Inc. 1992 – author Buy it here
The Goblins’ Lair, TSR, Inc. 1992 – author Buy it here

Fiction
Blood and Honor, Wizards of the Coast 2006 Buy the audio book here

Articles
“The Tathlum,” (AD&D Celts Campaign Sourcebook outtake), personal blog, December 2015 Download free here
“The Ecology of the Wight,” Dragon #348, October 2006 Buy it here
“The Soul Yard,” No Quarter #8, September 2006 Buy it here
“Dead Man’s Quest,” Dungeon #107, February 2004 Buy it here
“The Rapax,” Tales of Freeport web promo, 2003 Download free here
“Lady Mijiko’s Holiday,” Pyramid #14, Jul/Aug 1995 – available free online: click here
“The King Beneath the Hill,” White Wolf Magazine #26, Apr/May 1991 Buy it here
“Race Relations,” GameMaster Publications #4, June 1986
“Nightmare in Green,” White Dwarf #75, Apr 1986
“Defenders of the Faith,” GameMaster Publications #3, March 1986
“Find the Lady,” GameMaster Publications #2, Dec 1985 Download free here
“Tongue Tied,” White Dwarf #70, Nov 1985
“Poison,” White Dwarf #69, Oct 1985
“Magic & Mayhem: Viking!” Imagine #30, Sep 1985
“Pentjak Silat: Indonesian Martial Arts,” Imagine #25, Apr 1985
“Japanese Bujutsu,” Imagine #25, Apr 1985
“Monsters from the Folklore of the Philippines,” Imagine #25, Apr 1985 Download free here
“Eye of Newt and Wing of Bat,” White Dwarf #59-63, Dec 1984-April 1985
“New Flail Types,” Imagine #20, Nov 1984 Download free here
“Magic & Mayhem: Celts,” Imagine #17, Aug 1984 Download free here
“Sethotep,” Imagine #16, Jul 1984 Download free here
“Sobek, God of Marshes and Crocodiles,” Imagine #16, Jul 1984 Download free here
“Drowning Rules,” White Dwarf #51, Apr 1984
“Seeing the Light,” White Dwarf #44, Sep 1983
“The Taking of Siandabhair,” Imagine #5, Aug 1983 Download free here
“Bujutsu,” White Dwarf #43, Aug 1983
“Extracts from the Uruk-Hai Battle Manual,” White Dwarf #38, Mar 1983
“The Tower of Babel,” Pegasus #12, Feb-Mar 1983 Buy it here
“The City in the Swamp,” White Dwarf #37, Feb 1983
“More Necromantic Abilities,” White Dwarf #36, Jan 1983
“Drug Use and Abuse,” White Dwarf #32, Aug 1982

Other Bibliography Posts

My Complete and Utter Warhammer Bibliography (Warhammer, WFRP, HeroQuest, AHQ)

My Complete and Utter Warhammer 40,000 Bibliography (WH40K, Adeptus Titanicus/Epic Scale)

My Complete and Utter Cthulhu Bibliography

My Complete and Utter GURPS Bibliography

My Complete and Utter Vampire: the Masquerade and World of Darkness Bibliography

My Complete and Utter Fighting Fantasy and Gamebook Bibliography

My Complete and Utter Colonial Gothic Bibliography

My Complete and Utter Dark Future Bibliography

My Complete and Utter Video Gameography

My Complete and Utter Bibliography: The Rest of the RPGs

My Complete and Utter Bibliography: Odds and Ends

 

In Praise of Historical Fantasy

July 5, 2013 4 comments

I’ve worked on a lot of historical fantasy projects over the years: the AD&D Celts Campaign Sourcebook, GURPS Vikings, GURPS Middle Ages 1, d20 Eternal Rome, Colonial Gothic, and a host of articles for various gaming magazines and web sites. Sometimes a project starts as historical fantasy and extends into contemporary fantasy and conspiracy theory, like my Dark Osprey book on the Knights Templar. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, of course, is set in a fictional Old World that had a lot in common with 15th-century Europe.

I could go on at length about how I came to prefer historical fantasy, starting with Enid Blyton retellings of the tales of King Arthur and Robin Hood, Saturday morning rescreenings of Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts, and summer holidays spent visiting Roman villas and medieval castles across the south of England. But I’ll try not to, because that’s not the point I want to make.

