Monday, March 31, 2008

Security Through Diversity

The complexity of my game selection is what keeps me in business and protects me from big box retailers. Big box may poach the top sellers in any category, but it's the sheer diversity of games available that keeps a game store in business, along with added value in knowledge and game space. I sell over 10,000 individual items in about a dozen departments; as much diversity (but not depth) as Costco. So you would think that additional diversity would be a good thing, especially in a category like Dungeons & Dragons, which I probably know better than any other. Unfortunately, that's not necessarily the case.

Role playing games are spread too thin among too many players who can buy products from too many sources along too long a time line. It's a gigantic pie that can barely sustain any one baker. Worse, it's a collaborative game, so everyone in your game group needs to be eating the same flavor of pie to enjoy it. The diversity is staggering. You can buy RPGs from me, from the 66% of local brick & mortar stores that aren't game stores, from the dreaded, that makes their money from marketing and gives books away for practically free, from 0ther online retailers, or directly from the publisher. You can buy current, in print books, or you can buy a PDF or used copy of virtually any RPG ever printed. This play any book at any time in history is the "long tail" of the RPG industry, a process that divides the RPG pie so thin, that sales of RPGs can be phenomenal, but the lack of critical mass in any one game makes finding a group to play it nearly impossible.

Enter open source gaming, the D20 license, the OGL license, or potentially the GSL license for 4th Edition D&D. Here we take the most popular RPG, Dungeons & Dragons, and fragment it further. D&D has about 50% of the RPG market share in my store, while all D20/OGL product comprises a mere 10%, about what we have for games like Shadowrun or Mutants & Masterminds. Diversity is what keeps Barnes & Noble and Wal-Mart from beating me at my own game, but is it worth it for me to chase these small numbers? The question of the value of open gaming looms larger when you look at our clearance RPG section, of which 40% is D20 product, worth about $50,000 to someone at some point, at full cover price, while now it's not worth the effort to carry it out to the recycling. It's RPG road kill.

I'm actually ambivalent over whether open gaming is helpful or a hindrance to retail. I sure wouldn't want to lose 10% of my RPG sales. At the same time, I think if the open gaming market evaporated, I would see either more Wizards of the Coast D&D sales, or better yet, those people who can't find open gaming options they enjoy, like the various OGL settings (Conan, Arcana Unearthed, etc.), might try another game system. I certainly appreciate diversity in my inventory, it's my security blanket, but when the market spreads itself too thin, a contraction is only natural.

Interesting Stuff

This is my final day off on my mini-vacation. We had a party for Rocco's birthday yesterday. I think today we'll go on a pony ride and take a steam train. Here are some things that caught my attention this morning:

Open Gaming.
There was some speculation that Wizards of the Coast might not have an open gaming license for 4th Edition D&D after a strangely worded post by the D&D brand director. Chris Pramas analyzes it on his blog. I'll just make the observation that WOTC has the worst communication of any game company I know. My guess is this was just a poorly worded blunder. Regardless of the WOTC statement, Chris Pramas does an interesting analysis of open source gaming.

Competitors. This article by a comic book store owner summed up exactly how I feel about new competitors. It feels much like your boss just hired a new guy to do your job, despite their not being enough work for both of you.

Hacking. This blog entry summed up a contest to hack three operating systems: Mac, Windows, Linux. The winner got to keep the computer. Time to hack: Mac: 2 minutes. Windows: 2 days. Linux: Survived. The vulnerabilities were in the applications.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Game Stores in the OC

I'm from Orange County and now live in the San Francisco Bay Area where I run my game store. Game store owners often talk about how the Bay Area is a Mecca for stores while Orange County is a gamer wasteland. I talk about it a lot, because friends and family wonder if it's possible for me to one day return here, possibly to start a similar business in Orange County. So I thought, why not start by looking at the numbers?

I went to the Wizards of the Coast retail locater site. I will be the first one to say that this site has a lot of inaccurate information. For example, I haven't been able to get my store's information fixed for six months now. I'm using the WOTC site because all game stores carry WOTC products. Unless you're a Games Workshop corporate store, all game stores carry Dungeons & Dragons and/or Magic cards. This site is also nice because it allows me to do some interesting searches. For example, I can search for game stores by zip code within a certain radius and I can search for just stores with organized play (OP). It's now pretty clear that organized play is what keeps the hobby alive, so my thoughts are that areas with strong OP are areas of strong gamer culture.

I looked at the city of Orange first. It's somewhat central to Orange County and it's where I'm sitting right now. Within 20 miles of Orange, there are 3 stores with Wizards of the Coast organized play. Expand that out to 30 miles, and you get 7 stores. That's not bad. However, when you look at how many stores sell Wizards of the Coast products, you get 87 and 134, respectively. So within the OC/LA area, you have about 4% of the stores supporting the hobby with in-store gaming, while the remaining 96% are comprised of chain stores and small retailers who merely sell the products. I'm comparing ratios because it allows me to ignore other factors, like population.

