How Not to Design Your Game System, Part 4: Killing Trees Won’t Bring Back Your God Damned Money

Today I am going to write a few words about why publishing your homebrew RPG book is a bad idea. Well, that’s not fair. It’s a terrible idea. For one thing, it’s a book.

A book has to be written around the limitations of putting paper in a binding. Namely:

  • The pages need to be in a fixed order, so the content needs to be structured around that fixed order. You can’t easily create multiple task-flows that use the same content in different contexts. If you expand the content, you’re stuck with the structure of your first publication.
  • There’s no capability to seamlessly cross reference information from one part of the book to another. Side bars, boxes, callouts, and references to go look at another page are all band-aids put over the top of the basic problem.
  • You can’t change the content after publication, short of publishing a new edition. Errata documents are what you get when people who are tied up in the process of print publication realize that you can push an updated version of your content to the web in about five seconds, but don’t follow that capability to its ultimate ends.
  • You need to worry about all the irritating vagaries of print production. Pages breaking incorrectly, tables running out of bounds, graphics not rendering correctly, and so on are all artifacts of the print production process. Don’t use print production software unless you are planning to put a book in hard copy. And for the love of God, never source your original content out of your print production software.
  • You can’t design the rules with interactive enhancements in mind. Several companies are releasing software toolkits to go along with their rulebooks, but as far as I know, no one has gone the final step and unified the two areas. It is not difficult to put all the rules for character creation into the same context as the character creation utility you are providing, but big companies won’t do it since they are used to selling the rulebook and then selling the tools. That’s great when you can keep the money you used to get just for the book and then pile on a subscription fee for the tools as well, but small publishers don’t have that luxury. And, when you step away from the need to produce a printed copy, other capabilities become possible.
  • Producing a print book, which is the only reason to write in the book format to begin with, is a capital investment. Even Print on Demand set-ups are going to jack up the price of your product and raise the barrier to entry. You’re not benefiting from print unless you’re already an established publishing company. Hint: you’re not.

If you’re trying to produce a book (or a PDF, which is a file format for those aspiring to produce a book), you’re probably using some software tools like Word (or OpenOffice) and Acrobat, or an XPS writer. The first thing you should understand is that a tool like Word is a WYSIWYG editor for a markup language.  If you don’t understand what’s going on inside your tools on at least a rudimentary level, you can’t really do anything with your source files other than produce crippled electronic imitations of print books. So, let’s take a field trip over to the magical land of the Microsoft language specification for Office Open XML! Fortunately, ISO makes the standard available in four easy ZIP files.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Part 1 is a mere 5,588 pages! And you’ll be happy to know that Microsoft has considerately refused to completely adopt their own specification, so Word does not fully comply with these standards.

At this point, you are probably wondering what all this garbage has to do with producing and distributing small-scale RPG products. The problem is this: the tools you’re probably using are so hypercapable that most people have no idea what they can really do with them, and so difficult to understand that most people give up long before they can leverage the real capabilities they have available. The bigger problem is that these formats are only accessible through heavy-weight, opaque authoring tools like Word that don’t give you an easy transition from WYSIWYG “dumb editing” to a real understanding of the format. And you need a real understanding of the format you author in if you want to do something cool with your content, like turn a flat page of text describing character creation into a fully functional character generator and advancement tool. Or turn a page of text about war-game combat into an online turn tracker that tells you what moves and in what order. Or automatically optimizes your character’s ork murdering abilities with the weapons you specify in a handy drop-down menu.

So throw your tools away. We live in an age of freely available authoring tools (and supporting tool-chains) for light-weight, easily comprehensible languages like DocBook, DITA, and good old fashioned HTML. You can set yourself up to author in one of these formats in a couple of hours (for free) and transform your source to attractive output in a few more with style sheets. Web content management systems are a dime a dozen. Instead of setting up a cargo cult around the print distribution system, play to your strengths: you have no legacy customers to placate, no legacy content to manage, and no legacy business agreements to honor. No one in your shop is going to start a turf war with you when they realize digital publishing obsoletes their job. If you don’t feel liberated by that, you should.

So why do you want a distribution middle-man if you’re going to do all your business online? Payment processing? PayPal and other options are far from perfect, but they’re a hell of a lot better than a distributor that takes a big cut of your earnings and gives you no direct access to your own customers. Publicity? I’m sure the authors of all of the thousands of RPG PDFs on sites like DriveThru RPG are cashing fat checks thanks to all the publicity they get. Experience? Well, they’re pretty good at extracting enough revenue from the corpses of a thousand failed dreams to keep their own doors open, so they’ve got that going for them.

More to the point, distribution chains assume a fixed, boxed product like a PDF or ebook. For all the reasons I already talked about, that’s a really counterproductive thing for a small outfit to produce. An actual print book isn’t quite as bad (at least you are hamstringing yourself for a reason), but they’re far more cost-intensive. Either way, putting out your content as a book essentially puts you in the same game as Wizards of the Coast or (insert the big player in your genre here) and you’re never going to be better than they are at producing a book. You can think of alternatives as apps, or services, or site memberships, but they’re all different methods to the same end: getting out of the cage that print publication puts you in. You can take yourself out of that box entirely.

