Rock Scissors Blog

A multi-way conversation between roleplaying game authors and developers. Occasionally useful.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Whither the PDA D&D?

[This post was originally made on August 23rd, 2002 on the "Writing On Your Palm" blog. WoYP has since been repurposed as Jeff Kirvin's own personal blog, and the archives have vanished—however, I was able to retrieve this from the composer. In some ways, it's still as true today for the iPhone as it was back then for the PDA.]

Amid the explosion of fiction, nonfiction, reference, religious, and textbook e-books that have been appearing on palmtops over the last few years, one category of books seems to be conspicuously absent: the roleplaying game. I don't mean the computer roleplaying games like Neverwinter Nights or Diablo, but the books that preceded them: games of social interaction that are played with pencil and paper and dice and, most importantly, imagination.

Although some companies have been releasing electronic versions of their roleplaying game books, none of these have been what I think of as "e-books" in the fullest sense of the word. Either they are desktop applications with the text of a book inside (as with the recent Vampire: Revised CD-ROM), or else they are Adobe Acrobat (PDF) files—suitable for printing but not really for reading on-screen—or for putting on a PDA.

At first look, roleplaying games might not even seem ideally suited to palmtop use. Number-intensive games such as Dungeons & Dragons often contain wide or tall charts, which could not be displayed on most PDAs' screens without scrolling or panning. Moreover, gamemasters often flip back and forth through their paper books faster than they could jump to sections on even the handiest PDA.

However, a roleplaying game e-book would not have to replace its paper version to be useful. Gamers are accustomed to using roleplaying aids, such as quick reference cards or screens, in addition to their physical books. An e-book, with its search feature, could serve as a sort of "ultimate reference card". For instance, if a gamer needs to know how many hit points a Gelatinous Cube has, entering "gelat" in a search box will probably find the information at least as quickly as thumbing through the Monster Manual to the "G" section—especially when it turns out that Gelatinous Cubes are actually filed under "O" for "Ooze".

Players who game at someone else's house might find an e-book a useful pocket reference, trading less convenience in flipping pages for more convenience in not having to carry full-sized books around. Likewise, people who play in LARP (Live Action Roleplaying) games usually have to do without any reference books at all—just imagine trying to run around in the character of a vampire or werewolf while carrying several pounds of paper! But an e-book takes up very little extra weight or space, especially if one is already carrying a PDA for use in task resolution.

And, of course, a poor substitute for a paper book still is a substitute, and better than no book at all. With game books and a die-rolling program on his PDA, a few pieces of paper, and willing players, a talented gamemaster could run a game literally anywhere, at any time.

A roleplaying game PDA e-book would share with the Acrobat e-book the lower fixed costs of production—no setting up and running printing presses necessary, but just creating a formatted electronic file and setting it up for download. The price could be set a few bucks lower than the physical book, to reflect that cost decrease and lure more people into buying it.

So why hasn't anybody tried a more portable roleplaying e-book yet?

The reasons are a little complicated.

To begin with, roleplaying is no longer the fad market it was in the early to mid 1980s. There are still a few publishers (such as Wizards of the Coast, Palladium, and White Wolf) who can move vast quantities, but for most presses, a book is considered quite successful if it sells even 1,000-2,000 copies.

Due to economies of scale, books produced at this lower volume cost more to print, and have to be more expensive to buy, than equivalent-sized mass-market books. These books often have a very thin margin of profit, shaved as close as the publisher can make it and still hope to stay in business. (This is also why some RPG books are published only as PDFs—they cost much less and are less risky to publish than a paper book that might not even sell out its first print run. It is largely assumed that the buyer will be printing it out and binding it himself; thus a PDF is not so much an e-book as it is the "ghost" of a printed book that the purchaser will then provide with a body.)

However, among some gamers there is a perception that these high prices are gouging on the part of greedy publishers. Some of these even proclaim loudly via newsgroups and bulletin boards that if games are going to cost so much, they'd rather download them from KaZaa or get copies from their friends than pay for them.

In a market as small as roleplaying games', losing even a handful of sales to unauthorized copying can make the difference between black or red ink, and there is a fear that some of the complainers will be hostile enough to start passing around copies simply for the heck of it. The game publishers with whom I have spoken recognize that printed pages can be illicitly scanned whether the book is also published electronically or not, but at the same time do not want to make it any easier for malfeasants by publishing in HTML or some other unencrypted form. With the market for full-fledged gaming e-books as yet untested, it seems like too much of a risk to release them without adequate protection.