Next I looked at Oakland. Oakland/Berkeley is probably the center of gaming culture in the SF Bay Area, probably the entire West Coast. It has history and tradition. My store isn't there because there are already too many stores in that area, competing and specializing just to make a go of it. Within 20 miles of Oakland there are 7 stores with Wizards of the Coast organized play (including mine). Within 30 miles, it expands to only 9, which I think is telling. Looking at stores that sell WOTC product but don't have organized play, we get 71 and 97 respectively. Doing the division, we have 10% of the stores supporting the hobby with in-store gaming, with 90% being those small retailers and chains without "OP". However, within that 90% are many more small retailers, comic book shops and similar stores than in Orange County, which is dominated by chain stores.

So we have 4% of stores in OC being game centers, compared to 10% in the Bay Area. With the Bay Area being more diversified in the remaining 90% of non game center stores (two thirds instead of three fourths). We also don't see a lot of stores in the Bay Area beyond the urban center. So what do I draw from these results?

My thoughts are that suburban culture doesn't support hobby gaming, while a more urban culture is amenable to it. You still have similar demographics, but the people who would play hobby games in a suburban area are doing other activities. I think they're more interested in popular culture and what's hot now. It's self selecting, as far as I can tell. If you move to the suburbs, you're saying you don't value the urban. You're trading diversity for a more static setting. You're experience of culture is now via the media; popular culture.

Urban culture values tradition and sub-cultures. You stay in an urban culture because you value things like older homes, small businesses, unique restaurants, but also cultural activities, including sub-cultures like music and similar "non-normative" forms of expression. You value it enough to brave higher crime, questionable schools and other negatives of urban life. This isn't an absolute; I've got a large customer base that visits my suburban store that values hobby gaming, obviously. However, if my store was in Oakland, for example, I might have six additional competitors close by, rather than one anemic one about to close.

I think this analysis works well for these two locations, but there are many exceptions if you try to extend it. For example, I think the hobby game sub-culture is more integrated into Midwest culture. For example, I've seen strong competition with organized play stores in Wisconsin suburbs. Other reasons for the strength in the Midwest are racial and economic. Hobby gamers are predominantly Caucasian, with a small percentage of Asian gamers. There are very few Hispanics or blacks compared to the overall population. Although the Midwest is changing, it's still predominantly white. The Midwest is also cheaper to run a business, especially one that requires a lot of square footage. Creating a hobby center with organized play is much less expensive, and with a strong gamer sub-culture, you have a stronger customer base than the smaller population would normally provide (any military base will do the same thing).

This is like the blind men and the elephant, trying to describe this strange thing by only grabbing the tail or trunk. Those with the real information are the national game distributors and big companies like Wizards of the Coast. Nobody really understands how many game stores there are are what constitutes a game store. All we can do is grasp at that elephant.

Within 20 Miles
3 (OP)/87 (No OP) 3.44%
Within 30 miles
7 (OP) /134 (No OP) 5.22%

Within 20 miles
7/ (OP) 71 (No OP) 9.8%
Within 30 miles
9 (OP) /97 (No OP) 9.28%

Saturday, March 29, 2008


Disneyland was fun. I went with my little boy Rocco. He turns three on Monday and he gets in free until then. I mentioned in a blog post a while back how he suddenly had imagination, and with imagination came the emotion of fear. Since then he's become afraid of tunnels, including overpasses that we drive under, as well as scary movies, loud noises, and similar things that agitate small children. Before this wondrous day of imagination, when he pretended for the first time, he was fearless. Disneyland was an experiment in pushing the boundaries of what he could handle with his new re-wired brain.

A three year old is restricted from a handful of rides based on height, but there are plenty of terrifying rides that are more subjective. I was trying to avoid them, and some were obvious. For example, some had "scary" in the title, like Snow White's Scary Adventure. Some I knew about from childhood, like Mr. Toad's Wild Ride or the Mad Hatter. I would often try to find a ride with other small children in line, but that failed miserably after a tearful experience with Pinnochio's Daring Journey. This was not the same child of six months before.

Disneyland in general is noisy and confusing, at least that's what I got from watching Rocco's face. It's not a place to have interesting conversations or bond with people, at least not through talking. We retreated to the far corners of the park and enjoyed more serene rides, like the Mark Twain Riverboat. This is a little boy just as excited over ducks in the water as an Indian camp. The Storyland Canal Boat ride was our baseline for fun and fear. This is the meandering boat ride that starts by going into the whale's mouth (Monstro) from Pinocchio. It wasn't a good sign, having come from a traumatic Pinocchio experience. There was apprehension at the scary mouth, but the other kids were fine with it, and he could see them in the daylight, so things went well. He was overjoyed at the miniature villages; I taught him well. If there was a ride that summed up his wonder and excitement, along with a baseline for what he could handle, it was this one.

