Thinking Smaller About Design

February 2, 2009

Over on the College of Mythic Cartography (which you should be reading, if you aren’t), Willem’s wondering — as I have in the past — why really short, dead simple, elegant games aren’t popular as a viable publication form. Recently there have been a host of these created as non-commercial and generally unplaytested drafts (as “roleplaying poems” or contest games) but none of them have been yet released as final or commercial products. The closest ones I can think of are Kevin’s Primitive, Meg’s 1001 Nights, Ben’s XXXtreme Street Luge.

It’s honestly a bit perplexing. I mean, the entry bar for publishing an indie RPG has been set artificially high in many ways. Why not whip one of these 10-page contest games out, playtest and edit the hell out of it until its a streamlined beast of a game, and publish it as a little booklet? Why start with something much more mechanically dense and textually complicated to make? But people seem to inevitably drift towards games that are about as big and difficult as the games that inspired them to design a game in the first place, whether D&D or Dogs in the Vineyard.

This totally applies to myself as well, as I seem to have this kind of mental barrier in place that has prevented me from finishing any games. A significant chunk of that barrier has to do with my preconceived notion of what a ‘real game’ looks like and the hoops I have to jump through before I can publish one. For example, the rules for Transantiago could fit on a single sheet of paper. So why haven’t I published it by now? I have at least a half-dozen games that are 50-75% finished, but I’ve been sitting on them partially because I have the (insane) desire to turn them into fifty-page booklets instead of 10 page booklets.

When it comes down to it, I definitely think the Cheap Ass Games model could be applied very successfully to RPGs. The true genius of Cheap Ass products was not just that they were inexpensive and assumed you had dice, counters, etc. at home to use, but because the rules were short, dead simple, elegant and — at least in the games that I played — thoroughly playtested and fun.

Hopefully Willem has just inspired me to finish a few things.

11 Responses to “Thinking Smaller About Design”

  1. dscleaver Says:

    I’ve been thinking about this recently in terms of some of the “Roleplaying Shorts” I wrote during November. Maybe taking one, playtesting and fleshing it out, then publishing as a full-color tri-fold brochure.

  2. I would snap that up like hotcakes. Several of those looked really interesting. I would love to push the “movie” model of play a bit, where you spend a few hours playing without necessarily planning on playing again, rather than the “mini-series” or “TV season” model, which seem to get more attention. Jeep is beating us there, in some ways, though they don’t seem to have finished / commercial products either.

  3. Willem Says:

    Your (possible) inspiration inspires me! Go for it, and good luck!

    And the Cheap Ass Games model (which I’d never heard of) totally rocks. Wow.

  4. I’ve been contemplating my future publication strategies, especially since one of my next games (Dirty Cities) appears to be turning into a collection of small games. The Cheapass model might work for something like that. So now you’ve got me thinking….

  5. Matthijs Says:


  6. Jmstar Says:

    Here’s something – if you want to make a thing in print and you want to make money, returns start to diminish as the price point does. There’s a point where you can’t really make money in print at our economy of scale. That’s been my experience, anyway. I know that print is a specialized, old skool niche, but we were sort of surprised when we lost money on a cheaply put together $5 product. Lesson learned.

    JWalt, there are plenty of jeepform “products” that are beyond ready for prime time, heavily playtested, actively run. They just don’t sell them, although they could if that was there thing.

    And don’t we follow the Cheapass model already? RPGs don’t come in boxes generally; there are assumptions about your personal kit.

  7. Willem: One other interesting thing about Cheapass is that their flagship game, Kill Doctor Lucky, is now available in a full color fancy boxed set. So you can definitely have your cake (simple product) and eat it too (fancy product).

    Seth & Matthijs: I’m not sure a collection of short games is any easier to publish than a single long game. Maybe a series of short games that were eventually collected?

    Jason: Yeah, that’s why I said, over at Mythic Cartography, that cheap games might require a different publication model. Like, it would be easy to sell them at conventions or through your local game store or possibly even through your own website, but putting them in any kind of distribution (even IPR) is going to be very difficult if you want to charge less than $10. However, short does not necessarily have to equal cheap, right? You could go the full color hardcover children’s book route with a game that’s 10 pages and still charge $25 for a copy. You’re right, though, that there are plenty of jeepform scenarios that are publishable, but the Nordic market is pretty different, yeah? How many times have you seen free games like Risus run at conventions in the US? Not many. We could try to affect a big change in the American market by releasing short things for free and trying to get people to play them (and I’m certainly going to try that too), but I also think having some short commercial products available would also help. As far as the Cheapass model, I was focusing on the length and complexity of the games, not just the lack of dice, etc.

  8. Jmstar Says:

    Pricing and valuing based on page count is such a strange thing. But on some level, at the lower bound of that curve, I tend to balk. It’s Complicated was a hard sell for me, mentally, precisely because it was priced like a “normal” game but contained much, much less material than one. I had to talk myself into it, which is telling. This will be a hard thing to overcome. “Free” overcomes a lot, as do high production values and an opportunity to try before you buy.

    Also, we are accustomed to being cheap bastards.

  9. Yeah, I think high production values may be one way to go, but, again, that can require a lot of time and money to make work. Honestly, I’m not sure how Cheapass made money off their games, since they sold for $10 or less. Even printed super cheaply, they would have had to move thousands and thousands, which I guess they did? Unclear.

  10. Jonathan,

    Actually, I was thinking of a series of short games. An anthology had crossed my mind, too, though that would be outside of what you’re talking about.

  11. Jmstar Says:

    I believe Cheapass has the advantage of an economy of scale. It’d be really interesting to pick James Earnest’s brain about the *early* days and his initial business plan.

    They also do (or did, it’s been a while for me) have subscriptions, where you’d buy all their output for the year at a steep discount in advance.

    They also have/had free games and experiments up on their site, where they also retailed the bits you’d need, if you didn’t want to raid your old games.

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