An outside observer might look at the success Baen has had boosting print sales with its unencrypted Free Library and Webscriptions e-books, and prognosticate that gaming companies could do the same thing and reap the same benefits. Yet, the RPG publishing industry is very different from the mass-market publishing industry.

As mentioned before, individual sales are very important in keeping RPG publishers afloat, and they cannot risk anything that might jeopardize even a few. In contrast, the much-larger fiction publishing companies can afford to chance losing some here and there. Heck, most large publishing companies can actually afford to recall and destroy copies of their books that did not sell! You'd never see a gaming publisher do that.

Furthermore, novelists—and especially the kind of science-fiction/fantasy novelists who write for Baen—have many enthusiastic fans, most of whom would never dream of doing anything to hurt the objects of their affection. (Quite a few Baen fans will conscientiously buy print copies of anything they get free, and some will even buy extra e-copies when the free e-books are sold for money elsewhere, such as through Fictionwise!) But gaming companies enjoy a strange kind of love-hate relationship with their customers, some of whom will openly declare their love for the game yet turn right around and Gnutella it because they think the price is too high.

One gaming company actually did try an open-format release. The now-defunct FASA bundled its first-edition Earthdawn game onto an HTML CD-ROM, and gave it away free in collectible-card-game magazines. (And, thanks to iSilo, I have it on my Cli—'s memory card even now.) It was hoped that this release would spark more interest in Earthdawn, which was not selling as well as FASA's other lines. Although Earthdawn did experience a spike in sales, the effect was only temporary. FASA later sold the line to another company.

Is it likely we will ever see roleplaying game e-books on our Palms or PocketPCs? Perhaps. As more and more people in the main gaming demographic (college students and older) acquire PDAs and start using them for other things related to roleplaying, perhaps the demand will make itself known. There is a way that publishers could provide PDA-compatible e-books and not risk their content falling into the wrong hands: by using a secured PDA format, with Digital Rights Management (DRM) built in.

There are several secure PDA e-book formats, but I feel the best is Palm Digital Media (formerly Peanut Press)'s Palm Reader. PDM's markup language provides emphasis (such as italics or bold), formatting, odd ASCII characters, tables of contents, and limited image display—and also includes unobtrusive yet effective DRM. Each Palm book is locked to its purchaser's credit card number—a key he will probably not want to give out to other people.

Palm Reader has versions for PalmOS and Windows CE PDAs, as well as Windows and Macintosh desktops. There is no limit on the number of copies a user can have active; the e-book could serve as his desktop reference at home, and be used remotely on his PDA or tablet PC.

It seems possible that a PDA roleplaying game e-book might lead to more sales of both the e-book and the "tree-book": people who already have the paper book might want a convenient reference version for the Palm, and people who try a less expensive e-copy on the Palm might decide they like it enough to buy the paper version, too. It might also bring in e-book site customers who have never been exposed to roleplaying games before.

Of course, it is also possible I might have my head in the clouds and there would be almost no demand at all. I don't think so, but it is possible. But even so, it does not seem like much of a risk to try—it would still be more economical to format an e-book that doesn't sell than to print a book that doesn't sell.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004
Street Performers, Bowls, Plants...and the Gaming Industry?

Nobody seems to say anything on this blog anymore; I gather that they've all given it up and moved on to another one. Anyway, this blog seemed lonely...and I've written a very long chunk of prose with an interesting idea about things gaming writers might consider doing. And there do still seem to be people reading this, at least via LJ's RSS feed. So what the heck, I'm crossposting this from my essay journal to see if any gaming folks left reading find it interesting.

Today, someone on the Ebook Community mailing list was asking about publishing ebooks in serial format, with a possible view toward subscription down the road. It's an interesting idea, and it could work—in theory. Certainly there have been plenty of serial writing projects on the Internet; I've belonged to some of them myself.

Probably the most successful was the Superguy listserv, a humorous superhero fiction mailing list which at its height had hundreds of subscribers and dozens of episodic posts every month. The complete archives are still available to be searched and read via links on that site, by the way, and it's well worth the time. There's a lot of drek in there, but there's certainly enough good stuff to throw Sturgeon's Law off a bit. It's mostly dead now, alas; I wish I knew what could be done to make it live again. I've halfway considered plugging it in Google AdWords just to see if it picks up any interest.