At this point I stopped doing what I thought he wanted to do and just asked him. He's not much for talking, but I told him to point to where he wanted to go. This led us to the Monorail, popcorn, marching bands, a small petting zoo, and a toy store where he got a Ratatouille stuffed animal, as opposed to the mouse ears with his name on it that I would have bought him. We can save the mouse ears for a future trip. He was also happy to see the costumed performers, such as Buzz Lightyear, Woody and other Pixar luminaries, but he's not too familiar with classic Disney fare. The reason is simple: he watches DVD's, and the older DVD's aren't paced as well for very young children, unlike Pixar movies.

The nice thing about Disneyland, at least for Californians, is it doesn't have to be a once in a lifetime experience. We'll likely go back several more times as he grows older, and each time should be a different experience. I just hope he's still interested when he's old enough to go on the scary rides!

Here's a history of this ride.

Friday, March 28, 2008

First Class

I flew first class for the first time yesterday. I've done a lot of travel over the years, but I've never flown first class. It always seemed extravagant and unnecessarily, but in this case my wife was being nice to me and used her own frequent flyer miles to encourage me to fly rather than drive. Flying first class was quite an experience. Early boarding, extra legroom, drinks with real glasses instead of paper cups, free refills, unlimited snacks, and a smiling, happy stewardess. I could swear the stewardess was friendlier and the apple juice a grade better than usual. Oh yeah, and I arrived to my destination a split second sooner than my fellow coach passengers. One passenger from coach said "Lucky you!" when I had to get back to my first class seat after stowing my carry on (I was in row 1). First class rocks, and everyone knows it.

This got me thinking about business. How do you run a first class business? It sounds cliche, but the concept of first class is actually definable, as opposed to the frustrating goals of "doing your best" or "having the best." First class is a marked improvement in service over standard service. It's defining the baseline, possibly from observing competitors, but most likely from your own experience as a customer. It's looking at what others do and then doing things just a little bit better. They didn't serve me free champagne in first class, they just served my apple juice better. What's important is the customer perceives service as a cut above, and they're willing to go the extra mile to come to your store. As I've mentioned before it's also critical to be consistent. If I get my apple juice in a paper cup next time or my stewardess is in a bad mood, first class loses all its value.

With the Internet, a brick and mortar store is the equivalent of first class, since the Internet is the perfect example of coach. A faceless interface, a questionable delivery time, hidden costs, the potential for damaged goods. It's coach, the cheapest way to accomplish your objective, but with no love or loyalty on anyones part. Many online game buyers, who aren't all about price, say poor local game store service is their reason for shopping online.Many have been done wrong, or describe how they haven't received even the most basic customer service. It's been said a hundred times, no store is so good they can offer bad service.

Black Diamond Games is about to be the last real game store in the county and I don't feel vindicated or happy, I feel challenged with a sense of responsibility. I'm now the game gate keeper. If I miss a hot game, it won't be sold in my area. Where once I could allow another local store to carry the torch for some game product, now it's up to me to pick it up or let it die. What will likely happen is the customer will buy that game online and I may lose them as my customer. Even with my brick and mortar competitors closing down, the online baseline still exists, the coach of consumerism. I'll still have to maintain first class.

P.s.: Imagine being at a national game convention like Gencon. When someone asks you where you're from and you tell them, they respond: "Yeah, that's near Store X. Lucky you!"

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Gods in D&D

4th Edition will allow epic level play using the Player's Handbook, with characters able to reach 30th level without the need for supplement books. I generally don't enjoy that level of play, but it adds some coolness. For example, characters are encouraged to become gods and gods have stats, so you could potentially fight them, or in the case of a recent post, strategize how they would fight each other. Richard Baker wrote in his blog:

We've kicked around the idea that a greater god like Moradin could handle Orcus, but couldn't handle Orcus and Demogorgon together. Hence, the greater gods are cautious about picking fights with demons, because you never know if Demogorgon and Grazzt are hiding just around the corner, waiting to jump out and ambush you. That would suggest that Moradin (or any greater god, really) is maybe something like level 37 or 38. He's going to be out of the reach of even 30th-level PCs.

That might sound like a lot of cheese, giving players the ability to become gods or fight gods, but back in the days of D&D 1.0, before we started using software versioning to describe our role-playing games, this was common practice. Yes, it was cheesy to use the Deities & Demigods book as your monster manual, but it also gave players perspective. And it was fun! Gods were no longer ethereal beings who didn't meddle in the affairs of mortals. They would come down and kick you butt. If you could trick your NPC opponents or fellow players to utter the magic Cthulhu words printed in the Deities & Demigods, they might send some minions to do them in, at least until TSR was sued for copyright infringement. I just think D&D has lost it's epic edge. It feels too "low" fantasy. This kind of stuff ups the ante.

In the first adventure, Keep on the Shadowfell, there's a priest of Orcus that has to be dealt with. The adventurers are 1st level. Conceivably, some have speculated, you could turn this into a 30 level adventure path with Orcus at the end. Is that cool or what?

