Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The Way Out Is Through

Thing One:

Tabletop RPGs produce designers of tabletop RPGs at a tremendous rate - and it's a rate that continues to increase.  In addition, the barriers to simple publishing have largely fallen, and they are trampled lower and lower each year.

This puts the industry of tabletop RPG production in a permanent state of oversupply.

Oversupply typically results in a lot of commodification, a race to the bottom in price, desperate companies using this to justify worker exploitation and laughable pay rates, and bitter struggles to build branding that can shelter a company and act as a vehicle for assured attention.  It can mean wild overreactions to criticism as if it were an existential threat, because it might be one - and it can mean rapid reform, if that's what consumers want, because producers are hungry to give consumers what they want.   It means new entrants are often met with resounding fucking silence.

And we've got all that.  So, thing one:

The usual business of the tabletop gaming industry is desperation economics.

Thing Two:

Tabletop RPGs and their creation exist in a nesting doll of 'design scene' within 'tabletop gaming culture' within the broader context of 'nerd culture', and all of those are...   Damned weird, detail-obsessed, filled with entitled discourse, and "traditional" in many of the worst senses.

There have been, and will continue to be, arguments about whether this or that game is really an RPG.  About whether RPGs are art.  About whether it's okay in some kind of moral sense for games to be expensive, or free, or only available in print.

There's bitter bullshit directed at PoC, and women, and trans folk, and on and on, which factors into this as well (but is also its own whole expansive thing beyond it).

Which is to say, while the material gates to trying wild new things have never been lower, there's still endless static and gatekeeping behavior.  There's always pressure and noise which adds up to pushing people to do things, in design and publication, largely according to one of the Traditional Patterns.

And more than this - the people in these various cultures are all aware, to whatever extent and in whatever framing, of Thing One above.  And in true gamer/nerd fashion, a lot of them have A Specific Solution, which almost always just happens to be publishing more of what they like, priced how they want, delivered as they like.

So, thing two:

The usual politics of the tabletop game industry is gatekeeping and control politics.

Thing Three:

I'm going to cut to the money quote from a big pile of tweeting I did yesterday:

The existence of abundant design can either result in a radically lower value being placed on design, or it can result in a radically greater range of designs and practices.

Which is to say, if all these game designers try to fit themselves into the pressures of Thing Two, they will continue to be stuck in the extreme competition of Thing One.  Thing Two is the cage that perpetuates Thing One.

To get out of that trap, we don't need to follow one pattern more correctly, and we certainly don't need to reduce the number of new designers with barriers of some sort or to place new artificial social controls on business models.

We need more patterns.  We need intense diversification.  Games built for and around podcasting.  Bespoke game design as a service.  Game encoded around and on physical artifacts (I for one want a campfire spooky story game on a "talking stick").  Games you design as you play.  And games as performance art, games that floss their teeth with the line between RPG and boardgame, theatre, kids pretend, all of it.

We need to seed a thousand niches we've never even noticed, and we never will so long as we're having petty shitfights about properly fitting one.

The way out is through.

Friday, August 23, 2019

The Wooden Design: Boards, Adventures, Roles

I've been tinkering on an extended game design project for...   Quite a while now.  The basic concept goes, in stages, like this:

1. Here's a bunch of modular game boards and pieces, arranged (and sold) in "playsets" so you can play a whole compilation of relatively abstract board games (things like Chess, Xianqui, Congo, Goro Goro Shogi, Amazons, and so on), with each set giving you a few games, and more if you pile more together.  Boards and pieces are abstract, simple, handmade, and characterful.

2. These games also just happen to give a toolkit of game... concept pieces (which, as of yesterday, I have started calling ludemes), which they share in various ways.  Most of them are from the same general family of games, or hybrids of cross-pollination.

3. If you pile together a few of these physical playsets, you have the pieces to play an adventure game in the style of Warhammer Quest / Descent / Gloomhaven...   Which uses the ludemes from the playsets to operate.  A minis-based adventure game where your warrior might have an analog to a "Knight move" and a "Bishop move".

4. And of course, said adventure game will then get roleplaying elements as something to add.

Aaaaaaaaanyway.  Having recently acquired a lathe and spun myself up some modular game pieces (Body+head+hat), I'm now in a position to start fabricating those playsets, and testing out variations on rules for the adventure game.
More on those, hopefully, quite soon.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Modular Wooden Scenery: Basic Blocks

I've been posting pictures of this stuff for a bit, as I've been making it:

And on the whole, people seem pretty engaged.  So let's talk about how to make it - likely, you could work out most of this on your own, but it's also likely there'd be one bit that left you going, okay, huh?

To make the basic blocks, you will need a 2x2 bit of dimensional lumber (typically eight feet long and about 3 bucks), a saw to chop 2x2s into inch-long segments, some stain to color your wood, and a method for sanding the corner bevels.  You'll also need some glue, maybe a small brush, and a cup or tupperware of some sort.  For the notable tools, I use:


That's a cheapass Ryobi miter saw ($60), some food coloring (the neon stuff was about $3, the big precision color kit...  $20?  Candy-making leftovers, there)...   And a low-end Dremel rotary tool (which is sitting on the dremel workstation - that's not required for the basic stuff).

Now, there's a good chance you could do the cutting with a vast array of other saws just as well, even a hand saw and cut box if you have the energy, but...   Whew.

I don't think you can really beat food coloring on price.  That's just a winner.

You could likely sand the corners a number of other ways, as well, but a Dremel is not so much "A tool to find a replacement for" as it is "A tool that can replace half the other fiddly little crap in small woodworking".

Step One is "Chop up the 2x2 into inch-long segments".  You could go longer or shorter - as you like.  The size of the chop is the height of "ground level" off your table.

To me, a variance of 5/8th from one "level" to another on hills and the like is favorite, and a full inch means I can later add blocks that are below basic ground level.  Also, I wanted the blocks to have enough weight that I wouldn't need sticky pads on the bottom, and so on.

After chopping, brush the blocks against each other to get rid of any clingy bits.  Don't bother sanding them all that nice- you want the cut surface to be a little rough, so it'll take stain like whoa.

Step Two is staining.  I just use a tiny little tupperware tub, fill it up (it's about an ounce), add food coloring (typically a total of 5-9 drop per ounce of water), and then brush it on or just dunk the pieces one side at a time like so:

After staining, stand the pieces up on some scrap wood, paper towel, or other surface, and let dry (I leave them overnight).

Step Three is taking each block and sanding a bevel around the top edge.  This gives a nice white line once you sand down under the coloring.

Step Four is gluing, making actual modules out of the blocks.  I've use carpenter's glue, Elmers, superglue, at various points.  Carpenters glue is, naturally, the one I'd recommend, since it's actually for this.  Some of my pieces are shown here:

The hill top center there is five piece at 1 inch and 5/8ths, and four more pieces at 2 inches and a quarter long, respectively.

When gluing, do it with some kind of supporting angle.  I have two piece of baseboard screwed on top of my work bench in a right angle.  I put the first piece in that corner, and then glue the others to it, pressing the whole module against that into "square-ness" as I add pieces.  This method is pretty crude, but it works well enough for this; you might want to use long clamps or some more professional method to get it working as you want.


A quick note here: If you actually want to reproduce my scenery as-is, you just need the neon colours (which give a nice pastel when used sparingly) for the basic blocks.   The secret sauce is:

Grassland: Ground at one inch, hills as above.  Color is seven drops yellow-green, one blue per oz.
Water: Cut at 5/8th tall. Color is five drops of blue per oz of water.
Pathways: Cut as grassland; color is seven drops of yell-green, one drop blue, four drops red per oz.