Tuesday, March 5, 2024

The Culture: Explaining Why Conventional Play Is Screwed Like It's Five

As I see that this is still necessary. Let's get on with it.

No One Likes To Schedule Their Fun

A Conventional Play campaign is beholden to the least committed player. This has been a Known Issue for decades, with plenty of fake remedies that don't fix the problem, the result of which is that either everyone tolerates being held hostage by Flakey Floyd or the flakes get punted and then DRAMA ENSUES which can (and has) cascaded into IRL issues that persist for years. God forbid that it's the Referee that's unavailable; now nothing happens no matter what.

This problem persists because of the stubborn insistence in a One True Party coupled with a Forever Referee. That's a fragile formation, where a single point of failure cascades into play coming to a halt. There are no alternatives, so this dysfunction wears on until either people muddle through it all or (far more common) it falls apart entirely.

As bad as it is, it gets worse once the players are all mature adults with spouses, children, careers, civic obligations, etc. that inevitably causes players to stop playing. This inflexibility culminates in the "Six Session Campaign" meme.

Videogame alternatives don't have these problems. They can play them whenever they want. They can play for as long as they like. They don't have to dance around some retard's house rules that break the game. They don't have to tolerate some dysfunctional twat wasting time with pointless bullshit. They can skip all the Le Epic DRAMA! bullshit and get on with playing the damned game. Given the prices now asked for, and the inconvenience that anyone but the biggest publishers present in buying product, it's also now easier and cheaper to just play a videogame instead- or do I need to link to that Bob The Worldbuilder video again?

No amount of Conventional Play platitudes will fix this trend. Either you abandon the tabletop or you abandon Conventional Play.

No One Gives A Fuck About Your Story

Go figure that another perennial complaint comes from Forever Referees who are also frustrated novelists. (Looking at you, Wick.) Hell, "skipping cutscenes" is a perennial topic in videogame forums; that's how little players give a shit about it.

Lore and narrative is fantastic for film, television, and prose. It is corrosive to gameplay as it violates player agency, and would be better off banned entirely in favor of the players driving the bus on what is and is not in the setting- something I wrote about at The Clubhouse.

"But Larian-"

Have you watched Actual Play videos? No one cares. They just want to do goofy shit for giggles, and goofy shit turns out to be far more entertaining to the target audience than whatever narrative bullshit the developer or publisher- both at the table and in vidya. When they aren't doing goofy shit, they're maximizing performance because doing that is the most reliable way to solve the problems that the actual game shoves in their faces. Walkthroughs are vastly popular because it allows players to skip the bullshit and focus on the actual game- something that tabletop could do, but Conventional Play and its Theater Kid faggotry routinely fuck up Because Reasons.

Stop resisting!

This is why Referees that let go the need to Tell A Story turn out to (a) be happier playing and running the game because (b) they give players what they actually want and thus (c) create and sustain a far more pro-social environment for everyone. Let the players figure that shit out.

This need to fuck over players with Muh Narrative crap is another reason for why videogame alternatives are superior to Conventional Play; players can skip the bullshit and get on with it.

Black Is White, Knights Move On Diagonals

Rule Zero has proven itself to be a terrible idea. Nearly 50 years of newsletter and magazine articles, forum posts, and now YouTube videos have consistently demonstrated how ripe for abuse this idea proved itself to be such that some Psychology student with ambition could make their graduate career doing a PHD thesis on how this practice faciliates the mental and emotional abuse and predation of those subjected to it.

Players cannot make competent plans, or execute them, if the rules of the game are not set in stone. Revealed Preferences Are Revealed by the vast number of prospects and lapsed hobbyists going to vidya specifically because that bullshit DOES NOT HAPPEN.

Nevermind "Rule Zero" also being used for about as long by incompetent or lazy designers and publishers to shirk doing their fucking job and sloughing it off on the end-user instead. (LOOKING AT YOU KEVIN SIEMBIEDA!) Players don't want to play shit games. Players don't want to play incomplete games. Players don't want to play broken pieces of shit. Palladium is the only exception, and it gets by on being more of a Setting Bible to be read than a game to be played (that, and boy does the typical Palladium fan come off like a paste-eating retard). The numbers of them dipping out for videogame alternatives proves this- NO ONE LIKES THIS!