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Five Months with Vista

As I've mentioned, I'm going to be spending one day a week back in the world of IT consulting. It's got me psyched about technology again, although as a "user" I'm often frustrated by its limitations. For example, my Vista laptop has been troublesome lately.

Vista is constantly "doing stuff," downloading, updating, querying the Internet, installing, breaking itself, fixing its mistakes, and my copy, at least, is riddled with errors in the logs. The system still works, but trying to solve problems is difficult. For example, say you want to remove a program, like my buggy new copy of Bit Defender anti-virus. How do you uninstall a program? I've looked everywhere, but I can't figure out how to navigate to this feature. So I search in Help. Help, is too helpful. Rather than teaching me how to get to "Add-Remove Programs," if there is such a thing in Vista, it instead offers me a link to uninstall the program. So I click the link and learn nothing. What do I want to do if I want to uninstall another program? You guessed it, Help.

The same level of obfuscation exists in most Vista attempts at navigation. Finding a program to run usually means typing it's first few letters in the Start search. Worse, the new Office 2007 is equally confounding to use. It used to be that you were at least safe in your applications. I might sound like an old man, but Windows XP was the pinnacle of Windows based operating systems for me.

Disneyland! I'll be at Disneyland on Friday with Rocco. This is my attempt to take several small trips throughout the year instead of one big blowout one. He's staying with my parents right now while my wife is traveling in the Philippines. I called them this evening to have them measure his height, so I could figure out what rides he can go on. It actually works the other way around, there are only a handful of rides that you can be excluded from based on height, and even then a 3-year old (he'll be three on Monday) probably won't want to go on them. I was telling my mother, yeah, he's 36 inches, he can go on the Matterhorn! Ummm, no.

The Next Thing

We just hit pre-order number 11 at the store for the D&D 4E gift set. Ok, number eleven was me, but still, that's ten other people who are interested enough to put down a non-refundable deposit. We're offering a 10% discount for those who pre-order, something we don't normally do. Although we'll have a giant supply of books coming from multiple sources, including book distributors, to hedge against WOTC asshattery, we're ordering fewer of the gift sets, so pre-orders are helpful. The official street date is now Friday, June 6th.

Number of in-store discussions about buying Pathfinder RPG as a serious alternative : Zero.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


My bottle of Lebanese olive oil arrived today. So what does this have to do with games? In my new Phoenician D&D 4 campaign, the party hails from an ancient real-life village, now known as Hasbaya, but believed to have once been Baalgad. The olive oil I bought is from that same region and the photo on the bottle is of the citadel at Hasbaya. Olive oil production was the main industry thousands of years ago, as it is today. I thought it would be nice to start our first session with some local foods, maybe an appetizer of Hasbaya olive oil served with some traditional wheat bread. It's goofy, but it adds flavor to the game. Maybe I'll give an imperious NPC monologue about how the cities main concern is this, and not their troublesome adventurers exploits.

Getting the bottle was difficult. It took a while to hunt it down. At first the only place that sold this particular regional oil was a website in Beirut. In addition to my oil, I could purchase Al Qaeda videos and books on radical Islam. Hmm, maybe not the site I want to support. Eventually, after not finding the olive oil elsewhere, I gave in and decided to order it from radical central dot com. However, when I was ordering the olive oil on their website, someone else's information was cached in the checkout! It was probably a previous customer. So much for a secure transaction. I decided to pass. A couple days later I found a website in New York that carried the oil and the bottle arrived today.

Spring Break

Anthropologists don't feel like they understand a culture until they've at least gone a full cycle, meaning spending a full year observing their activities. This blog feels like that sometimes. What we've just finished is the slow first quarter of the year. It's not slow because of the economy or internal industry problems, it's just the cycle of the game business. It makes me nuts, actually, the kind of nuts that makes you want to gnaw your arm off in frustration. Spring break doesn't mark the end of this period, just a sneak preview of what Summer might look like.

So what's in store for us over the next quarter? Star Wars miniatures hit this week, D&D miniatures, with its new 4E light rules follows in April. The first week of May sees a Magic release called Shadowmoor. D&D 4th Edition is June (early June now rather than late June), along with Warhammer 40K v5 rules (June-ish). Somewhere in this mess are a bunch of Fantasy Flight games without release dates, such as the Mutant Chronicles miniature game, Tannhauser and Arkham Horror expansions. It's hard to get excited when they don't give us release dates.

