2008-02-14 : Oh you should too publish

Now, you and I both know that "you should do what makes you happy!" is what the maybe-you-shouldn't-publish-your-game people are saying. They're saying "publishing games for money is a pain, and I'm maybe having second thoughts, and you want my advice? Look into it with self-honesty before you commit." And that's cool. They aren't trying to shut anybody out or whatever the internet is accusing them of. They're just like, "it's not all beer and skittles, man, y'know? It's actually kind of a pain."

So I'm not arguing with them. At all. They're saying a very reasonable thing.

I'm arguing with the frickin' internet, with the stupid misstatement of it that the internet is so happily and busily building. Stupid ass internet.

Publishing a roleplaying game for money is kind of a pain, it is. But personally, I find it so satisfying that I can't imagine not doing it. Maybe for you the pain will outweigh the satisfaction, I dunno, but - you won't know either unless you try it.

If you're thinking about designing a game, give it a shot, why not? It'll be fun, educational, rewarding, and if you don't like it you'll knock it off. Then if you've designed a game, you have to decide what to do with it. Give publishing it a shot too! Why not? It too will be fun, educational, rewarding, and if you don't like it you can always quit. But quit THEN, don't quit now.

My only remotely cautionary advice is, don't spend money you can't walk away from. But if you keep to that (and it's easy, it's really really easy to keep to that), publish! What's the harm? At the very least you'll learn a bunch of stuff, right?

1. On 2008-02-14, Remi said:

Thanks for writing this, Vincent.

I want to finish this thing I've started, darn it.


2. On 2008-02-14, Ben Lehman said:

Word up.


3. On 2008-02-14, Seth Ben-Ezra said:


I totally agree with what you are saying.  Especially this bit:

"Publishing a roleplaying game for money is kind of a pain, it is. But personally, I find it so satisfying that I can't imagine not doing it."

I've actually come to appreciate the process of creating a book (not *just* a game).  It's definitely not the same thing, but it's a part of what I like about the process.  Plus, my wife loves graphic design and layout, so it's actually a thing that we share.  Which is a beautiful thing, actually.


4. On 2008-02-14, Seth Ben-Ezra said:

Oh yeah.  This too:

"My only remotely cautionary advice is, don't spend money you can't walk away from."

Having gotten myself into debt by ignoring this principle, I wanted to highlight it for everyone else.


5. On 2008-02-14, Diamond Sutra said:

Hey Seth, can you tell us about this:

"Having gotten myself into debt by ignoring this principle, I wanted to highlight it for everyone else."

Maybe here or over on S-G or The Forge. I'd love to see what you did, in order to learn from your mistake.



6. On 2008-02-14, Seth Ben-Ezra said:

Sure!  I'll write myself a note to write it up.


7. On 2008-02-15, Luke said:

I feel like I missed something.


8. On 2008-02-15, christopher Kubasik said:

Story Games.  Not publishing is all the rage.


9. On 2008-02-15, Seth Ben-Ezra said:

So, check out this game.  That's Junk, my first published game, released into the world back in 2001.  It was a fun little game.  Rather, I should probably say that it contained a fun little game.  I've toyed with revising it, and I know that there's a lot that I'd trim out now.  But, as it was, it was a miniature wargame inspired by Battletech and Car Wars.  It resulted in generally fun play at conventions, especially with a one player/one 'Can ratio.

But here's the problem.  I had visions in my mind of being a "real" publisher.  You know, doing this full-time, for a living.  Doing it the "right" way.  So, that meant making a book, getting price quotes, doing a print run, working with distributors...all of that.  Print on Demand was *just* starting out; Lightning Source was still called Lightning Print, and their quality was substandard compared to the full-blown offset press print run.  But I ran the numbers, and all I'd need to break even was 500 direct sales!  I mean, that's it!  And I was working with Wizard's Attic, so I had that extra pull.  It would work out fine!

So I financed the print run on a credit card.

Bad move.

Really bad move.

Suffice it to say that I didn't sell anywhere near what I needed to break even.  Then Wizard's Attic folded up and vanished.  I happened to have some stock on hand, which I liquidated through Key 20 (back when Jason Blair was still a part of that operation).  The debt was still there, of course, and combining that with other financial troubles that we were dealing with, I actually put my family into a five-year scramble to stay afloat, paying off our debt while still eating.

That's part of the reason that Legends of Alyria languished.  I didn't see how I could afford to get the thing into print at all, let alone pay for art or layout.  The only reason that I actually went ahead and put Alyria into print was for purely selfish reasons.  I wouldn't feel like I had finished the game until it was in book form.  After that, any sales would be gravy.  And now, with Lulu, POD was much more accessible, with no startup costs at all.  I could afford that....

