area of effect

Orthodoxy in a New Art Form

Orthodoxy in a New Art Form originally appeared in a slightly different form in HUBRIS: A Commonplace Zine volume 2 issue 1.

There is no place for orthodoxy in a creative field. Once you have erected barriers as to what is or isn’t allowable, or decreed that things must be done in a certain way, you have begun to stifle the imagination. Orthodoxy in a new art form is beyond tragic. It’s practically blasphemous. That’s why I have such a love/hate relationship with the tabletop roleplaying games industry.

Let me pause for a moment to recognize that yes, there are market forces and practical business considerations. Customers want what they want, so creators have to make things to suit the market. The types of products that people buy drives what gets created, how it gets packaged and promoted, and the ways that it gets sold. Absolutely. All of that is true.

That’s also an expletive deleted cop out.

Roleplaying is less than 50 years old. Less than five decades ago, this industry did not exist. Someone — you all know his name — created something that no one had ever seen before. There was no market. While there was a customer base for wargames, there was no specific base for roleplaying. Since then there have been numerous firsts. The first game in this genre, the first game with these sorts of mechanics, and so on. All expressions of someone’s unfettered creative imagination.

The business side of things makes me nut. Like most creative fields, it’s driven largely by people who have artistic skills but no business sense. They know how to write, to design task resolution systems, to craft engaging worldbuilding. They have no clue about production, supply chains, costs, any of it. A lot of what people seem to know comes from trial and error. Most of it seems to come from creative people sharing their successes and failures with one another. Which is great, it’s camaraderie, it’s the sort of thing I want to see more of. But it’s no way to run a railroad.

Orthodoxy in a New Art Form

This is where the orthodoxy fails them. I see people going all in on doing thing the way they have always been done. You have to have a big, full-color hardcover book, because that’s what people want. Everyone is running a Kickstarter, so you’ve got to run a campaign there. Nothing sells other than fantasy, so if you want a big hit you need to tap that genre.

All of that stuff is expensive. After raising a ton of money, or diving into their personal savings, or both, people then complain that there’s no profits. Either they go into a financial hole, or they barely break even. If they’re lucky, they make a little money, and can make some more off of the long tail if their game is popular enough.

In any other business, your project wouldn’t get greenlit if you couldn’t show it had the potential to be profitable. What people in any other business will do, what I do with my own publishing efforts, is figure out how to control costs. This leads to people clutching their pearls and telling you that you’re doing it wrong. There’s some expectation that you should do it for the love of the hobby, not for personal gain. It’s the same “starving artist” nonsense that all creatives have to listen to.

The reality is that publishers who have been the most successful are the ones that have ignored the orthodoxy. They may only have broken a small taboo, but in finding another way they’ve managed to make their business viable while creating something unique, interesting, and fulfilling. In the business world, entrepreneurs are encouraged to be disruptors. If you want to succeed, you need to shake things up. I wish there were more knowledgeable creative people in the roleplaying hobby that were willing to be disruptors, rather than clinging to an orthodoxy that only works for the corporations at the top of the industry.

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