To supercharge excitement we've got the heart of convention season coming up as well. Conquest Sacramento is this weekend. If large conventions make you claustrophobic, this is an excellent one. It's fairly new, in it's third year, so it's smaller than other regional cons. You can still get a lot of gaming in, but without the crowds of a Dundracon or Kublacon. Kublacon, which still won't let me in after three years of asking, is in May. I'm told a lot of game companies are skipping it this year. We'll have a special pre Kublacon sale that will blow your mind, since we can't go and reap the benefits (in fact, we suffer for not going). The sale is secret for now, but it will be shockingly good. Nationally, we've got Origins in June and Gencon in August. Conquest San Francisco wraps the season up in September.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Temple of Deep Chaos III

Watery Pit: Gavele Fevermind, the tiefling rogue who ambushed the party earlier, retreated to this room to alert the rat brutes of the parties presence. She directed them in combat until she fell to the sorcerers sword as she made a desperate leap across the pit. The sorcerer had been thrown into the pit as he entered the room, feather falled, and then used a potion of gaseous form to get back up later on. Ogden the dwarf watch captain was also thrown in the pit and spent the entire combat attempting not to drown in his heavy plate armor. As the sorcerer struggled to grab the ladder down below, one of the ratmen grabbed a struggling bundle, tied up in a blanket, and hurled it down the pit at him. This turned out to be Danekas, a female rogue that was captured by the cultists (played by Heather, our new player). Danekas was decisive at the end of the battle as she pierced the last ratbrute with an arrow through the neck, saving the faerie cleric.

Improvise. With the part attempting to shoot at the ratbrute from across the pit, the brute yanked a part of the ladder away from the pit and started wailing on them. The nobleman, Emrick, took the brunt of the blows as the ratbrute used the ladder to extend his reach. Meanwhile, the party dealt with the second ratbrute, chasing him down as he fled. In this photo, the ratbrute turns the ladder on the faerie cleric, Vivia. Danekas is climbing up the pit behind it and is about to kill the nasty thing.

More ratbrutes. The ratbrutes bottleneck the party on the stairs. Danekas's new bow that she took from the dead tiefling begins to whisper to her that the brute in the corner is the stronger one. She alerts Viva who casts a spell on it, taking it out of the combat while it vomits uncontrollably in the corner. The combat is soon over.

Chaos Sanctuary. The chaos sanctuary, with its strange symbols on the wall and pulsating sepulcher, houses a chaos beast. When the sepulcher is disturbed, the chaos beast oozes out of its home and begins attacking. Ogden is struck by it and immediately falls to the floor, his body a puddle of its former self. His wracked face can be seen in the goo, yelling for the party to kill him. The chaos beast is eventually slain, and Ogden momentarily returns to his original dwarf form, but only for a minute! The party urges him into the sepulcher; he was acting a little hostile towards them in his chaos form. Ogden agrees and faerie rushes to the surface, flying at top speed, so she can pick up a scroll to save Ogden's life. Ogden loses control while in the sepulcher and almost forgets who he is! He's saved at the very last second with a scroll of Restoration.

Demons! A Babau demon and a half-demon centaur lie in ambush, but Danekas figures out their ruse a moment before they attack and avoids getting skewered. The party isn't fighting rats anymore! These two creatures frustrate the party with their partial immunities to magic, weapons and most energy types. It was anything but a straightforward fight, but the party wears them down. The babau is treacherous, and attempts unsuccessfully to gate in another demon. He also tries to separate the party with magical darkness. He teleports behind the party to split them up, which works until they can regroup. The babau keeps telling them that they'll never penetrate the temple. He has a sinister, self-important laugh, and he tells the party that he is the decider, and he has decided that they will not live through this combat! He sidesteps them and casts one last desperate spell, but a lucky blow from a party member ruins it and he's dispatched, falling into the crevasse in the center of the room, never to decide again.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Happy Easter! Raise Dead!

This religious holiday got me thinking about Raise Dead, and similar life giving options in the D&D game. It's one of those controversial rules that get house ruled a lot. For me, I find it takes a lot of the threat out of the game and makes the game less intense. It feels less realistic. On the other hand, it takes a steady hand as a DM not to knock off too many characters if this option is removed. You can't be a heartless, chips fall where they may DM, and remove Raise Dead from the game. It's just too lethal. At the same time, you can't be a softy, otherwise you defeat the purpose of removing the rule. Part of D&D theater is the constant threat of irrevocable death.

Other options I've used are to create some sort of "karma points," making only especially good characters eligible for raising based on their positive actions. This resulted in exactly one raised character over the last decade in my D&D campaigns. I've also removed Resurrection and moved Raise Dead to its spot as a high level spell. In my campaign, there were only three clerics who could cast Raise Dead, now a 9th level spell, and it required a literal trip to the underworld. Who is going to do that for you?

Another option is to make the party jump through hoops. Perhaps there's a special place or a special artifact that will allow this very difficult thing to happen. Raise the Dead is a Sword & Sorcery product that's all about that. I've read it and planned to use it, but never got the opportunity. The description of the book says:

Now You Must Pay the Price Raise the Dead turns death into a chance for adventure! Occasionally, a player character dies. This DM Utility product contains four thrilling quests designed to bring a fallen hero back to life. It includes options for non-good aligned characters and other 'difficult to raise' characters such as druids, rangers and non-humans. This book also allows interesting options for the player of the deceased character.