But then a crazy thing happened.  I got another idea for a game.  And, lo and behold, we were now (finally) out of debt.  And I started thinking about relaunching Dark Omen Games.  But this time, it would be different.

First, no debt.  I wasn't going to finance anything in publishing ever again.

Second, spend only what I can afford to lose.  Every time I've spent money on Dark Omen Games, I've done it with the assumption of $0 financial return.  Therefore, I ask myself, "Can I afford this expense *now*?"  If not, then I don't do it.  And that's it.

Third, evaluate the status of the business after three years.  It's not reasonable to assume that a startup business will be able to support itself immediately.  However, I'd like the business to be able to support itself by year three.  If not, I'll need to reconsider my business model.  Things like GenCon, for example, can be rather pricey, especially to have a booth presence.  Maybe I'll need to go a different route.  Maybe it simply won't be worth it anymore.

But, since I won't have any debt from the business and no built-in necessity to draw cash from the business, I can walk away whenever I want, without causing any financial harm to my family.

Now, that all being said, I anticipate continuing to publish games for some time now.  I'm having a blast.  As I mentioned above, my wife is part of the act, doing layout and graphic design work.  I'm helping my daughter (age 9) to design a game, and when it's finished, she will help with the publication process as well.  So it's becoming a family affair, which is really cool.

And that's the biggest deal for me.  I have responsibilities that are more important than Dark Omen Games, and I need to make sure that I don't mess them up.


10. On 2008-02-15, Luke said:

Ok, I went and did my homework. Whoa.

1) Ralph's right. If I remember correctly, he is talking about a core tenet of the Forge—publishing can be done in a variety of ways, you do not have to follow the standard industry process to publish your game. Publishing does not equal making money. It's a subversive concept. I can see why it pushes buttons.

2) The phenomenon that Jon and Neil describe sounds like an age old case of "Old dudes trying to help and young dudes thinking, 'These old dudes won't get off my back! Outta my way Old Man, you're Old! I know what I'm doing!'" I think most of us are like that when we step into the arena. I know I was.

Upon further consideration, perhaps framing advice in the negative "reasons NOT to publish" isn't such a good idea. It seems to make a lot of people defensive. Perhaps we should try to frame all of our war stories and sage advice in positive or at least neutral terms. Laying down hard numbers for money and time is probably much more eye-opening than our creaky opinions.

And 'sides, who are we to offer advice? We certainly wouldn't have accepted it way back when—five years ago!


11. On 2008-02-16, NinJ said:

Yeah, Luke, you're probably right, but hearing it from different directions is, I think, good.


12. On 2008-02-18, Pencil-Monkey said:

On a related note: Is there anyone who knows if that Baker guy has changed his email adress? I've tried mailing him to get him to look at some DitV fan art, but he hasn't responded. Is that a bad sign, d'you think?

(No, I'm not trying to brown-nose my way into an illustration gig! Where ever did you get that silly idea?...)

[Even more esoteric etchings here]


13. On 2008-02-18, Pencil-Monkey said:

Yay! I figured out how to upload images (it really wasn't that difficult, come to think of it. But by my standards, it was friggin' brain surgery.

Wow, she sure turned out in a big way. Maybe I should post smaller versions from now on...



14. On 2008-02-18, Jonathan Walton said:

Luke, you're probably right about calling it "reasons NOT to publish" sends the wrong message.  After all, I'm still publishing, just under a new model that's not about selling games or making money.

The real message is something like:

"Don't think that you have to publish according to the methods that have been developed by other indie game publishers.  You can blaze new trails (or old trails) and publish however you like.  The model that most independent publishers follow is great and works for many people, but it has weaknesses and difficult areas too.  Learn from other people's experiences and maybe you can publish in a way that works better for you.  Also, people that choose not to publish or just like playing games are super great and deserve respect."


15. On 2008-02-18, valamir said:


That's exactly the point I was making.

Its all publishing and we do ourselves a diservice by ceding that.  Definitions have the power to exclude.  And by calling these alternatives "not publishing" we just ghettoize ourselves.

This is the same reason why I refuse to give up the term Roleplaying Game in favor of such "Not Roleplaying" terms like "Story Gaming".  Story Game as a type of RPG, yes.  Story Game as as alternative to RPG, no.



16. On 2008-02-18, NinJ said:

Ralph, I think seriously not publishing is perfectly acceptable, too. It might even be the best way to have fun.