And, as the recent addition of SSI Classics to Steam and GOG reveal, videogames have been a better alternative for decades. No wonder Conventional Play turned into the Put of Spiteful Mutants.

Meanwhile, The Clubhouse Doesn't Have This Problem

Proper play means it doesn't matter who shows up. Everyone can run, everyone can play, and no one worries about anything because playing strictly by the rules kills the anxiety on both ends of the table.

Strict Timekeeping kills One True Party bullshit, with all the issues that inflicts. Faction Play and Braunsteins kill the need for supplements, lore, etc. and all of this being goofy as shit acts as an effective filter getting rid of those too precious to fit into the club.

Conventional Play is just too fragile to stand up against adversity of any sort. This is why I tell those unwilling to do the real thing to play videogames instead.

Monday, March 4, 2024

The Culture: Yes, Even Your Pretentious Parlor Play Is Really A Wargame

"But this wargame paradigm can't work in my Gothic Punk dystopia full of vampires, werewolves, and so on. Your Clubhouse can't handle it."

Anon, if you insist that Vampire: The Masquerade is not rooted in wargaming you (a) never played in the LARP scene (where this is obvious to see) and (b) don't know shit about how World of Darkness games actually get played.

Summarized: A World of Darkness campaign is, in fact, playing Diplomacy with Oh So Edgy set dressing and some poseur-grade Goth aesthetic right out of Hot Topic- complete with the tags still attached.

The Pretentious Parlor Play

For all of Mark Hagan's claims of "Stoytelling", what the game actually is in practice is an ongoing Braunstein with Faction Play hardcoded via Clans and faction-specific social hierarchies. That's not a recipe for fulfilling the wishes of frustrated novelists. That's a recipe for the mixture of Courtier Intrigue and Criminal Violence that, when mixed together, becomes Gangland Paradise straight out of The Godfather.

You are not engagin in Narrative. You are hardcore old-school wargaming; you play a man, who has Objectives and Resources, and has to collaborate with some to oppose others- and whom to ally with shifts as events occur and circumstances change.

That's Diplomacy with extra steps people. Competent diplomatic corps pay you to learn how to do this for real, which is why a lot of the better players I knew 20+ years ago are now doing well as politicians, diplomats, field or flag-level military officers, lawyers, or in upper corporate management.

No one claims that Diplomacy is not a wargame. The lack of dice and widgets does not mean it is not a wargame.

What is interesting is that (a) it is LARP, not tabletop, that drives this Brand and (b) no one observing (nevermind participating) such LARPs would fail to see the resemblence.

I have first-hand experience, having co-run a VTM LARP about 20 years ago, that this is how the game actually works.

A Perfect Clubhouse Game

Running a proper VTM campaign is easy. Use one of the first two editions for a ruleset. Dump all of the metaplot.

Each Referee focuses on one city, as was implied by the game's initial publications. Preferably, focus on his city. He'll have plenty of territory to work with between the metropolitan core and the surrounding area. Additional Referees control other cities.

Your first players are the city Elders, the members of the city's Establishment, preferably one for each Clan. They are Faction Leaders, and most of the lesser vampires will be those converted into vampires by one of them.

Other players are lesser vampires, mortals of note, or vampires from a hostile external faction (i.e. Sabbat in a Camarilla city).

You start with a Braunstein session. The Elders have to be there; everyone else is optional. What comes out of that session is what drives regular play for months as Elders use their juniors (who have their own agendas) to execute various plans.

Scaling Up

As noted above, each Referee handles a different city. Ideally, these are in the same region (i.e. Twin Cities, Duluth, Rochester, Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago, Gary) to allow for another level of Faction Play (City v. City). Now you are cooking with gas, and man does it pay to go hard on watching Gangster films as that is the obvious way that play is going to turn out.