The down side to a special quest is that the party is already on a special quest, your adventure! How annoying for you if they put it on hold to spend three sessions to find the magic amulet to raise Dave the Thief. Dave, let it go, go into the light.

4th Edition tweaks Raise Dead slightly from what we know, but mostly to change its flavor. Raise Dead is tied to having a destiny. The characters in the game, because they're on this special path, clearly have a destiny that requires their return from the after life. The main villains also have a destiny, as destiny is agnostic and doesn't care if you're good or bad. Kings and the like have a destiny, but in a slight twist of logic, their destiny may have been to die in the way they did. Huh. I'm not so sure about that part, but the idea here is that it tries to answer the question of why everyone who can afford it isn't raised. However, it's only a facade and doesn't change the fact that characters can be raised without much effort. This changes nothing for me, but I'm reluctant to house rule it once again before the books are even printed.

Monte Cook had the same issues of a believable reality when designing D&D 3, and it shows up in his Ptolus book and his design diaries. In Ptolus, there are diseases that are magical in origin and are immune to curing. There are insanities that resist magic as well, driving mad a cleric who tries to remove them. Once you start in with a magical world, you sometimes need magical results to common problems. In some fantasy novels, for example, assassins may use special weapons that destroy your soul if you're assassinated with them. Cool, a magical solution for a magical problem.

It's not surprising then that Monte Cook's new Book of Experimental Might makes raising dead a special event. I'm waiting for my LULU copy of BoXM, when I'll have more details. Pathfinder RPG sidesteps the issue and makes no changes to Raise Dead. I guess Dave the Thief still has a chance.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Paizo Analysis

Some interesting observations from the message boards:

  1. Love/Hate: When Wizards of the Coast performs a minor rules upgrade, like 3.5, there was outrage. When Paizo performs a minor rules upgrade, like Pathfinder's "3.75" there's celebration.
  2. Legacy: If Pathfinder is a considerable power shift for D&D characters, why would you want to use all your 3.5 D&D books to add on to it? In other words, if it doesn't preserve your 3.5 collection of legacy books, what good is it?
  3. Money: If it's about the money, how is spending a bunch of money on Pathfinder different than spending a bunch of money on D&D 4? Some people are actually disappointed that Pathfinder will eventually become a book that they will have to buy, aka spending any money at all. Perhaps the excitement is a free, very high value PDF (albeit an Alpha). Perhaps there is a tiny, vocal community of online cheap bastards that partially drive this argument.
  4. Commitment: A long alpha period with a PDF product will allow them to fish for feedback to see if there's a market for this. They're not committing serious resources to this move, so they may not be sure themselves if this will work.
  5. GSL Backlash. Wizards of the Coast's inability to provide the GSL license is causing a lot of this "backlash." As it stands now, publishers won't have product available for the D&D 4 release. Publishers are seeing their market for providing D&D support evaporate and perhaps they're getting desperate.
  6. It's weak sauce. I've personally looked at it and talked to others at the store, and there's nothing compelling about Pathfinder. In fact, I get that same 3.5 irritation that someone peed on the pool, that I'm reading a bunch of unnecessary rules changes. The Pathfinder rules are too evolutionary, and thus not very compelling. It's a common thread. The general consensus is that The Book of Experimental Might is weak sauce too, so perhaps we're looking for a "reboot."
I'll add a retailer observation as well:

There is now a larger incentive to drop Paizo. Paizo has gone from a publisher to a competitor since they lost the rights to publish Dungeon and Dragon magazines. Their online store sells everything game related at a discount, including the products they sell through my store. Their subscription service comprises the bulk of Pathfinder sales in my area, with just a few customers getting them from me. When I do sell their product, it usually includes customer incentive to buy from them online. With a switch to their own system, it would be very easy for me to stop carrying their products. In fact, there's a larger incentive to stop supporting them, since every Pathfinder sale is likely to lock people into a new system and distribution model that Paizo controls. With their decision to reduce the retailer margin in January, it's even more compelling an argument to stop supporting them.

Friday, March 21, 2008


I got the word this afternoon that many banks were closing down their customers home equity lines of credit. With the credit crunch, banks started closing down loans secured by what are now questionable assets. While it might be an inconvenience if you were planning to buy a boat or renovate your kitchen, a lot of small business owners like myself rely on these kinds of credit lines to stay afloat. My guess is credit cards are next.