There were other such groups, too—most notably,, alt.comics.lnh, etc.—but if I dwell on past glories, I'll never get to the point I want to make here, and I've got a ways to go yet. The point is the feasibility of serial publishing for money, not just for love, and I have a couple of examples to cover.

Almost exactly four years ago, back in late 2000, I happened to be hanging around SF writer Elizabeth Moon's SFFnet newsgroup at the point she and a few other SFF regulars got all-over excited about the Street Performer Protocol. The Street Performer Protocol, which I shall henceforth call SPP to save on some typing, was proposed in a white paper by John Kelsey and Bruce Schneier as an alternative means of content financing in the Internet age—sort of a modern-day version of the old Renaissance system of patronage.

The theory went that since, thanks to computers and the Internet, a completed work can be passed around ad infinitum without the author ever being compensated for his work, the author should endeavor to set a goal for how much money he wants to make out of the work—and then make that amount of money out of it before it is made available in its entirety. Anything he happened to make out of it after that would be a pleasant bonus.

The idea was that an author would create a complete work—be it a novel, a record album, a TV series, whatever. He would put the work in escrow with some reliable agency, or at least have such an agency certify that it was complete (so he wouldn't be selling a work that might never be delivered). Then he would chop that work into X+1 pieces, post the first piece to the Internet (or make it available by whatever means; the Internet is simply the most convenient), and set out a "hat" with the proviso, "Pay me whatever you want; when I get (1/X * my goal) amount of money, I'll post the next piece." Some people would chip in, others would not; either way, each piece that's released has been paid for, so it's free for anyone. And then the next bit would be paid for and released, and the next, and so on, until the last piece is published. Then, once it's all published, anyone can do whatever they want with it, because the author has already made the money he set out to make. (The white paper suggests putting the work in the public domain; a Creative Commons license would probably be more realistic today.) It gets a little more complicated than that, but follow the above link to find out more.

Getting back to Elizabeth Moon, she and others were quite enthusiastic about the idea of serial tip-jar publishing; Moon had some story notes that she'd never gotten around to publishing, nor did she think they were publishable by normal methods. So they set up the Storyteller's Bowl based on SPP principles. It was a very nice-looking website, with clean, professional design, a little illustration of a Middle-Eastern storyteller with carpet and bowl, a FAQ, and a set of writer's guidelines. "Only professional writers with a track record are eligible at this time," they said. One imagines Mrs. Moon delivering this line in stern tones, perhaps peering over the rim of half-moon spectacles as she speaks. (I have no idea if she actually owns half-moon spectacles, but she probably should.)

However, was is the operative word. As you can see by looking at the listing, it was only ever updated once—and if you go to now, you'll just find a placeholder. After gamely hanging around unwanted for several years, its registration has finally expired. The storytellers' enthusiasm didn't last long enough to put out the bowl.

Why? I asked that question back in 2001, on the Storyteller's Bowl SFF newsgroup. There were several obvious reasons, of course: people got too busy, nobody wanted to be the first to bell the cat...but probably the biggest one was, as author Lawrence Watt-Evans put it,
Stephen King's The Plant sort of undercut the idea — it got all this hype, and then he DIDN'T FINISH IT, which has not been good for the consumer confidence factor.
Ah, yes, The Plant—Stephen King's brainstorm after his short story "Riding the Bullet" did so well as an ebook. The fly in the ointment was that King was too used to thinking in terms of paper books and just couldn't seem to get his head around the differences. This led to problems.

Back in December of 2002, I wrote an email message to the Ebook Community neatly summarizing those problems in response to someone else's inquiry. It went like this:
Oh, god. The Plant. Don't get me started.

Stephen King couldn't have made his project more ridiculous if he'd been intentionally trying to give ebooks a high-profile failure to make up for the success of "Riding the Bullet". The Plant expressly ignored several key ways ebooks differ from treebooks, for no other real reason than King thought they should work that way.

  • Download of different formats of the same chapter was counted as separate, different downloads and expected to be compensated as such. What?! A download is not a non-renewable resource...and if someone downloaded one format and just did the conversion himself (as he is entitled to by fair use), he'd have the same result and save his money. King compared the practice of multiple download to saying "Since I have the hardcover, you should give me the paperback free." That was totally missing the point.

  • "Success," and thus continuation of the project was based on what percentage of the downloads people paid for. This set an impossibly high goal, and it's not any wonder that sooner or later he failed to meet it. What should have been done was set a specific numerical or monetary goal, not unlike the Street Performer Protocol, and continue once that was met.

