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Free, Online Publisher Support: A GM’s Expectations

Posted By Martin Ralya On October 8, 2008 @ 5:56 am In Crock Pot | 13 Comments

As a GM, when I buy a new RPG I expect the publisher to provide the following support for free:

  • Website for the game. At a minimum, this should include news, a release schedule and links or info where I can buy supplements. But it should do a whole lot more…
  • A sample. Sure, I’ve already bought the book — but this might have been the reason why. And even if I don’t need it, it’s a great thing to be able to download and show potential players.
  • Character sheet. Even if there’s one in the back of the book, there needs to be one online, too.

…and I love it when a publisher also gives me:

  • Quickstart rules. White Wolf is awesome about this, bundling together a publication-quality quickstart, pregens and an intro adventure for their major game lines. It doesn’t have to be that much stuff — not everyone is White Wolf.
  • An adventure or two. The more tools you can give me to start playing right away, the happier I’ll be.
  • Freebies. Little things that didn’t make it into the rulebook for space reasons, supplemental goodies — it doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it’s cool.
  • Wiki. Or a similar resource. Burning Wheel does an awesome job with this, and it’s a big help.
  • Community. A place to ask questions, connect with other players and GMs and hear directly from the game’s creators.
  • Designer notes. Be it a blog, a series of sporadic news posts or a couple of forum threads, I love knowing why designers made the decisions they did — and this stuff so rarely makes the cut for inclusion in published products.

That’s a lot of stuff! Before the Information Superhighway Internet, not only would there not have been an easy way to deliver that stuff, I also wouldn’t have expected it — fifteen years ago, publisher support was completely different than it is now.

Now, even an indie publisher can afford the costs associated with this kind of support — most of the tools you need to provide it are either free (blog and forum software, etc.) or are part of whatever you used to publish your game in the first place. The only limiter — and it’s a big ‘un — is time. For a larger publisher, there’s absolutely no excuse to not be providing all of this and more — and many of the big ones do, and do it well.

But what does it say about me as a GM that I don’t just appreciate this kind of free online support (and appreciate it I do!), but that I expect it? Is that asking too much of publishers who are already strapped for time, struggling to compete against D&D (or the slightly-less-than-800-lb.-gorilla of their chosen genre, whatever that might be) and undertaking what is (let’s be honest here) not likely to be a wildly profitable enterprise in the first place?

Or do you expect all this stuff — or maybe all this stuff and even more stuff on top of it — as well? And if you do, what’s on your list?

About  Martin Ralya

A father, husband, writer, small-press publisher, former RPG industry freelancer, and lifelong geek, Martin has been gaming since 1987 and GMing since 1989. He lives in Utah with his amazing wife Alysia and their awesome daughter Lark in a house full of books and games.




13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "Free, Online Publisher Support: A GM’s Expectations"

#1 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 8, 2008 @ 6:18 am

A lot of what you mention can be provided by the designers in a raw form. They should have design notes including drafts of rules, proposed materials that were dropped, and play test adventures or scenarios. If you publish a game polish this stuff up just enough to release it onto the web site. It can’t be that much of a drain on time since it is just a small extension of what you have to do anyway, but it goes a long way to satisfying gaming geek expectations.

I don’t expect design notes (I like to read them though), but I do expect adventures. I always start with published modules when learning a new game because I can then focus on learning the rules. If you don’t have an adventure available for free for your new game I might not choose it over another new game that does.

As for blogs, wikis, quickstart rules, and samples these are all good things to provide but I don’t expect them. If a game is good a fan community usually pops up somewhere and provides all of this stuff on their own. And if that happens don’t be a dick and threaten the fans with legal action unless they are giving away pirated copies of your published materials. If the fans design a new type of character class, monster, setting, vehicle, whatever, and they want to share it with others then either leave them alone or give them some kind of official endorsement if the stuff is good. It only helps your game in the long run.

#2 Comment By John Arcadian On October 8, 2008 @ 7:59 am

The internet has definitely changed my expectations of what extra materials should be available. If a website doesn’t have a download link clearly visible then I tend to automatically dock it a point or two. Not by choice, I just tend to evaluate it as less. Also, I’ve noticed that my first impression of an RPG (especially an indie rpg) is based on the design of their website. I almost have to be pushed over the barrier by a review or word of mouth if the website doesn’t have some polish.

The one supplement that I ALWAYS like to see is examples of characters or NPCs. It helps me to get a feel for the ways that players are expected to play, or what kinds of people populate the background of the world.