Top Seller for March

D&D 4th Edition pre-order deposits are at the top, but we'll ignore those for now:

  1. Kingdom Hearts Light & Darkness Booster. We sold half a dozen boxes in the first day, which was quite a surprise. Bandai kept screwing around with their supply of Naruto (typical), which created some KH converts.
  2. Warhammer Vampire Counts Spearhead. These new models are just beautiful and I've considered picking one of these up myself. I finished my ogres, so I can go on to the next army, right?
  3. Magic the Gathering: 10th Edition booster. The Friday Night Magic crowd prefers these to the newer set.
  4. Citadel Mega Paint Set. I swear I don't understand why we sell so many of these. Other large paint sets sell a tenth as well.
  5. Mexican Coca Cola. Ahh, sugary corn-free goodness.
  6. Mana Energy Potion. Just a tad behind the MexiCoke, these hardcore energy drinks are tough to keep in stock.
  7. Naruto Secret Of The Masters Tin. Naruto is down but not out.
  8. Magic the Gathering: Morningtide booster pack. The latest booster release of Magic continues strong, but is much less popular than Lorwyn. Subsequent sets in a block are always less popular.
  9. Magic the Gathering: Planar Chaos booster pack. There are just a couple people who are stuck on this one.
  10. Kingdom Hearts Booster Pack (1st Set). This is what the Naruto crowd first took up before the new KH booster release.
Again, nothing on here that doesn't get played in-store. Board games and role playing are actually very strong departments (third and fourth place), but no single thing sticks out.

Spring Cleaning

If you can lean, you can clean. I'm not much of a taskmaster as a boss, but that's the popular retail saying I've heard from hard nosed store owners. There's always work to do. I recall countless hours futzing around on my computer when I had an IT job. I wrote massive quantities of D&D stuff, researched what new wheels to buy for my new car, and generally wasting time. I think most office jobs are that way, with maybe five hours a day of actual work possible before your brain stops functioning. In retail, when you're brain stops working and you start leaning, you can always clean.

Cleaning this week hasn't been actual cleaning as much as it is clearing out dead inventory and re-organizing. Card games that haven't sold in a year got the heave ho, a move over to the discount section. Top ranked board games that had been given a free pass last month finally got on my nerves and they got the boot as well. I don't care how good you are, if you haven't been performing for me lately, you're not much use to me. I put a bunch of Privateer Press overstock on clearance, as well as another basket of clearance Flames of War models. Thomas stuff continues to get listed on eBay, although I think we've developed at least two in-store customers for it. Whoo hoo! We, meaning Michael with me giving directions, re-organized the miniatures section, adding a larger magazine rack for the various rulebooks and codices and spreading out and re-organizing the Reaper miniatures, labeling them in every increasing granularity.

This morning I spent a couple hours re-organizing the used RPG section. Some will argue that the hodge podge of the section is half the fun, but every once in a while it's good to organize it. It turns out 40% of it is D20 product. My guess is that about two-thirds of that could be dumped in the recycling. After several years, there is a kind of RPG sludge in the book shelves. If you've had a book for years, taken it to a dozen conventions, lowered the price twice and nobody wants it, is it dead? Perhaps the discount shelf is a place for that stuff, at least until I need the space.

If this all sounds tranquil and relaxing, I had plenty of traditional store owner junk to do today as well, including going over a new workers comp policy for next month, finding out why I had an overdrawn checking account earlier in the week (gambling on the float), and figuring out if my primary distributors new computer system is likely to cause me more work (it will at first, then it will be much easier). Oh yeah, and then there's the various employee issues, like the three forms that need to be filled out for the new guy and scheduling hours when nobody wants to work. Somehow, each morning I still can't wait to get to work. Go figure.

The Death of My Office

When my laptop was stolen I made the decision not to put the new one in the office. Instead it's cabled to a display case in the cash wrap area, so I can use it for business related activities throughout the day, such as paying bills. This had a profound impact on how I do work. We no longer use the office, for example, and we're considering getting rid of the big, clunky desk and putting in more shelving. Filing has gotten out-of-control, however, but I'm thinking a better system might solve that. Just like at home, any flat surface tends to accumulate junk unless the stuff has a place to go. Doing my office work at the cash wrap has relieved me of at least a dedicated hour or two each week in which I had to come in during off hours to pay bills and handle accounts. Anything that saves unnecessary time is a great thing, or in other words, an extra hour with my son just for being smarter is a fantastic reward.

Reducing unnecessary hours has been one of my projects. It's probably the influence of The Four Hour Work Week. Another example was how we now do our Reaper miniatures. They used to be in numerical order. After finding myself on my knees earlier in the month, re-ordering them as I do every other week, for three and a half years, I realized this had to stop. Organizing them by type just saved me two hours a month and even made customers happy. That's the key. There are plenty of time cutting measures I could do that might dilute the look or feel of the store. Each may be minor, but together they could result in the store looking poor. There's a certain ambiance of a successful store. I think we have that, but I would have a hard time quantifying exactly what that is. It's a hundred little things from lighting to cleanliness to how items are displayed. You know when a store doesn't have it, but you might not recognize it when it's slipping away from a good store.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Plan B (D&D)

So what if you avidly play D&D 3.5 and decide you don't want to go to 4.0? Perhaps you bought the new books and it didn't work out for you. Even if you gave it a chance, maybe the flavor just isn't what you're looking for. Maybe the artwork gives you convulsions. Perhaps you see your 3.5 books as an investment and not part of an ongoing hobby and you refuse to obsolete them with a new version. For those of you who use the word investment, let me point out that a Player's Handbook for any version of D&D older than 3.5 is worth about five bucks, far less than the cover price. Feel free to write your name in it or color in the artwork. Regardless of why you won't go to 4.o, your options are to stay with what you're playing or try something new.

