Monthly Archives: March 2012

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: http://standards.iso.org/ittf/PubliclyAvailableStandards/c059575_ISO_IEC_29500-1_2011.zip

Part 2: http://standards.iso.org/ittf/PubliclyAvailableStandards/c059576_ISO_IEC_29500-2_2011.zip

Part 3: http://standards.iso.org/ittf/PubliclyAvailableStandards/c059577_ISO_IEC_29500-3_2011.zip

Part 4: http://standards.iso.org/ittf/PubliclyAvailableStandards/c059578_ISO_IEC_29500-4_2011.zip

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.

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