Sure, there's a horror (and thus supernatural) element. Sure, there's some Noir and Hard Boiled potential. Sure, you have plenty of court (and courtier) intrigue going on. But the core of this style of game is Gangland and that's just Diplomacy with extra steps. The really ambitious will delve into Italian history to see how the various pre-unification city-states warred and traded with each other (including the Vatican) because Gangland is that after Modernity set in.

The endgame is always the same: Uncontested Power.

Whomever gets to that Win Condition first wins. "Everyone loses" means a Masquerade breech so bad that Normies Rise Up and you're worried about getting speared through a wall and dragged out of your Haven on a winch into the sunlight to burn.

And this is why Theater Kids lose to Diplomacy Chads.

Sunday, March 3, 2024

The Culture: The Future Of The Hobby (Publishing Edition)

Most of you reading this need to Come To Jesus when it comes to publishing tabletop adventure games.

Unless you do like the RPG Pundit and move out of the First World, you are not going to make a living publishing this stuff; if you're not The Only Game That Matters, or The Only Game In This Niche That Matters, you're already forced to leech off of them or you're not really a viable business.

That's why I put forth the model that I did yesterday, as I think a lot of you can pivot from Product to Service.

Which leads to the question of "What about the product?"

Many of you are familiar with the concept of a loss leader. The product performs a similar function. It exists to draw prospective players into your secured space. It has no other value than to be playable advertising for your service business. The fact that videogames do everything that tabletop tries to do, in terms of Conventional Play, better across the board coupled with Wizards abandoning the medium means that tabletop publishing is already becoming non-viable commercially. Get ahead of the curve.

Again, this is already a solved problem, and it was solved by Chris Gonnerman years ago: downshift to a self-sustaining hobby in itself.


The Proof Of Concept

Your publishing efforts, therefore, need to focus upon competent technical writing and presentation over all else. Dump everything surplus to requirements.

The reason for your product is that it is the default game being played in your clubhouse, like Blackjack or Poker at a casino is the default game, and this was always the case. It just wasn't acknowledged until circumstances forced people to acknowledge that this is reality- like it or not.

And yes, "default game" is not only a loss-leading bait into a sales funnel, it is also the first secondary convenience that you provide. "You can buy your own copy of the game from the club at-cost" is a value-added conveience and people will appreciate that.

It still has to be a good game, but if you don't have it in you to hit that target then don't worry. You can just focus Games That Matter. Recall that AD&D1e, a game that ceased publishing in 1989, is still one of the most dominant games around, and will be until everything collapses and Civilization falls.

Go where the money is: the service of providing a safe and secure place to play. All a game does henceforth is to advertise for your secured space. Get used to it.

Saturday, March 2, 2024

The Business: Towards The Future Of The Hobby (In Business Terms)

I talk about the business side have a future only as a service provider. Let's build on that.

What does a casino do? It provides a space for people to meet and play games together. Everything else exists to either increase the revenue generated via extracting it from players playing, or by making it comfortable and convenient to spend a lot of time there (increasing both the odds of gameplaying and using other related services).

You are not making a casino.

You are making a secured location for people to play games together. This is already a secondary function of game stores; it should transition to the primary one, with a secondary service being to be a secured location for receiving physical product as well as Print On Demand because you have a POD printer on-site or nearby (and I do mean "Can walk over and back in 10 minutes or less").

The Core Business

Your job is to secure a space.

First you need a location; this can be virtual. This is already a viable option; people already set up accounts on Patreon and Subscribestar (and other such things) to set up a subscription model, and that subscription them purchases access to Member-Only channels in a Discord server (or something like it).

You can do this with physical locations; what do you think Members Only clubs are about? Only Staff and Members permitted. Hell, conventions do this as a matter of routine.

That's securing literally. Now to secure socially.

Second, you are going to do Due Diligence on every single prospective member, especially those that you do not know, as if you were hiring an employee. Scour their socials, check references, etc. There's a reason for this effort: to cultivate a secured environment for each member when on the premises, such that they are able to relax and play. If they trip up red flags, then you decline their application with nothing more than "You are not a good fit for our members" and move on- done and done.

