Thursday, 18 August 2016

Here Comes the (Invisible) Sun

The big thing in roleplaying this week -- at least, in terms of people talking about it -- is the Kickstarter for the new Monte Cook Presents game, INVISIBLE SUN.

I have to admit, I was pretty excited about this one initially. It's a game that focuses on the occult, and it was teased with a number of short videos that wove tantalizing little teases about the setting material. It seemed to draw from the same well of weird as stuff like THE INVISIBLES (or maybe that's me projecting onto the title), and that's my groove, brother. I have been somewhat feeling left on the sidelines by the success of NUMENARA over the past couple of years, which is a pretty traditional game by all the metrics I've seen, but has piles and piles of original content and sky-high production values. There are all kinds of NUMENARA goodies for the faithful to buy, and I've missed my shot at snapping up a lot of the books on a Bundle of Holding. Without a deal like that, there's simply too much material for a poor gamer like myself to consider buying in. This time, I figured, there's a chance of getting in on the ground floor.

And when the Kickstarter hit, the shockwaves began.

The minimum buy-in level for the game was $200. Before the cost of international shipping. Holy. Fucking. Shit. And that was just the beginning -- there were two pledge tiers that ranged into amounts over a thousand dollars, with the top tier at almost $6000. 


More shockingly, there was no "basic" buy-in tier that just included the PDF version of the rules. Nothing. It was $200 or GTFO.

A lot of people also seemed to be chafing at claims of innovation that MCP were making about the game too, which appear to boil down to some tools for playing scenes outside the regular game sessions and an app, neither of which are particularly new or innovative ideas. Perhaps they're developed and implemented in ways that will surprise and delight skeptics like me. I don't know.

I am not going to rage about this game, which may well still turn out to be fantastic. In fact, I'm pretty sure it will be fabulous, because there are quality creators involved, and I wish them success and happiness with INVISIBLE SUN and their other efforts. I am in no position to criticize them and their choices, just because I can't afford to enjoy the fruits of their labour.

But I do want to think out loud here for a few paragraphs on the economics of roleplaying games.

The last time a game came along like this, with sky-high production values and a niche audience, it was one of my all-time favourites: Jonathan Tweet's EVERWAY, a diceless roleplaying game that included in its box set a deck of faux-Tarot style cards for resolution and a number of high-quality "vision" cards to help you build a character with their imagery. I can't remember what the MSRP was when it came out, but I remember it seeming a little high for a game (especially one that weird) and only picked up my copy when it hit the sale shelves months later, a commercial failure (even if it is considered by many to be one of the best of the 90s).

It seemed impossible at the time that another RPG would ever come out with production values that high, but the world has changed. Buying into the new D&D edition's three core books alone is about $150, a pretty steep point of entry into the "most popular roleplaying game in the world". We're talking about a set of hard-cover, full-colour books with excellent artwork and production values by any metric you care to mention, but that's still more than the average poor gamer like myself can manage. I've given 5th Ed a pass for exactly that reason, and probably won't read it fully until they being gearing up for 6th Ed and I can pick the books up cheap. Sure, I can read a lot of the core rules for free, using the PDF introductory material Wizards has made available to anyone, but I don't actually know anyone who's run a long-term game from such things (which I think are a great idea, incidentally). They feel like more of a way to build hype than a functional item, but maybe that's just my personal bias. Maybe it doesn't feel like D&D to me without a set of three tomes and a DM screen on the table beside me.

My sad story of financial instability should not be a barrier to Monte Cook (or anyone else in the industry) producing high-quality, high-entry-cost products. I suspect that a lot of gamers -- particularly younger ones, who have grown up into a world that has little to offer them in the form of employment or material comforts -- are in my situation, but there must be a stable core of gamers with disposable income that make the hobby a viable business venue. There must be, because INVISIBLE SUN is already funded, with 29 days to go.

The MCP crew is promoting this Kickstarter as something that a group would buy-in on together, rather than being the responsibility of the GM to pony up all the dough. I think that's a nice idea, but none of the thirty years I've spent in the hobby has really borne it out. Most GMs I know might get a new supplement or game book from their group as a birthday present, but I don't actually know anyone who has arranged to pool their money to purchase a new game product like that. Is that how modern groups of young gamers manage it? One of the things about the hobby is that it's always had a fairly low cost, based on the hours of gameplay you get from even a modest game. Twenty bucks, or thirty, or fifty, don't seem like a lot of money when you squeeze games that run 40-60 hours or more out of the investment. At $200, I don't know how much gameplay you'd have to get out of a system to make it feel worthwhile. Maybe if the quality of that time was excellent, it wouldn't matter that maybe you'd only get to play it once. And that is generally what I'm thinking about, when I think about purchasing a new game. A one-time game. I know I'm an outlier here, but there are too many games out there and too little time to think about it otherwise.

A lot of those games are inexpensive, and many are Pay-What-You-Want, Creative Commons, or straight-up Free. Someone was recently complaining in the RPG blog-o-sphere that roleplaying game content was approaching a point where there was too much of it, at too low a cost, for the industry to support itself. It's absolutely true that creators who develop games -- some innovative games that change everything, and some that are just supplements for existing properties -- deserve the chance to make a decent return on their investment of time and energy. Most of those guys are probably working a full-time job too, outside their game writing, just to pay the bills. They have families to feed and student debt and health bills, and the idea that society seems to have about artists suffering in poverty being romantic is, frankly, repugnant and idiotic. No one is entitled to creative work for free, even in the age of the internet, and it's just plain selfish to think it is so.

That said, this Kickstarter makes me worry a bit that the hobby is going to split.

On the one hand, we'll have the high-end games like INVISIBLE SUN, D&D X Edition, the Fantasy Flight games (which have lots of excellent proprietary geegaws), and suchlike, and on the other we will have the storygames, the retroclones, and the tiny companies struggling to produce games that rise up and punch above their weight with the big boys. Will high prices mean that young kids coming into the hobby will automatically be given a massive entry barrier if they don't have a family with piles of disposable income? Or that adults who would once have spent their time playing roleplaying games be forced to find some other entertainment, because their precarious employment and looming bills won't allow it? Does this mean that more people will look to indie games and retroclones and up-and-comers for their gaming fix, and the mainstream of gaming will look a lot different?

It's complicated, guys, and I wonder what's going to happen next.

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