  • By tying "success" to percentage of download paid for, King also set it up so that anyone with a grudge against him or his readers could ensure that the project was not "successful," simply by writing a script to download the episodes a zillion times without paying for them. That's why on-line polls are so mistrusted—they're so easy to rig. Any script kiddie could have done the same thing with King.

  • In the end, the percentage of paid downloads fell below King's "success" bar, and he called the project a "failure" and terminated it unfinished—thus putting a black mark on the face of epubbing that may take a while to clean off. But even so, it's worth noting King took in hundreds of thousands of dollars for only writing half a book. Maybe that's not much by the standards of a megasuccess like King, but most other authors would have been dancing in the streets if one of their books made them even one hundred grand.
    And so King shelved the book, and it cast a pall over the entire ebook industry. If such a famous author couldn't "successfully" sell a serial ebook, then the market must just not be "ready" yet. ($463,832 profit. I wish I could "fail" like that!) It was not the only reason the Storyteller's Bowl remained empty, but it was probably the biggest one.

    Now it's four years later, and ironicly, it's turning out that flat-out giving one's works away for free on the Internet is usually a sure-fire way to sell more of them in print. You don't have to look far for examples: Baen, Cory Doctorow, Lawrence Lessig, and countless others are slinging ebooks every which way and selling print versions hand over fist. Forget selling on the installment plan, give it away and you'll sell even more.

    This points out the fact that the SPP plan still has a few problems, even putting aside the shameful example of The Plant. Here are the ones that I see.

    Writers (and other artists) don't want to limit their profit. Now, granted, most books these days sell fairly poorly; it's the rare writer indeed who can make his living entirely from the pen. But still, writers and artists don't want to think, "I can get this much...and that's it." They want to think about multiple printings, reprint rights down the road, and so on and so forth. (Heck, that's why our copyright is now umpteen zillion years long—all the big corporations saying, "Oh, please, won't someone think of the artists?") Creative types want to earn as much as they can, and continue earning it for as long as they can. (And really, don't we all?) And this leads into...

    Free works better. Much as we e-nthusiasts would like to think otherwise, most people just don't want ebooks yet—or at least, they don't want to pay money for them. Certainly they don't want to pay hardcover prices for them. And yet, they'll certainly take them when they come free—and if they like them enough, they'll buy them in print, and more by the same author. As mentioned above, this has been shown multiple times; some Baen authors like Mercedes Lackey have even seen a notable increase in their non-Baen sales after giving away books free. Why, then, would we want to sell something they don't want, and sell it in pieces to boot? And this, in turn, leads to the realization that...

    Consumers want convenience and conformity. Getting people to try something new and different is hard. Getting people to try something new and different and hard to understand is even harder than that. Can you imagine the puzzled looks on peoples' faces? "You want me to pay for something that isn't even available yet. And you don't even have a set price? My ever getting to see it at all depends on other schmucks chipping in? Are you crazy or something?" Also, the people who read Baen snippets (preview fragments of the first 25% of a novel that the authors throw out before Webscriptions is ready) and Webscriptions (which publishes new books divided into three monthly chunks) notwithstanding, I think most people would prefer to be able to read the whole work at once and not have to wait on an update schedule—especially if the update schedule is irregular and may not even happen at all if not enough people chip in.

    That being said, I actually do think there is a place for the SPP in modern-day publishing—just not in fiction publishing. The SPP has to be applied to a medium where authors are more realistic (or pessimistic), there's a reason to buy e- instead of tree-books, and consumers are accustomed to buying piecemeal.

    As you may already have guessed, I'm talking about the modern roleplaying game market. Let me hit those problems again and show why I think that in the RPG market they might be opportunities.

    Gaming writers are used to limited earnings. It's sad to say, but it's true; in the game industry, five cents per word is considered to be good money if you can get it. Multiple printings? Reprints? In today's RPG hobby, depleted as it has been by loss of interest, game consoles, collectible card games, massively multiplayer games, any or all of the above (take your pick), a title that sells even one or two thousand copies is considered to be a smash hit. I suspect that the SPP could offer at least some gaming writers a chance to earn more than they would ordinarily make, not less. Especially considering that...