Part of this means that you are not going to charge a trivial subscription fee. You are going to charge no less than $199/month per person and those will go up as your success takes off. You must do this to filter out those bad actors, almost all of whom are unable to afford that fee and many more will object on some bullshit principle that they don't actually hold.

By doing this you gain the power to police behavior via Contract Law. All such clubs have behavioral codes, including at times dress codes, that are actively enforced by Staff and Management (i.e. you). Death Cultists, Tourists, etc. are all free to yeet because they will violate your Terms of Service, and those Terms will include banning the bad behaviors and practices that they are all notorious for. This is already being done and proven effective; you are foolish to not do this yourself.

You also gain the power to be selective on whom to admit by erecting a clear barrier to entry. If the subscription fee is insufficient, then move to Invite or Referral Only as well as raising the subscription fee, imposing an application fee, or both.

Objections

"But this means-"

No free riders. This is meant to be a leisure pursuit, not a lifestyle, and as such it is a luxury and should be priced as such.

Every so often you may have open events, mainly to (a) advertise and (b) find new prospective members, but also to (c) identify potential threats before they become a problem by providing them the opportunity to demonstrate why they don't belong by their own (mis)behavior.

Remember, you are not selling product. Your business is security. For a specific purpose, but security nonetheless- no different than a nightclub or casino.

You charging for access is your primary revenue generator. You ruthlessly screening prospective members and enforcing a behavioral code on them is part of the service that you provide as your business. Once you get this nailed down and on lock, then you can expand and no sooner into secondary conveniences.

Complimentary Services

Once you've done a Bukele and made your space safe and secure for your members, then you can begin to add value to that membership by offering conveniences.

Remember, you provide a service- not a product.

For physical spaces, avoid food service; instead, make it convenient for members to order and receive delivery at the space. Don't sell product; make it convenient for members to receive packages at the space, and as soon as possible get one or more POD printers so members can (for a fee) get POD products on site.

For virtual spaces, you want to maximize user convenience having commonly-used virtual assets (or links to them) kept on hand for ease of use or reference. Those playing over Discord are already used to using dice bots in Chat channels, so having them already there is a no-brainer; a bot that can pull up rules from a reference document would be one to make your space stand out.

More Objections

"But doesn't-"

Now you're seeing where this is going because there are already trends going in this direction, but they are not secured properly because they are still in the mindset of needing to be a mass market affair when the real money is in a smaller, but more lucrative per head, base of customers; this is where you have room to usurp their market share via particularity and exclusivity.

You're aiming for the same goal as the indie authors: "1000 loyal customers". A membership-driven business works best with a policy of exclusivity and selectiveness, justified by high membership fees and added value via convenience service tie-ins.

The end goal is to be the destination for serious hobbyists looking for a safe, secure space to play and run campaigns. This has massive value and Wizards' pivoting in this direction (and taking up the low-end because they're the only ones that can) is proof that this is where the future of the business is- not in clearing forests for Yards Of Books that no one reads, let alone uses, as low-class coffee table status signals.

If you think this isn't viable, you've never been in a subscription-based Mastermind space. This is a proven business model.

Conclusion

I'm adapting a business model that works because there are enough hobbyists with money that would value it- just as the Hollywood Gaming Gang (and how they spend LOTS). The virtual space, in particular, is going to become a growth segment in the years to come because it is location-independent, can take members from anywhere in the world, and does not take a lot of time or talent to erect and maintain. High revenue, low cost, easy to erect/maintain- fantastic business model to pivot to as publishing collapses.

I ought to make a consultation business out of this. $5k for a one-hour call.

Friday, March 1, 2024

The Culture: Life After Wizards, Part Three: People Still Do That? (Or "The Visibility Question")

Wizards of the Coast will go to an all-digital business model for its properties. This includes Current Edition.

This model is a Walled Garden, an enforcable version of what Games Workshop's claim of being "not a wargame, but a separate hobby entirely". This is the claim of there being a separate and distinct "Dungeons & Dragons hobby", defined by being an ongoing payer to Wizards within the Walled Garden company store to a defacto subscription.