It could be argued that almost all fantasy is historical fantasy. The ratio of history to fantasy varies, of course. Some fantasy settings take only the trappings of medieval Europe: castles, walled towns, and styles of weapons and armor. Others, including a lot of my own work, try to recreate the historical setting more or less faithfully, and layer in the types of fantasy elements that the people of that time and place really believed in: in the case of a Viking setting this includes trolls, draugr, one-eyed wizards who talk in riddles, and ways into the realms of Asgard, Alfheim, Jotunheim, and the rest. This is the style of fantasy I personally prefer, but that’s just me.

My first experience of this kind of fantasy came in about 1980. By then, I had been playing D&D/AD&D for about three years: I had resisted starting a Traveller campaign because I was an archaeology student and a fantasy and folklore fan whereas most of my college gaming group were studying physics and consumed science fiction like termites in a sawmill. Their own AD&D campaigns featured things like gigawatt lasers, time and dimension travel, and one memorable guest appearance by Slippery Jim deGris. In a medieval fantasy setting, I felt I could keep things under control, but if I had run Traveller for that group, there’s no telling what they might have talked me into allowing. Pistols that fire point singularities? The mind reels. Sorry – reminiscing again. Back to the point.

Playing Bushido (shortly after watching the miniseries of James Clavell’s Shogun) gave me a window into another culture, another place and time, and I was enthralled. I started to write my own RPG set in the world of Irish myth and saga with the working title Fiana, but it never got beyond a couple of playtest sessions.

As I continued to study, and read, and play, I came to realize that medieval (or “generic”) fantasy had a far stronger basis in history than simply castles and knights. Tolkien’s Middle-earth was grounded in the world of Anglo-Saxon literature, Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age showed a grasp of inter-war archaeology that surprised me, and the worlds of Michael Moorcock’s fantasy novels were, if not historically-based in the same sense, still a window into the decadent London Scene of the late 60s and early 70s.

The point – and I promise, I do have one – is this: fantasy is most accessible when it gives the new reader, or player, something familiar to hang on to rather than plunging them into a world that is completely original. Original fantasy worlds can be disorienting at first, and while they may have many virtues from a literary standpoint, accessibility is not necessarily one of them. Professor M.A.R. Barker created a dazzlingly original fantasy setting for Empire of the Petal Throne and his world of Tekumel still has loyal fans, but AD&D settings like Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms proved themselves much friendlier to neophytes and enjoyed much greater commercial success. A little later Skyrealms of Jorune presented players with very original and thought-provoking SF races and cultures, but its very originality made it harder to play in: a player would start out knowing far less about the world than his or her character did, and it took a lot of quite determined study to figure the setting out. Skyrealms is rightly regarded as a classic, but comparatively few people have ever played it.

While history makes fantasy more accessible, an injection of fantasy can make history a lot more fun. I came to appreciate history fairly late in life, after more than a decade harboring resentment against the teachers who had made it so deadly dull – for me, at least. Would the Pirates of the Caribbean movies have been so successful if they had eschewed the supernatural and striven to recreate the real story of the Golden Age of Piracy? Would they have been as much fun? While I’ve read some very entertaining history books about Caribbean piracy, I have to say I doubt it.

Compare, for example, the Patrick Bergin Robin Hood movie with Kevin Costner’s Prince of Thieves. They were in production at the same time but took very different approaches. The Bergin film paid scrupulous attention to historical detail: the producers employed a historian who was well versed in the contemporary theories about who and what the Hooded Man might really have been, if he truly did live in Norman England. The result: no Sheriff of Nottingham, few if any of the expected story vignettes (although it has to be said that only the Errol Flynn version really satisfies on that score), and the film comes across as earnest but rather dull. Costner embraced the big-budget historical romp, and for every offended scholar who stayed away many more regular folks came, watched, and enjoyed. Likewise, Clive Owen’s well-intentioned King Arthur movie got bogged down in historical (semi) reality – and as an archaeology grad I have to say it showed an impressive level of research in everything except its treatment of the Picts – but it took away a lot of what makes Arthur Arthur in most people’s minds.

More recently we have seen movies like National Treasure, the seemingly unstoppable Pirates of the Caribbean, and of course the Game of Thrones omni-media juggernaut which owes at least some kind of debt to England’s 15th-century Wars of the Roses (I’m waiting for someone to make a Game of Thrones version of Kingmaker). And then there’s the rise of the contemporary urban fantasy genre in fiction, which uses the most familiar setting of all: not historical fantasy, I admit, but it does support my point about the importance of accessibility in a fantasy setting.

Although the exact proportion of history to fantasy is a matter of personal taste, it seems to me that they really do play well together. Fantasy without history can be confusing, and while I would never say that history is dull – except in school – pure, unadulterated history suffers from an image problem.

