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.

Covenant Game Design: We Live in a Society

The Super Nintendo Entertainment System was released in North America in 1991. When one of us (Sazzy) bought theirs, it came with two controllers and Super Mario World, a game that two people could play. You could take it out of the box, plug it in, and be playing a game with your friend without spending another dime. Pretty slick.

Fast forward a scant 10 years to 2001, when the Xbox was released in the U.S. When Sazzy bought his, it came with one controller and no bundled-in games. You’d have to shell out more money just to use the console, and even more if you wanted to play a game with someone. And if your friend lived in another state, you’d have to pay yet again to play with them over Xbox Live (late 2002). Convenient subscriptions are available.

The situation in the video game world has continued to deteriorate, with loot boxes, microtransactions, games-as-a-service, and soon subscription game streaming, and I’m probably forgetting a hell of a lot here. It’s like sinking into a vat of leeches.

If you’re a gamer, the last thing you should be worried about are the “SJWs” and their “forced diversity” and “political correctness”. You’re being bled white, dude, and the worst part of it is I think you realize it.

People like Jim Sterling have been up to their elbows in this sort of thing for longer than I have. They have a reputation for railing against it, and they’re right to rail against it. However, since I checked my privilege in the last article, I think I have to check my outrage in this one.

See, most of these practices, possibly all of them, are legal. Are they ethical, though? Well, these game publishers are trying to survive in a capitalist society, just like you and me, and capitalism says they can make money this way. And they do make money this way. They’re very good at it.

However, since we live the Mirror, Mirror universe, if you can do something, then eventually you must do it just to survive – or at least survive in the manner to which you’ve become accustomed, which is the same thing to many people.

Game publishers have run out of games, so they have to find new ways to sell you the games that they have. And then sell it to you again. And then again. And then charge you DLC for that game. And monthly subscriptions to that game. And chapters. And game passes. And roadmaps. And “optional” cosmetics. And loot boxes. And locked loot boxes that you can wait to unlock, but why wait when you can buy a key right now?

I’m not immune to this, either. This was originally supposed to be part two of a much longer article. Blogs aren’t conducive to longreads, though, especially ones run on a shoestring. So I had to cut it up and spread it out.

The baloney machine has broken down at the tail end of capitalism, so the butcher has to slice the baloney he has left thinner and thinner. Pretty soon, he’s cut it so thin that he has to sell you the idea of baloney and the idea of eating it. Because if he doesn’t, he’ll starve.

How does this affect tabletop RPGs? Worryingly, it does, but there’s hope. Stay tuned for tomorow’s article.

Covenant Game Design: Checking My Privilege

Before we go any further, I think that there’s something that you need to know about one of us (Sean):

  • I live at home with my parents
  • I have a full time job that provides me with a health insurance, a regular paycheck, and a way to pay my bills.

I’m telling you this because my opinions on this blog and this podcast are voiced from an area of relative security. I know people who have trouble paying the rent and who can’t afford food, utility bills, or medical care, and this has informed my politics and my thinking. I used to be in that position myself, too, but not anymore.

The same goes for Covenant, the game I’m designing with Sazzy. I’ve been able to think about it, prototype it in my head, develop mountains of fluff, and let it “cook” for years, all without it earning me a dime in sales.

Other game designers don’t have that luxury.

Game design is often their full-time job, and it doesn’t come with the security that I’ve enjoyed. They have to pay artists. Balance books. Deal with production headaches. Chase trends. Make compromises. Drum up publicity. Shift units.

They are exposed to the full effects of late-stage capitalism, which not only says, “Publish or die,” but “Keep publishing or die.”

This economy, and the society that’s grown out of it, breaks people’s brains and ethics. Most game designers manage to hold on to both.

And some don’t.

These designers get up to some pretty shady business. Others have practices that the wider society deems legal, even ethical, but that lefties like me decry.

Thing is, It’s easy to criticize from a position of security – you know, of privilege.

Look, I get it. I’m a dilettante. I’m looking for moral purity in an impure world and straight beams in a house built from crooked timber. I get it.

That’s not going to stop me from pointing out things that I do see, though. I might not go after them with the fury of a Jim Sterling, but I will point them out. I’ll even tell you how my observations have affected my game.

After all, I’m trying to drum up publicity and shift units, too.

Game Design on the Cheap with Anna Anthropy

This is a video by game designer Anna Anthropy that influenced the design of Covenant a great deal. It’s less than 10 minutes, so it won’t take up much of your time. Give it a look.

“How to Design Your Own Pen & Paper Games, for Cheap or Free! w/ Anna Anthropy”
Filmed at San Francisco Zine Fest, Dec. 8, 2015

The idea of cheap or even free game equipment isn’t new to me. I was first exposed to it in the 1990s when I bought my first game from James Ernest‘s Cheapass Games.

Ernest has some interesting ideas about games. Everyone seems to have at least one board game kicking around their houses, so why not just sell them the bare minimum for your game – a board, some cards, etc. – and let the customer cannibalize their existing games for pawns and dice?

Fast forward to 2015, when this seminar was held, and now everyone has a cheap inkjet printer and computer in their house or has access to one. Why not take the next logical step, and just let people print out everything that they need for your game? Or even better, tell them how to make their own?

Are these original ideas to Anthropy, or for that matter to Ernest? Not sure. They do get the creative juices flowing, though. A lot of things suddenly seem possible once you get production costs and lead times out of the way.

Yes, it’s externalizing your production costs onto the customer. They aren’t large costs, though: a few sheets of paper, a little inkjet ink.

It’s interesting to see how games are reacting to late stage capitalism. You have MMOs, live service games, games that might as well be subscriptions for all the supplements you have buy, games-as-lifestyles, grinding, and GIT GUD, but you also have one-shots, free game mods, and a zine-style DIY ethic. It’s something I want to explore in the future here.

Vocabulary of the Orion Arm: The A’s

The lingua franca of the Orion Arm is Trade. The Covenant originally developed it as a stripped-down trading language. However, over tens of millennia, Trade has accreted words and slang from the many sapient species and cultures both within and without the Covenant.

Trade is a living, growing language. It is spoken on a thousand worlds and more, and no one book or document could possibly catalog or even contain it. What follows is only a very brief introduction.

Continue reading “Vocabulary of the Orion Arm: The A’s”