Let's say that you've got a thing you do on Thursdays with your friends. Let's say that it's all built so that you and your friends work in it. It addresses particular social concerns you have with your particular friends. People do this all the time ??? "We need special rules so Jim's ninja characters have something to do." "We need a money system because Susan thinks about possessions in terms of money, not points." Whatever. It might work really well for the five of you. If someone else joins the group, you might change things again to address their concerns.

That doesn't mean that you'll enjoy rebuilding this system so it will work for anyone. You might not even want to subject it to the limitations of prose.

It's still an awesome game design you did, given its specifications (and given that it works). That doesn't mean that publication is something that will bring you greater satisfaction.

If what you *want* is to have your work in the public light, to have the recognition and criticism that comes with that, to find out if other people will have similar experiences to yours, then awesome. But that local design that's gone on for so long is a wonderful (if private) way of designing that we shouldn't assume is lesser because of its non-publication. That's the soil that heartbreakers grow in, and while you might enjoy growing one in your own garden, subjecting it to natural selection outside of your own creative garden may make it gnarl and wither.


17. On 2008-02-19, Vincent said:

In case anybody has any doubts, I'm in favor of everything everybody's said in this thread.

Also: Pencil-monkey! Mokkurkalfe! Hey! I was thinking about you the other day, I lost track of your email to me. Is the gruesome one online somewhere, the one with the hanged guy and the guts?


18. On 2008-02-19, Valamir said:

Joshua, been pondering that.

Sure, I mean the root rule is "do what's most enjoyable for you".  And if sharing your designs with people other than your tight knit group is not fun for you...then sure, no obligation or expectation to do it.

I would think this is by far the most common form of game design given the notebooks full of house rules most people have for their favorite game.

That said, I've never seen a game design yet that went to external playtest and didn't wind up a "better" design (cleaner / tighter / more rigorous)as a result.

So not-publishing in this sense could well make for more-fun but less-solid-design.  Which is probably why many Fantasy Heartbreakers wind up "Heartbreakers"...playtested to death internally, little external feedback.


19. On 2008-02-19, Brand Robins said:


I agree with the "didn't wind up better" in so much as the point of the game was (at any time) to be played by folks other than those in the home group (or target group, maybe).

Heartbreakers break hearts for the reasons you point out, and because the designer then took the local, focused thing (which is often full of unexamined assumptions) and put it out in the world, starving and alone.

If the game is never supposed to be played beyond those playing it, then getting others to test it doesn't necessarily help it become better.

I guess the short form is: external playtesting of "home design" helps a game become better for more people, but it does not necessarily make it better for the people at home. Sometimes, it may do the opposite.


See, but that's also a me thing, right? Cause we all know I don't really design games much.

Except that's a big lie. I've designed every system that isn't Dogs or PTA that my group has played in the last year. Many of them specifically, focusedly, and very deliberately. But you'll never see them because they aren't for you. They'll never be published because they aren't for that audience.

Playtesting them with my group in a "before we lock this down, lets make sure it works" phase is fully essential to what I do. Playtesting externally is fully counter purpose and would, frankly, waste my time.

But if I were to take one of my games and publish it and expect it to work, I'd be a damn fool.


For all that, I agree that people shouldn't cede the title of publisher. I'm rather tired of bullies trying to claim that word for themselves, and I'd just as soon folks in this community not give it up.

There is plenty of room in the world for plenty of different priorities.


20. On 2008-02-20, NinJ said:

Who's talking about ceding the title of publisher, now?


21. On 2008-02-20, Pencil-Monkey said:

Vincent: Sure is. I have an assortment of oddments on this site, or you can go directly to the bloody bits you mentioned here.


22. On 2008-02-20, valamir said:

Joshua, I'm not sure I understand your question.

Do you mean "now" as in right this very second in this thread (i.e. since Jonathan's post #14 above)?  If so, then nobody currently here.  I'm actually really happy where this thread has gone.

or do you mean "now" as in during the latest round of publishing related threads on story games that go back to...what, November-ish from that thread that compiled them all?  If so then the very title of threads like "Reasons not to Publish" is cedeing the title of publisher by identifying all of the activities being described as "not publishing".

My only point in all this is that all of those other cool activities being described in those threads are ALSO publishing...just an alternative to the GenCon Forge Booth model of publishing.  Its all publishing and we shouldn't do ourselves the diservice of not owning the title publisher.

(with the exception of the very limited circulation in-house design example you gave above...that's the only situation I can see as being "not publishing".


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