Covenant Game Design: The Gutenberg Zine Option

Tabletop roleplaying games have a potential unmatched by any other art form (and yes, I said that TRPGs are art).

First, they’re cheap entertainment. All you need are pencils, paper, dice, friends, and some rules. Furthermore, since everyone can afford them, everyone can play them. And finally, since they’re little more than guided improv theatre, that huge, inclusive audience can be whatever they want to be, at least within the confines of the game.

RPG equipment is minimal and multipurpose. You’re always carrying the most important piece between your ears. This means that RPGs are more versatile and interactive than either video games (which need a computer), board games (which need a board and pieces), or card games (which need cards).

Best of all, RPGs are cheap to make. You don’t need to know how to program, run a printing press, draw, or make 3D models. You don’t even need a computer. Just bang your game out on a pawn shop Underwood or Selectric, run off copies at a Kinko’s and sell those. Or give them away for free. Your costs are minimal at that point.

Of course, I want Covenant to have a nice package, not to mention popping art that’ll get tweeted out or pinned on some influencer’s Pinterest board for publicity. So does everyone who makes an RPG.

And that’s a problem, because an honest desire like that can turn into the sinking-in-a-vat-of-leeches effect that I talked about in yesterday’s game design article. That effect has been a part of the RPG industry for some time, and It’s accelerated recently, with:

  • Essential rules spread across two or more books
  • Proprietary dice, cards, counters, and other equipment
  • Preprinted character tiles instead of blank, easily copied character sheets
  • “Starter sets” with pregenerated characters, walled garden campaigns, barebone rules, and ads for the full game

Capitalism’s rule of “If you can, you must” applies to game design, because you’re competing with every other game designer and they’re competing with you, so you better have nicer art and more bespoke equipment and swag in your package than they have in theirs.

The alternative, of course, is to keep your costs down. Keep things simple. Play to the strengths of RPGs. Ignore your competition, then ask yourself, “Wait, why am I competing with these people again? Who put us up to this, and why did we agree to go along with it?”

I originally called this “the Gutenberg zine option” as a joke. The more I think about it, though, the more appropriate it is.

Books had been kept out of the hands of European commoners for centuries because of the high costs of book produciton. Part of that production was illumination – putting them in a pretty package, in other words.

Then Johannes Gutenberg invented the printed press and movable type, and suddenly books, along with what was in them, were available to a wider audience.

Luckily, that DIY/punk/zine attitude has been part of RPG culture since its very beginnings, too, with players publishing homebrew rules, and it continues to this day. Just Google “200-word RPG”, “micro RPG”, “one-page RPG”, or just “free RPG”.

I’m not publishing a one-page RPG, of course, or a free one. I want nice art and layout for Covenant, like I said. But even the costs of a Wizards of the Coast flagship-grade core rulebook are microscopic compared to those of a triple-A video game.

The sales are microscopic, too, but that’s okay. It’s just the two of us, and I for one am not in this to get rich.

Published by radiofreecovenant

A podcast about the science-fiction roleplaying game "Covenant" and the urban fantasy novel "Crossing the Line", soon to be published by Black Opal Books.

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