Being that Wizards defines what "RPG" is to Normies, Casuals, and Tourist it is expected--and rightly so, given 50 years of past performance--that not only will most current players meekly go along with this change, but that being shoved into the faces of young Normies (etc.) will bring in orders of magnitude more people into the sales funnel to be tapped and farmed for recurring revenue.

What both Conventional Play and Bros alike will be forced to do is to distinguish what they do against this new all-digital alternative.

The Conventional Play faction will have a serious uphill battle, as they have to argue with the facts that what they offer is inferior to what the all-digital alternatives possess across the board: having to schedule your play time, be held hostage to the least committment player, be held hostage to the least competent or mature player (including the Referee) because Rule Zero faggotry is a thing, and have to put up with people wasting their time by not paying attention or being prepared to haul ass and get shit done- among other flaws solved in Vidya alternatives.

But the Bros won't be on Easy Mode; the issue with getting people who are too-long accustomed to doing all things digitally, with all that involves, have a hard time going analog and thus playing the real game. Older players, who do have prior experience on the tabletop, as well as those who have no previous contact with this form of game at all, have proven themselves more receptive. That said, they face the "People do that?" problem because they are not widely visible to Normies (etc.) unlike cyclists, Poker players, etc.

This is the two-part question going forward: "How do we let people know that this is a thing?" and "How do we bring the curious into the hobby?"

For Conventional Play, this is part of the larger "Oh shit, we have to do real business operations!" issue. For the Bros, this is more about getting out there more and more and letting the winning moves heretofore get bigger audiences- people are drawn to confident folks having fun mogging on squares.

"People still do that?" not only is something that can happen, it's something that has happened; Normies (etc.) don't go out of their way for anything, so if it's not in their way they forget that it exists- and YouTube just demonstrated that this is indeed How It Is.


Pat here also explains that YouTube also works off Network Effects.

It's on everyone--not just Wizards--to do marketing and advertising for the hobby and its games. Videos like this is what happens when you don't.

Thursday, February 29, 2024

The Culture: Life After The Wizards Leave, Part Two: Back To The Clubhouse

I remind you that the Wizard Imperium's retreat continues before moving on to the main topic.

It is my position that going corporate was a mistake. It should have never left the vibe captured herein.

This is the vibe that I--and others--are aiming for by Returning To The Clubhouse.

The point of having full, complete games as the only acceptable products is that each campaign is to be a bespoke creation of the participating hobbyists. The point of the Clubhouse is to be the social hub for hobbyist activity, both in the playing and in the associated social action. There's a reason I keep embedding that clip from the very start of Casino Royale; the old-school upscale social club is the fully realized form of the Clubhouse wherein there is a focal activity as well as side areas for members to speak discretely, if only to be social.

The other point of a Clubhouse is to screen out bad actors and distractions. Those distractions include filtering out bad products (non-games, games by schitzos, games that don't work) as well as Shit You Don't Need (extraneous paraphenalia of all sorts).

The need in this hobby is not More Product. It's Better Service. Better networking, better skill development, better space management (so play can go on at all), etc.- all things best done by a Clubhouse operating as an informal social organization and not a formal legal entity.

As this is the subject of my Substack newsletter, I'll direct you there for more.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

The Culture: Life After The Wizards Leave, Part One: The Opportunity Of The Void

Wizards of the Coast abandoning tabletop means that there will be a massive void erupting in the tabletop hobby business.

Cargo Cultists think that they'll be able to step into that breach and take over without much issue. They will be shocked at how wrong they are.

As I have said previously, Wizards does all the heavy lifting. Wizards does all of the marketing outreach to prospective players that are outside the hobby, does all of the funneling of those prospects into the hobby, and on-boards them into the norms of Conventional Play. Everyone else leeches off of these efforts.

Yes, everyone.

The current C-Suite at Wizards knows this, and they are aware of their totally dominant position, such that (like Games Workshop) they can claim that their product is a separate and distinct hobby from all other fantastic adventure wargames- and they are not wrong.