#3 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On October 8, 2008 @ 8:19 am

I agree wholeheartedly, and I honestly think it should be done for business reasons, not for altruistic ones. For the minimal additional investment of time/resources, a publisher projects the following about their product/company:
1- They care about their customer. How many times do you get the feeling that a company could care less about you once you give them your money? By giving you a new freebee from time to time, the publisher shows the customers that they’re still thinking of giving them value.
2- They care about their product/line. Isn’t it disappointing when you buy into a new product/line, especially late in the cycle and you find that support is suspiciously AWOL, as if the company pushed it out the door to get cash and never gave it another thought? Not only does it feel like the publisher itself doesn’t feel their product is worth further investment, it shows you’re not going to get answers to your questions, new suppliments/adventures, etc… After all, it’s apparently dead and gone as far as they’re concerned. Some product lines are actually designed as limited run, so this is expected of these, but even they have some period during which they’re being developed.
3- The game is still alive. How many truely awesome RPGs aren’t played anymore solely because they’re no longer supported, making it hard to get copies of the book, find new players, get questions answered, or get new material? If the publisher is still supporting a product this is less likely.
4- The game is awesome. Huh? You know that feeling you get when you’re planning a new campaign, or making a great new character? You know the one. You can’t stop thinking about the game. You’re incessantly thinking of cool stuff and (hopefully) jotting down notes. It doesn’t all see use, but we’re all familiar with that honeymoon period, right? That’s what support is. It’s the publisher waking up at 2am after midnight-snack induced nightmares, running to their desk and tossing out an e-mail to the staff: “Guys! Awesome idea! What about a suppliment on Zombies in Spaaaaaaaaaace!!!!?”. If a game is awesome enough it’ll inspire like that. While some of those ideas become product, some are cool, but too small to be viable product. Those become support. If your publisher doesn’t have those middle of the night inspirations, hence no support, will you?

All in all, don’t all of these things make a game more attractive to the buyer? Games that are supported are more likely to be purchased because the consumer can see that they’re not wasting their money on a product that no one out there uses, that the publisher doesn’t think is worth supporting, that sucks, or from a company that wants your money more than to produce a good product. A company that doesn’t support their product risks the perception that those things are true, even if they aren’t and that means less sales. Thus, as long as the sales garnered by support exceed the cost of giving support*, it only makes legitimate business sense to provide support to their players.

*Insofar as the resources used to provide support couldn’t be used to generate more efficient profit elsewhere of course. ;) Support is obviously a textbook case of the law of diminishing returns.

#4 Comment By Rafe On October 8, 2008 @ 9:10 am

I don’t expect it, but wikis, blogs and forums are fantastic means of staying in touch with your customer base and starter adventures and quick-start rules can earn a player base. Extra supplements on the web keep people enthused.

All of these are great reasons to do them. Also, they’re relatively easy to keep up to speed with.

#5 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On October 8, 2008 @ 10:36 am

Things I expect:
– A website that is occasionally updated. It doesn’t need to be cool or flashy, but should have the pertinent information and tell me a bit about the game. It should also include…
– Character Sheets. I don’t want to cut a page out of my book, or try to copy it. Give me a very clean PDF or TIFF character sheet that I can print out.
– Adventures. The playing of a game tells you far more than the rules will. Show me the intended style of the game by including an adventure or two.

Things I want:
– Quickstart Rules. I understand that many games don’t do well with quickstarts. But at least do what WotC did with 4E, and include just enough to play a single game.
– Designers’ Notes. Like Martin says, I want to know the rationale behind the design decisions.
– Q&A. Whether it’s errata or a forum, let me know what problems others are having, and the preferred solutions for them.

Things I don’t want:
– Too many supplemental rules. Many supplemental rules aren’t as playtested or balanced as the ‘core’ rules. Don’t throw me a half-baked loaf and expect my appreciation.
– Gamers Gone Wild. Many forums just descend into the ridiculousness of endless house rules, custom creations, tweaks, fanboy interpretations, and other ego-service. If you’re going to provide a forum, assign a designated area for the overzealous.
– Hand-picked reviews. Sure, quote a few fanboys, but don’t just link me to glowing reviews of your product.

#6 Comment By Eclipse On October 8, 2008 @ 2:28 pm

With one exception, I don’t expect any internet support at all. For the most part, I just don’t care, and I likely won’t use it anyway. I bought books to play a roleplaying game, and even though I may have my computer with me for campaign notes, I almost never have internet access while I’m running or playing a game anyway, and I don’t care to integrate errata and supplemental rules into the game unless my players and I decide it would be a good idea. Usually, we just come up with our own house rules as we go.

