Archive for January 5th, 2012


On Monetizing RPG Play: Background and Publicity

Opening night gaming party for Dungeons and Dragons: On & Ever Onward. Photo by Timothy Hutchings; pictured are Luke (Burning Wheel), Ray (Compleat Strategist), Stefan (Dwarven Forge), and Peter (Gen Con).

It is not interesting that a great time was had at Adventuring Parties’ event for the opening of Dungeons and Dragons: On & Ever Onward show at the Soho Gallery for Digital Art. No reader of the Mule requires further proof that it is fun to get together with friends and make new ones by rolling dice and imagining adventures while eating chips and drinking beer. Should it surprise us that it is even more fun when you are also looking at fifteen monitors each displaying a different loop of gaming-related art and supplementing the usual gamer-snacks with wine and cheese?

What’s worth sharing is the knowledge I gained about party gaming. Around the time that the picture above was taken, I was talking about the basic problem faced by anyone who wants to sell roleplaying games as a product: no gamer actually needs a rulebook.  Poland’s first samizdat RPG proved the only thing you need is the idea that it’s possible to use dice and imagination to tell a collaborative story. If I’m correctly understanding the story I heard from some gamers in Krakow, no game-system texts made it across the Iron Curtain in the ’70s and ’80s. Just the distant rumors of this thing called Dungeons & Dragons was enough for Polish gamers to whip up Kryształy Czasu and start playing. (The fact that it is known for having insanely complicated charts may be because engineering students had the best access to what their counterparts in the Western world of nerds were up to, or because trends in gaming exist independently of borders or causality).

It was very gratifying when Luke arrived in the middle of this conversation and, like Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall, I could collar him to make a point. His unhesitating reply to “what do gamers actually need?” was “More people to play with.”

So the interesting question is, how can RPG businesses meet their customer’s actual needs instead of manufacturing desire for inessentials?

We know from the general success of the RPG hobby industry to date that there is a role here for selling game systems: rulebooks and accessories and all kinds of support products. If we want to have more people to play baseball with, it helps if everyone shows up with their own mitt. And even though we don’t really need Big League Chew to play, it’s nice to have. So there is some correlation between how many businesses are trying to sell baseball equipment to people in our community and how easy it is to get a game together on any given sunny day.

The problem is that even a cursory look at the RPG industry shows that a product-driven business model can do as much to drive gamers apart as it does to bring them together at the gaming table.  The Open Gaming License was a great leap forward because it got manufacturers to collectively produce baseball equipment, instead of trying to market the Bases & Balls System to the customers they could splinter from the userbase for Advanced Balls & Bats. But new editions and meta-plot-driven supplement treadmills and requiring a deck of Dungeons & Dragons Fortune Cards to contain a multiple of 10 cards when they’re sold in decks of 8 are typically cases where the publishers’ need to make things outshines the customer’s’ need to buy them.

Last night’s Tower of Gygax event was many things in addition to fun. In part, it was another of my ongoing experiments in ways a business could meet its need to generate money by directly creating the play experience that’s the essence of what gamers need.

I started this post meaning to talk about the results of this experiement. Unfortunately I have to run out to get the stuff for Adventuring Parties’ afterschool class. One new, not unexpected data point is that doing stuff for kids remains the best source of revenue for a RPG service business that I know about. Here all my experimental data just confirms the example of the Roleplay Workshop, the Brooklyn Strategist, and their many counterparts in Israel: parents are accustomed to paying for their kids to have educational/wholesome/creative experiences. I was happy with some of the things I tried last night to get adult gamers to feel like having these experiences themselves was worth money, but the fact remains that we already know how to DIY our own balls and bats; the amount we’re willing to donate to a fun event like the Tower of Gygax seems like the same amount we might spend on Big League Chew.

Tonight’s event is an example of another reason product-based businesses are motivated to create opportunities for gamers to sit down and play: promotion. Here you’re not asking them to pay up front or during the event, because you have something you want them to buy later. In this case Adventuring Parties is promoting the distribution deal for Adventurer Conqueror King that Autarch just signed with Game Salute to get the hardback and PDF combo into stores where this buying and selling can happen. Hooray to Bits & Mortar for helping tie these two halves together! Here is the press release which has some details about tonight’s party.