They aren't correct either, but they get away with it because the closest competitors are so far behind that no one that isn't already familiar with the hobby has heard of them.

The Cult's Challenge

Not all Cargo Cultists are complete retards. The best of them are in touch with reality to some degree, and as such they can see what needs to be done to step into that breach. They see that they need to get into Normie-facing stores like Walmart or Target. They see that they need to have a storefront presence on Amazon, not just their own site or on DriveThruRPG. They see that they need to get in the faces of Normies with targetted advertising campaigns, sales funnels where buying product (and teaching them how to use it) is necessary.

The problem is 50 years of inertia, coupled with a normative culture of incompetence in business. "To make a small fortune in RPGs, start with a big one" is not just a joke.

There are very few properties that originated within the hobby that have any presence outside of it, and that usually means either tie-in media (books and videogames, usually), such that I can name them here: 40K, Warhammer Fantasy, Pathfinder, Shadowrun, BattleTech/MechWarrior, Call of Cthulhu, Vampire The Masquerade.

Games Workshop are even worse than Wizards about the Walled Garden business model, having pioneered the concept decades before, and even then most people think of it as a videogame property first and foremost- not a tabletop one. Why? Piss-poor processes to convert vidya players to tabletop players, starting with a piss-poor product (including the use of that product) vs. vidya; it is cheaper, easier, and more convenient to do wargaming via the PC games than their tabletop counterparts, and any Cargo Cultist aiming to replace Wizards has to solve that problem or end up failing as GW has.

The Cult's challenge, therefore, is to become basic-bitch competent businessmen complete with basic competence at sales and marketing to people who are not already hobbyists. They need to get into mainstream retail outlets and advertise in mainstream media offerings or they will wither into irrelevance.

The Bros' Time To Shine

The Clubhouse shall become the castle for the Bros to operate out of, using it to raid Conventional Play as it weakens and show the increasingly disaffected and dissatified hobbyists that (a) there is a better way and (b) there's a veteran cohort ready and waiting to show you how it's done so you too can have the fun you've been seeking all this time.

This is not a product-driven alternative, but a service-driven one by default. Players teach other players how to be good hobbyists, as iron sharpens iron. Some sad sacks that can't hack it get filtered out, and that's fine; lots of people are present right now that should not be because they are wrong about what this is and how it works- and they would be far more happy, satisfied, and thus be better people if they just went where they belonged instead.

The products that remain, having been shorn of all the status-striving "Please validate me! I'm really a High Status leisure pursuit!" bullshit we get rules for full and complete games that are clean, clear, and consist as well as competently crafted. We do not get drowned by Yards Of Books about things no one reads or cares about, wasting wood pulp and ink in a backdoor attempt to craft a Setting Bible for some IP Brand business (what all the tie-in media is for).

This is harder to sell as there's no product to sell, and what service is offered is there more as a gatekeeping mechanism than anything else- same as a real Club does.

But, instead, the tradeoff is the recreation of social networks like what the Boomers enjoys before they atomized them all in the '80s and '90s as they pulled the ladder up behind them. It's just going to be online as often as not, with all that such entails.

And with more and more Conventional Play outlets shuttering, taking their crap non-games with them, what remains will be The Games Worth Playing- and that is a number small enough to be counted on one hand with digits missing because those real games can handle far more than they get credit for.

Product Or People?

Given the generational pattern of incompetence by the Cargo Cult, I'm betting on the Bros filling the breech by teaching others How To Win At RPGs and How To Filter Out Non-Games.

Taking a curious kid aside, showing him how to play--and how to win--is far more effective at filling that void than some publisher that doesn't have what it takes (and none of them do, not even those who otherwise could like Catalyst) to replace a massive entertainment corporation so large that its affairs get mentioned on CNBC and its properties get made into (very bad) movies.

(Oh, how we could have had a banger of a BattleTech series before that abortion of a cartoon; just watch the FMVs done back in the day.)

And, quite frankly, the hobby will be far better in the long-run by receding back into the underground where it came from- back to being a leisurely hobby pursuit, and not Big Corporate Business.