The one exception I hold to not caring about internet support is having character sheets available. Simply put, one character sheet in the back of the book isn’t enough, and I really don’t want to buy more sheets just to play. Being able to print off a new character sheet is just so convenient that there’s no excuse not to offer it.

#7 Comment By Omnus On October 8, 2008 @ 4:57 pm

One reason I don’t expect any of the things you list is that with this whole Internet thingie, the fan base will most likely eclipse the producer of your game with new material and great ideas that you can freely crib for your own. I shamelessly cannibalize ideas, helpful websites (rpgsheets.com is but one of my personal Godsends) and material from the hundreds of talented and creative fellow consumers. Yes, you have to sort out a lot of dross from the gems, but I do enjoy reading outsider content quite as much as the “official” releases.

Secondly, I make up so much of my own material that I rarely end up using what extra adventure material I get. I may look it over a bit and mine an idea or two, but unless its a sourcebook for a particular world (the 3rd Ed. D&D Forgotten Realms sourcebook still stands out in my mind as the most material rich source I’ve plundered, second only to Greyhawk: Jewel of the Flanaess) I rarely bother. I know that make my own tastes different than yours, Martin, but I’m pretty independent.

Lastly, I admit to being something of a Luddite. I KNOW I utilize but a fraction of the resources the Internet gives me (especially when I have a laptop at the gaming table), but I and lots of other “old school” gamers just don’t see the need for it. It’s nice when it’s there, but I’d hardly hold to an ultimatum that it must have this or that. If it’s a fun game or has a cool world or theme to it, I’ll try it if I can fit it in.

As far as the character sheets go, again, it’s just a matter of time before rpgsheets.com has a character sheet for any desired game, and probably a few well-crafted custom sheets. If I couldn’t download them from a home website, I could live. Gone are the days of pressing my new tomes to a copier and get dark looks from the gas station attendant.

#8 Comment By Scott Martin On October 8, 2008 @ 4:59 pm

I expect a website for the company, but not necessarily one for each game line. PDF character sheets are high on my list of expectations– there’s almost no game where I’d be OK without a character sheet.

Excerpts might be good for selling me the game, but once I’ve bought it, I rarely look for them again. I do want/expect some clear way of getting designer or community support– a personal or Forge forum works well, but an email address that’s answered would also be OK.

I don’t use quick starts very often– if I’ve bought the game, it’s what I want to play– and the pared down rules can be misleading. I prefer my design notes in the game itself, but I just enjoy them casually, so leaving them out isn’t a deal breaker for me. Adventures are something I appreciate, but very rarely use– so they’re probably too much work for the payoff (if I’m the target).

#9 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On October 9, 2008 @ 9:02 am

Omnus-
I both agree and disagree on the sentiment that fan-based material makes publisher created material unneccesary. In some systems this is definately true. (For example: I was looking up new All Flesh Must be Eaten stuff yesterday and found some neat fan sites.) On the other hand, D20 has shown us that a complex system can be routinely butchered by well meaning fans and even publishers who don’t fully understand the implications of the system. In these cases, publisher support can be considered at least moderately trustworthy.

#10 Comment By Omnus On October 9, 2008 @ 4:49 pm

Matthew: Trustworthy to do what? Try to push more material with power creep? I routinely ban more items from games from “official sources” than sources outside of the parent company (and I’m looking at YOU, mercurial greatsword and Deepwoods Sniper, just for starters). I’ll grant you that a lot of floating content is either poorly-considered or exists for the express purpose of munchkining, but a prudent DM can still mine ten times more material off site than any official site, especially ones using their sites to advertise the next more powerful expansion book. I especially hold that the Internet has given ongoing life to so many great old games that the excesses of a few sites can be forgiven.

#11 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On October 9, 2008 @ 7:01 pm

Trustworthy to not fail to understand or consider how the system works and consequently put out completely broken additions. True, power creep definately existed in the offical d20 lines, but you were much less likely to run into individual components that could be horribly exploited. At least that was my experience.

#12 Comment By Dire Emu On October 11, 2008 @ 1:46 pm

Expect Nothing. Want? Suggest? That is a different matter.

I like a company that is willing to throw up a little interest and support in its own product. A site with some errata, an FAQ and maybe a few nice freebies (character sheets, encounter tables, a map or two?) is good enough.

It is really cool when a company is nice enough to keep up contact through their site. There is also a lot of cool stuff to be gained from design notes and the like, but they are not life blood to me.

#13 Comment By Martin Ralya On October 15, 2008 @ 7:20 pm

I think every time I write a post like this, I’m surprised how varied your opinions are. You’d think I’d be used to it by now, but I’m not. ;)

Thanks for some interesting reading!


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