When talking about money or politics, and their near cousins products and publicity, a hard-boiled tone tends to creep into one’s voice. Also when talking about two companies I’m part of as if they were separate things, I run the risk of A Scanner Darkly dissociation. Before I run off, here are some points I don’t want to be obscured:

  • Buying a shiny new (or enticingly old) product is an important source of a gamer’s recommended allowance of joy, and even if I think DIY playing together at the table should be at the base of this food pyramid, I don’t scorn those for whom buying things is their primary source of RPG fun.
  • The primary goal of just about everyone involved in producing new RPG materials, myself included, is that they want to make it easier to find players for their own favorite kind of baseball. We can’t talk about how business motives distort play without also talking about how individual motives to be like Gygax and have your name on the cover of a beloved gaming book distort business strategies.
  • The #1 way that adults spend money on their gaming hobby is by treating it as a business. Even though I know it will never be anywhere near as profitable as my day job, I passionately seek to get involved in just about every RPG business I can, whether it’s selling products or services or vapors, because I find this to be really, really fun. It’s almost as much fun as playing RPGs, it uses many of the same skills, and you can spend more time doing it.
  • Finally, a bit of hucksterism for the Roleplaying Retirement Home, coming soon, in which being off the hook business-wise means we will be able to spend as much time playing as we want. The return on our willingness to pay for our kids to have educational roleplaying experiences (aka babysitting) will be that they will pay for us to have dignified end-of-life experiences (aka babysitting). Suckers! I know there will be a potion of longevity in one of the many treasure hoards I will loot in my elder years. It will be a long time until you can pry the dice from my cold, dead hand.

kirbsday: the big boom!!

Last time: a Four-Armed Terror hellbent on devouring the DNA Project’s atomic power plant trapped Jimmy Olsen, the Newsboy Legion, and Superman in some weird energy-egg thing, and now continues its march toward meltdown.

I confess that the Jimmy Olsen series has entertained me less and less after an incredible start, but this is a great issue.  Kirby piles on the tension, partially by showing the supporting cast’s panicky reactions to the news about the impending meltdown.

From this headlong, desperate charge (which, by the way, is yet another five pages of splash panels–but because it’s a typical action comic sequence it’s less noticeable than last issue’s psychedelic concert), Kirby cuts to the kids trapped inside the egg…

(eh, no great pictures of this: they’re trapped in an egg, believe me)

And then a terrific shot of the Four-Armed Terror.

Now, the Four-Armed Terror as a concept doesn’t do a whole lot for me.  He’s a prototype mutant bred to survive the aftermath of a nuclear war, which is cool.  And he eats radiation, which is cool.  But he’s basically just an ugly dude with four arms who’s really hungry.  He’s no Granny Goodness, let alone a Darkseid.  But he looks totally boss, and all he says is “Arruk!” over and over, which I guess is what I want in a monster, even if he doesn’t really seem like a worthy foe of Superman.

The Terror digs toward the nuclear plant, while Jimmy and Superman escape the egg via comic book science:

The logic here is pretty impeccable.

  1. The Four-Armed Terror created the egg via electrical discharges
  2. The egg’s density must be controlled by static electricity
  3. Rubbing your hands together creates static electricity rather than blisters (contradicting an experiment I performed when I was 8 years old)
  4. If Superman does something, it is like magic

I really wish there was a super hero game that worked like this.  “Aquaman, those guys just robbed a bank, and all you can do is talk to fish!  We hate you!”  “Bah!  Behold the power of Aquaman!  I can mentally control fish!  All humans, including bank robbers, evolved from fish!  I will psionically dominate the primitive Fish Cortex of their brains, causing the robbers to flop helplessly on the ground, gasping for water.”  The more logical fallacies involved in your proposal, the more tokens it costs to pull off.

Anyway, Superman escapes and goes chasing after the monster.  Meanwhile…

Holy hell, the Daily Planet!  In a Jimmy Olsen comic no less!  We haven’t seen the Daily Planet since issue 134, four months ago in publishing time, but probably only a couple of days in fiction.  Here, Terry Dean, a character from before Kirby took over, stops by to get news about Jimmy from his boss, Perry White.  White remarks that his own boss, Morgan Edge, is a “‘smiling cobra‘ . . . [who] assigned Jimmy to drop out of sight . . .  Edge is ruthless!  And he’s not above gambling with human life!”

It’s really nice to get a breather from the DNA Project and see regular people again, even if, as 365 Days of Kirby theorizes, this page was simply an editorial mandate to include more familiar elements from the series.

The art fixes here strike me as totally unwarranted.  For Superman and Jimmy, I can almost understand: Kirby’s faces aren’t in the style of long-running Superman artists Curt Swan and Wayne Boring, and maybe don’t match how DC wanted to market the book.  But who’s buying the book for Perry White?  Or for Terry Dean, who showed up only in issue #127?

Cut to the soldiers and former Newsboys closing in…

Cut to Simyan and Mokkari sending in more Four-Armed Terrors from their hatchery…

Cut to Morgan Edge, alerted that all of Metropolis will detonate in a nuclear holocaust in less than five minutes, now flees via the helipad while assuring his employees that everything’s fine…

Cut to a hug firefight as Superman, the soldiers, and the Terrors all converges at the nuclear reactor.  The soldiers and the Golden Guardian try to hold back the monsters, while Superman throws the reactor into a tunnel the Project had been drilling toward the center of the Earth.