All you need to do is let go of the idea that producing a game means writing a book.

10 thoughts on “How Not to Design Your Game System, Part 4: Killing Trees Won’t Bring Back Your God Damned Money

  1. Just an idea coming during I read the post.
    If someone wants to design a game, he can use the Prezi ( It would be a new format, it isn’t a book rather a presentation. But you can present your game to the consumers, can’t you?
    Prezi is an excellent tool to form main part of your game (character design, combat, magic, etc.) and then zoom to details of these parts and show the links of different elements. And you can easily attach oder web content.
    Disadvantage of this solution is that this isn’t an editor (moreover…). You can try something, but it isn’t Word or Adobe Indesign. So you can adapt yourself to the new format, new possibilities.
    And if you pay for Enjoy licence (59 USD/year), you can make content private, and send only the link of the “book” to your subscriber.
    I think this new format help you to design your game also (like mindmap softwares).

  2. Interesting. A few thoughts:

    * You wrote earlier about production values. They matter in non-print publications, too. Getting good images and clean design is still important. Unfortunately DocBook makes that difficult, and CSS has become something of a dark art. My point is that there is still no substitute for solid knowledge of the software tools, whether you’re creating a book for print or electronic distribution.

    * Choosing the right middleman is difficult, but there will be a middleman. You need him either for handling the transaction, getting in front of eyeballs, or both. If you can find a way to bring eyeballs to your content (which is much more time-consuming and difficult than most people think), by all means use PayPal. But keep your eyes open. They don’t have stellar reputation with online retailers. You could also bundle up your rules as an app and drop it into the iOS and Android app stores. The store takes a cut, but you gain the benefit of transaction handling and a retail environment that brings eyeballs to your content.

    * Perhaps I’m missing something, but I’m not sure why you’re giving DriveThru RPG a hard time. Are they milking indie game developers? Are they setting unduly high expectations? All I see as a consumer is that I now have the opportunity to purchase content I likely would otherwise never have come across.

  3. theoldestman says:

    “…whether you’re creating a book for print or electronic distribution.”

    Don’t write a book. I’ll say it again: don’t write a book. Don’t write a book for PoD. Don’t write a book and sell PDFs. Don’t write a book and dump it into the iOS app store. Don’t. Write. A. Book.

  4. We’re talking about a creative work. Whether you call it a book, an app, a webpage, a webapp, a football, a gopher, or a Maserati, it needs to look good if you want people to purchase it. Or do you disagree?

  5. GauFan says:

    Gau this is the best thing you have ever written. You are so insightful, Gau. Write more like this Gau!

  6. Point taken about print books and PDFs. I should have initially written, “…whether you’re creating a book for print, a PDF, an application, or some other form of electronic document.”

    My intention was merely to posit that using different tools doesn’t necessarily help if you can’t make the product look good. That’s something that takes effort no matter what software you’re using to produce it.

    • theoldestman says:

      Print production tools, PDFs, and sites like DriveThruRPG (and I’m not picking on them; they’re just a big, well-known example of the type) are all pieces of a production cycle that small developers should be throwing in the garbage to start with.

      Visual design is important but basically a non sequitur with regard to this discussion.

  7. Brandmeister says:

    I know this site has a negative premise (how not to run a game company), but this article is poorly structured. Don’t write a book. We get it. No e-books either. Unfortunately the prescriptive points are buried in criticism about the print medium. Assuming we accept your premise, then maybe you could summarize your conclusion more coherently? What is the sellable product that you envision? When players sit down around a table to play, what infrastructure are they using, how is the knowledge in the product delivered, and how does the product support play?

    Frankly, I find software to be a waste of time for tabletop gaming. I rarely reference books, either. I use a GM screen that summarizes a few key tables, and I have a single page of notes, plus a pencil. Perhaps a map. I can run Savage Worlds from memory with a few 3″x5″ index cards.

    Apparently people use WotC’s subscription site for its library of monsters, plus a character validator. But if your game doesn’t involve tournament play, do you really need a validator? I don’t audit players for compliance. The monster library would be useful for designing an adventure, but it doesn’t seem to have a place at the actual table. Despite the marketing concerns about books and PDFs, they are an adequate means of teaching a game to new players, simply because I can read and occasionally reference the material.

    In summary, I agree that selling RPG books is a bad business. But I don’t see what value software or HTML brings to the gaming table. What value are you providing in exchange for money? And despite WotC creating a software support product, I am skeptical that they could have structured it to be sans-books and still achieved that level of success.

  8. rjschwarz says:

    This post seems a bit uniformed. I’m a technical writer working with DITA compliant XML every day and its a pain that no game writer would ever need to bother with.

    DITA is a standard to force XML conformity and not a tool. Its a straight jacket designed to allow for easy re-use of content throughout multiple books, which is helpful when you have a large staff of writers, a large number of similar documents, and a short amount of time. These are not the problems of your average game writer. In fact a copy-paste and clear knowledge of the contents would be far better for even a small tech pubs group.

    Word is completely fine as a tool. FrameMaker or Pages might be better but unless the writer has some skill as a designer they can probably do more harm than good with those tools as well. Suggesting a proper organization to the book/game and proper outline would have been far better advice.

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