Exploring Publishing Plans, and How Much Life Should One Game Have?
It's time to start kicking up a fuss, I suppose. This isn't a marketing blog and I'm not going to give anybody hype speach on here, but I will quickly say that I have a new TTRPG called Solo Martial Blues coming to Crowdfundr on February 1st as part of Crowdfundr's Table-Top Non-Stop Campaign. It's a one player martial arts solo TTRPG.
Crowdfundr is doing a neat bunch of promotion for TTRPGs during that event. You can read more about the initiative here. If you're a TTRPG developer, like me, the free support they're giving and all the perks may be the kick you need to get off Kickstarter and try other crowdfunding platform. For those of you keeping track in the home game, I wrote earlier this year on the IGDN (Indie Game Developer Networks)'s blog about my desire to put my next project on Crowdfundr, for lots of reasons, so I won't repeat them here. They all still stand, I think.
So, what's going on? What lead me to launch Solo Martial Blues on Crowdfundr and partner with them (soft partner, no money) on a crowdfunding view series about how easy Crowdfunding is, in theory?
It requires a bit of...excuse me..."theory wankery" and introspection.
How Complete is a TTRPG?
There are two schools of thought I've heard from the TTRPG buying public that are very much at odds with each other.
If you don't continue churning out splatbooks your game is "dead", and I'm not going to follow a "Dead Game", (basically and advocation of TTRPGs as "product lines") or,
If you need more than one book for your TTRPG then you're doing it wrong (the "one and done" approach)
My, these couldn't be more opposed, but it raises some questions that I don't think can be casually brushed aside with a pat "different games require different publishing models".
The first method is certainly the modus operandi of the Ampersand game and its like-systems. The second is typical in the indie TTRPG space, but as we have something of a rising "middle class" to the industry, I think it's a good time to question where a game should be between these two, and what it means for you as a publisher. Or, me, at least.
When Does it End?
Let's put aside any "Keeping up with the Jones'" notion of publishing to stay relevant. Radio James Games is not nearly at that level. I'm happy for the fun and convention travelling this affords me—and I'll be at Breakout Con March 15th to 17th as a result of that—but this is a hobby I turned into a part-time job, not a full-time career. It may be someday, but not today, so there are no Jones' to concern me. This is still fun for me, and I don't want to keep something going past the point where I enjoy it. I think.
What I'm concerned about is, as a developer, when do you know you're done with a TTRPG? ("Art is never finished only abandoned"?) We throw ourselves into these little imaginary worlds all with their own attitudes and rules and they have to take on life, to be convincing, otherwise it would never get to publication. When you're largely a one-person show, you don't just have to just publish something, you have to be in love with it. You have to be fully engrossed in your content if you want to cross the finish line of having it as a material possession. I was the writer, developer, layout artist, sometimes artist-artist, of Fight to Survive and sometimes it haunts my dreams. It's easy to imagine being too invested—self-hypnotising with a TTRPG Stockholm Syndrome—and continuing to churn out add-on ideas after add-on ideas long after anyone cares, or is buying. You did what you did to finish the thing...how do you know when to stop?
I don't think our medium is best served by imagining every TTRPG as a wider brand that should be marketed to the point where it eventually flags and fails. I can see mid-tier publishers, flush with million-dollar Kickstarters, leaning that way in the future. And I think that model will become more popular as the TTRPG middle class of publishers expands beside a weakening WotC. But. That sounds like brain poison to me, or at least that the non-comparable level I am with my publishing and my under-$10k crowdfunding efforts.
All this suggests, therefore, a unsatisfying "see what you can feel out" to any TTRPG, and that doesn't make anyone happy as a publishing direction. Of course, yes, "different games require blah blah blah", but how do you—as a reasonable small publisher with at least some artistic integrity—feel out that nebulous course? What is the natural path for a given content? How can you tell? You'll notice this assumes I'm ignoring both ends of consumer feedback (usually a bad idea) and trying to feel out a best practice, which...is not often wise.
While struggling with these questions, I tricked myself into writing a solo play sister-system for Fight to Survive: Role-playing Martial Arts Meets Heart. That's what's going up for Crowdfunding. The page is live now, although details may change.
Solo Martial Blues
What brought me here seems innocent enough. Mechanically, Fight to Survive: Role-playing Martial Arts Meets Heart would not accomodate solo play. Foolishly, I promised a solo add-on to Kickstarter backers—assuming I'd figure it out later—only to find such an approach contrary to those rules. So, nearly a new rules system was required. A 50 page add-on became a 124 page complete solo TTRPG, and now I want to crowdfund it to expand it further.
Like many TTRPG developers I sometimes get lost in "can I do this?" And it may take months of trying to figure out the answer is "no". In this case the answer is "yes", hurrah, and I'm very happy with the book that resulted.
Here's the cover:
I splashed it all over the website, too. But let's not lose sight of the argument, here...
Who Is this For?
I'm excited for people to play Solo Martial Blues, even though it's an even indie-r and more niche product of an already terribly indie and niche product Fight to Survive, in a niche dark corner of a niche hobby cottage industry. How many folks want a gritty mid-Century martial arts solo TTRPG? Well, we'll find out in February, I guess. Hopefully $3,000 Canadian dollars worth.
Still, it brings me back to the question of when to stop with a product line? I released some play aids for Fight to Survive a few weeks ago—some Combat Cards, to help people resolve the Moves vs. Moves action at the table, Boom, the brand just got bigger.
When I ask "when does It end?" I guess the answer laying underneith that, ready to pounce like a jaguar in the brush, is: who am I doing this for? Mid-tier TTRPG publishers do it because their entire model is based on milking an idea they spent a big art budget on as hard as possible. Large tier publishers are even worse, angling their designs to appeal to content trickle. But where are the small indie publishers, where am I, and where do you—this is probably the key question—affect the transition between "I do it for myself, whatever" and "it's kind of my job, now"?
In the case of the Combat Cards the answer was definately, selfishly, that I am doing it for myself, still. Basically I became tired of lugging Scrabble tiles to conventions. The cards are handy and I wanted them for myself, and I thought why not make them available sale while I'm at it?
It still gives me pause about creeping Fight to Survive into having a "product line", when I would have thought myself closer to the one-and-done uber-indie side of the TTRPG publishing spectrum.
In the case of the new solo sister game, Solo Martial Blues, I think I really just can't resist leaning as far into the weirdness of the content as people will let me. I did the work to satisfy my own curiousity and craving to play it myself, and now I want to share this neat little thing. Maybe that's enough in publishing?
There are many, many games on the docket for me to make (as revealed by the over-extensive "Coming Soon" section of the Radio James Games website) and I over-ambitiously anticipate, in the face of and to the ire of all sense, to release them all in 2024. But so long as I have something to say, I think...at least for now...I'm going to keep saying it. Let's let that be my motivation.
So, can we say I haven't lost my indie artistic integrity quiet yet? Maybe the question of a game line versus one-off books isn't in the answering, just that the question is a barmoter of where you are in publishing. Perhaps this whole article is just an apology piece from feeling my cool artistic indie cred slipping as Radio James Games grows.
More on Solo Martial Blues, and its themes of lonliness tying into the play experience of solo TTRPGs, coming soon.
Keep on fighting,
Radio James Games