These are, presumably, heavily genetically modified human beings–quite possibly clones of Jimmy Olsen–committing mass suicide because Superman threw away their only food supply.  But hey, nothing else was working.

The reactor explodes far underground, Metropolis is saved, and everybody is happy except for Jimmy and the Newsboys, who got left behind in the egg yolk and missed the whole fight, and are grumpy about it in classic sit-com fashion.

a few comments

With this issue, we’re six months into Jack Kirby’s run on Jimmy Olsen.  Kirby got off to a jaw-dropping start by recasting Jimmy Olsen as bullheaded hellraiser determined to get a story at all costs–more like a pulp adventure hero than a sidekick.  And there was one heck of a story to get: the Whiz Wagon, Wild Area, the Mountain of Judgment, the DNA Project, and an invasion from Apokolips.  And with each issue the supporting cast expanded.

Yet over the last few issues I felt this series slowing down a bit.  It’s like when the Whiz Wagon landed at the Project, Jimmy Olsen lost his narrative momentum.

The supporting cast now includes the young Newsboys, the original Newsboys, the Golden Guardian, Dubbilex, Yango and the Outsiders, Jude and the Hairies, a cluster of clones, Simyan and Mokkari, Morgan Edge, and the monster of the month.  This issue also folds in some old-timers like Perry White and Terry Dean.  It’s a huge cast, but few of the characters are mutually antagonistic and none of them seem to have internal conflicts.  So you’ve got a setting under siege, populated with characters who make a strong first impression but then have little to say.  Sometimes literally: Tommy has barely said a word in six months.

(Sometimes you want a static character.  But if you want a character who’s in an uneasy spot, give her goals which are irreconcilable, or desires that run contrary to her best interests.)

All of which is to say that this issue, which is almost nothing but a race-against-time action thriller, really helps to juice up the series a bit, and it’s interesting to check out Kirby’s pacing techniques here.

  1. The first page splash recaps the situation.
  2. The next four splash pages work to impart a sense of urgency and enormous scale.  It’s interesting: last issue, I felt that 5 pages for a drug trip felt a little over-long, like Kirby was padding things out a bit.  That may have been entirely due to the quality of the reproduction: in smudgy black & white, the trip doesn’t look exciting or fun.  Maybe in color it would have had an otherworldly aspect to it.  Anyway: here the extra space helps to emphasize the emergency mobilization of a military base.
  3. Right as we’re rushing along with the soldiers, smash cut to the gooey, inescapble egg.  This sudden shift from reckless headlong movement to what’s basically a tarpit helps to sell the kids’ frustration, interspersed with images as the Four-Armed Terror wreaks destruction on the base.
  4. All throughout this issue, Kirby’s narrator captions keep chanting out: “Eleven minutes to doomsday… Nine minutes to doomsday… ” etc. etc.  This refrain, coupled with images of all these characters racing around frantically, helps to sell that we’re on the cusp of disaster.
  5. The sudden cuts to the Daily Planet–first with Perry and Terry, and then with Morgan Edge–theoretically halt the flow, but sort of work as palate cleansers and reminding us exactly what’s at stake if Metropolis explodes.  The bit with Morgan Edge is particularly well done: we’re reminded of the countdown clock (5 minutes), plus we get some excellently loathsome characterization of Edge.  It’s not enough he’d send six children to their deaths to blow up the Hairies, but he’s casually lying, in an especially smarmy way, to people just moments from death.
  6. After each of the Daily Planet interludes, the stakes escalate as more soldiers and monsters show up.
  7. There’s finally a big ol’ scene where practically everybody is on stage panicking at once, which is a stage play technique but effective here too.
  8. Superman saves the day not by force, but by desperately outwitting his enemies as the clock reaches zero-hour.  Admittedly, the previously unmentioned tunnels down to the center of the earth are a kind of annoying deus ex machina, but apparently they featured in another Superman story appearing that month, so it’s not totally out of the blue.

at last his identity is revealed!

I am obsessed with whoever answers the phone at Inter-Gang.  People are always like, “Hello, is this Inter-Gang?  Put me through to your Insidious Scheme division” or, “Operator, I want to talk to Joey Exit-Wounds in Wetwork & Removals.  Can you give me his extension?”  Who is this operator?  Is the Evil Factory’s cloned version of Gabby, as I theorized a few weeks ago?  Have I gone completely insane?

No . . . it’s some weird dude with sunglasses and a cigar who looks like he’s never smiled in his whole life.  He looks sort of worried, in fact.  (Probably because the whole city is about to explode.)  I guess working for a super-villain is, in the end, just a job like everything else.

Past Adventures of the Mule

January 2012

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