    Many RPG sourcebooks are now published as PDF-only. In an industry where a "best-seller" only sells a couple of thousand copies, sales of the "mid-list" will barely cover the costs of even a tiny print run—and increasingly, they may not even cover that. If the theoretical ideal of print-on-demand were available, it would be the best way to market these low-volume books—but it isn't, so PDF is the next best thing. A PDF displaces the printing costs onto the buyer, so the seller has to sell fewer e-copies to break even on publishing costs. In some cases, renowned gaming writers may even sell PDFs directly to the gaming public without ever seeing a publisher at all (other than the website that sells the PDFs). Needless to say, these aren't typically given away free, since if they were then there wouldn't be anything left to sell. And gamers are used to buying stuff published in PDF form, since they're just going to print it out anyway. And they're also used to the way that...

    RPGs are published piecemeal anyway. How many books make up D&D 3(.5th)rd Edition's core rules? Three—player's handbook, DM's guide, monster manual. You don't need all of them to play the game (especially if someone else is game-mastering), but they each provide content that expands upon and works with the ones that came before. And they were originally published a month or so apart, so for the first couple months, anyone who actually wanted to play would be making do with only part of it. And how many books were in the old White Wolf World of Darkness line? How many GURPS books were there? And right when gamers finally have all of them, out pops a new edition and they have to buy even more! While there have been games that were complete in and of themselves (White Wolf's Adventure! comes to mind), they're much more the exception than the rule. And even games that have been beautifully complete (Champions 4th ed. and Nobilis 2nd ed. for example) have had supplements published. Gamers are used to buying things in pieces.

    It would be interesting if some gaming writer were to try this, as an experiment. Write a game, or a sourcebook, or what-have-you. Put a Creative Commons and/or OGL license on it, but keep it as close to public domain as you're comfortable with. (Perhaps one of the licenses that allows unlimited noncommercial use, since that would allow eventual complete publication elsewhere on the rare off-chance that someone might be interested.)

    Break it into a few chunks, post the first chunk, then put out a tip jar (the new DropCash fundraising system from PayPal seems like it would be ideal, as it gives would-be donors graphic representation of how close they are to goal) and declare you'll post the next when you hit a certain goal. (Be sure and set a realistic goal—but then, gaming writers tend to be well aware of how many copies and how much they make per book, so should be able to come up with a good estimate.) It would probably be best to make sure that each segment is at least useful on its own, so people don't feel gypped at having to wait for something else to come out to make it useful. A good possibility would be a sourcebook for a pre-existing system such as D20 or World of Darkness; each chunk could cover a different region of a particular world, city, what-have-you.

    And then...wait and see how quickly it earns its way to the goal. When it does reach the goal, leave everything available and the tip jar out; the work has earned out and now it's free. Anything that folks want to kick in afterward (and they will kick in, as more of them find and make use of the content) is gravy.

    Will it work? I don't know, but I'd like to think so. It seems likely to me that it would, as long as the goals were realistic and the writing good. Granted, I've never written any gaming material myself, just hung out with folks who have, so I'm not exactly an expert in the field. Still, I'm positive it would have a better chance than Stephen King's bass-ackward The Plant plan—and just look how successful that was.

    Monday, April 12, 2004
    Shortcomings of D20 as a CRPG

    Found via a writeup on Slashdot, here is a fellow on Kuro5hin writing a fairly in-depth analysis of the problems inherent in converting the pencil-and-paper D20 RPG to a computer RPG, Temple of Elemental Evil. The fellow has a few interesting and possibly controversial opinions on what RPGs, both traditional and computer, should be, but it's still an interesting comparison of how the differences in paradigm affect the translation of one to the other.

    Monday, January 12, 2004
    Attracting Women Gamers

    Here's an interesting article on female computer gamers and what attracts them, which could just as easily apply to RPG design:

    Don Hopkins' RadiOMatic BlogUTron: From Barbie to Mortal Combat

    I think the point about the gender balance at the development stage is an interesting one.

    Tuesday, November 25, 2003
    Where Do Gamers Come From?

    And why aren't there more of them? And how can we change that? I consider the angles at 20' by 20' Room.

    Thursday, November 06, 2003

    Polytropos reacts to the Kim essay and provides a handy reference to RPG theory essays by Ed Heil. The best way to read the Heil pieces is in order using the links in the Polytropos item.

    Tuesday, November 04, 2003
    Weekly Reader

    RPG theory luminary John H. Kim has a new essay, "Story and Narrative Paradigms in Role-Playing Games." I haven't had a chance to read it yet, but given that Kim was a major contributor to the original r.g.f.a "threefold" game theory, I'm confident in bringing it to people's attention.