On the Economics of Tabletop RPGs

January 28, 2012 30 comments

Almost 30 years ago, I wrote an article for TSR UK’s Imagine magazine on the subject of converting characters and adventures between different roleplaying game systems. I remember taking an unscientific poll at the time, and based on the content and advertising in the various RPG magazines I had to hand, there were around 50 tabletop RPGs on the market. Today, a quick look through DriveThruRPG.com turns up 97 game lines, and I’m sure there are many more that don’t sell through that site.

The year after my article was published, GenCon attracted 5,000 attendees in its first year in Milwaukee. Last year, a reported 36,733 people went to Indianapolis for GenCon, to say nothing of those who attended the various smaller GenCons around the world.

All this might lead the casual observer to believe that the tabletop roleplaying hobby has never been stronger or more popular – but I’m not so sure. Here’s why:

The FLGS Under Threat

In the 80s and early 90s, I was usually aware of 2-3 Friendly Local Game Stores (FLGSs to us game geeks) within a 30-minute drive of wherever I happened to be living at the time. They were places where gamers could go and browse, maybe play a demo or two, pick up new releases for whatever games they played, and discover new games.

Now, the FLGS is almost an endangered species. The major games – D&D, Pathfinder, and maybe one or two others – can now be found in big-box bookstores, but they don’t carry anything like the range of stock found in an FLGS, and small to mid-range titles are absent altogether. The online retailers carry a much broader range, but browsing takes serious determination. I suspect that game conventions are now the main way that gamers discover new games.

Follow the Money

When I quit Games Workshop in 1990 to set out on the uncertain seas of freelance game writing, I was paid between 2 and 5 cents per word. Twenty-two years later, that’s what most of the tabletop RPG industry still pays. A handful of the larger publishers pay 6 cents per word.

According to DollarTimes.com, a 2012 dollar is worth only 58 cents from 1990. So in real terms, payment rates have declined by more than one-third over the last 22 years. Many old-school tabletop RPG writers, myself included, now make their living in the better-paying electronic games industry. Many of the people I know in the industry – even those who own and operate RPG publishing companies – list a “day job” on their LinkedIn profiles, which is a sign that they can’t make a living from game publishing alone.

So what’s happening? Why do we see growth in the range of tabletop RPG titles and increasing attendance at game conventions alongside clear evidence of a drop in profitability? I can think of a couple of reasons.

Lowering the Bar

In the 80s and 90s, getting a tabletop RPG to market was a serious undertaking. Layout was still done with scissors and paste. The first desktop publishing programs were so expensive that only professional publishers could afford them. A print run of at least 5,000 copies was needed to break even, and publishers had to pay for printing and shipping before a single cent rolled in from sales. Nowadays, e-books and PDFs have slashed production costs and money tied up in unsold stock. Word can be used to turn out respectable-looking pages. Gamers who would have started typewritten fanzines in the 80s now run blogs and sell PDFs online.

I’ve always said that if you scratch a roleplayer, you’ll find a would-be game designer underneath. Today, the bar to entry is so low that anyone with a computer and an internet connection can start their own publishing house – and many have. For most, it’s just a hobby. For a few, it’s an attempt to make a living – or at least a little cash – from the hobby that they love. But almost no one outside a handful of the largest publishers is making any kind of a living at it.

So What About GenCon?

It’s easy to see how DTP, PDFs, POD, and various other acronyms have led to a growth in the number of tabletop RPG publishers. But surely the numbers from GenCon prove that the market is growing in proportion, right?

Yes, more people are attending GenCon than ever. However, if the market for tabletop RPGs is growing at all, I’m fairly sure it’s growing far more slowly than GenCon attendance. I would love to see how the age breakdown of GenCon attendees has changed over the last 20 years or so, but I haven’t been able to find any statistics on the subject. I suspect that a major factor in the rise in attendance is the increase in tabletop roleplayers’ disposable income as they get older. Couple this with the decline in the brick-and-mortar game stores, and for many people conventions have become the only place to mix with other gamers, play demos, and discover new titles.

But Don’t Panic!

Does this mean the tabletop RPG industry is dying? Far from it. It’s just not booming. It will never be what people hoped it would become in the late 80s, when TSR released a long-box edition of D&D aimed to fit alongside Monopoly and Clue on toystore shelves. For some, it’s a hobby that maybe brings in a little cash. For a very few, it’s a living doing something they love. There’s a lot to like about the fact that you can start your own publishing house from your basement or garage. As long as everyone realizes that the odds of striking it rich are vanishingly small, no one will get hurt.