Staying with 3.5 is an option. 3.5 books will be around for some time to come. I own a store and I want nothing more than everyone to go to 4.0, but there will still be a strong market for 3.5, a market that will quickly turn to "pre-owned" products. New books will disappear rapidly, probably gone completely from stores within a year. However, the used 3.5 market is likely to remain large, both in-store and the "secondary" market, meaning eBay and PDF. Imagine if 10% of 3.5 players refuse to commit to version 4. Some will eventually give in. Perhaps they'll just buy the PHB and never buy another book again. What if they still want 3.5 material? Well, that 10% is still as big a market as those who play White Wolf, Shadowrun, or any of the other "top" RPG's that comprise what's left of the RPG pie after D&D takes it's giant helping. The market consists of several million people at least. With a strong secondary market, staying with 3.5 is viable for both players and store owners.

What if you've prepared yourself and your group for something different, but 4.0 wasn't it? That's where I might be, and I've let my group know. I expect D&D 4 to work for me, but how can I be sure? I may sell 4.0, but I'm not such a robot as to play it just because it's new. So if you've attempted 4.0, and you've prepared everyone for a transition that just didn't work, perhaps trying something different is in order. Different doesn't mean a different game, but a variant of what you play now. You could certainly tweak your D&D 3.5 experience with such excellent supplements as Unearthed Arcana, but two additional new options have emerged recently, options that take 3.5 to the next level, assuming you aren't ready for whole numbers.

The first option is Monte Cook's Book of Experimental Might. It's being hailed as D&D 3.75. These are essentially Monte Cook's "house rules," and many rules sound like the logical changes we'll be seeing in 4.0, but without the jarring "reboot." Monte Cook is largely responsible for D&D 3.0, if you were wondering who he was. This is a one-shot PDF only product without follow-up support, but it might be the shot in the arm your group needs to continue playing 3.5 for years to come.

The second option from Paizo is an OGL compliant role-playing game called Pathfinder RPG. This is a new rule set based on 3.5 D&D, kind of like you may have seen with Conan or Arcana Unearthed. You get to keep the familiar game mechanics of 3.5, while playing new and interesting variant characters, using different races, classes and more. You can download a free alpha version right now. All Pathfinder materials will be made to work with Pathfinder RPG when it's officially released in August 2009. Will it work? How many of you play D20 Conan or Arcana Unearthed now?

As players, we need to do what's right for us and our group. I see these Plan B options as last resorts, but it's nice to know there are options. This is the fruit that the D20/OGL licenses have produced, for good or ill. As players, perhaps knowing there's a safety net makes getting out on that 4.0 tightrope a little less scary. Then again, other store owners have argued that it's just an excuse not to even try.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Programmed Board Games

I was playing Pandemic, by Z-Man Games, yesterday at board game night and it occurred to me that my favorite board games have similar mechanics. They have pre-programmed events that occur that move the "narrative" of the game forward. Tikal has volcano tiles that occur several times throughout the game. Power Grid has an economy that gets tweaked several times as the game progresses. Pandemic has epidemic cards that work in the same way. The same mechanic in Caylus kind of bugs me, since it tweaks the rules when it occurs, but I've only played that once, so maybe I need to try again.

This pre-programmed mechanic adds to the tension of the game, and with Pandemic, a cooperative game, it's your major adversary. In Tikal it marks your scoring round. In Power Grid it marks an economic transition that you should be planning for. Most importantly, it helps tell a story and gives a game definition, like a topography of sorts. For me, it makes other board games feel flat and lifeless. I'm sure board game gurus have a better term for this mechanic and I'm now probably considered a particular type of board gamer: the narrative gamer,the program gamer, or something, but it's kind of a nice discovery to know what you like. Now I can look for more of them.

Pandemic, by the way, is a lot of fun. It's the kind of game that makes you think about it long after you're done playing. It turns out to have a very tight timeline as other players have also reported losing on their last turn, like we did. I can't help comparing it to Arkham Horror. They're both cooperative and they both require you to keep something very bad from happening. Arkham is a lot longer, a lot slower, and a lot less predictable. Perhaps it's an American style version of the euro style Pandemic? I would love to see the Pandemic mechanics applied to something else, even closing the gates before Cthulhu and his cousins take over the world.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

D&D 4 Encounters

Here's something to put your head around if you're a D&D dungeon master. 4th Edition monsters are easy to place because their rating matches that of the party. However, add two of these monsters from two encounters, and it's twice as hard, rather than perhaps 25% harder as it is in 3.x. This means that a TPK (total party kill) is much more probable when encounters combine in 4.0. Dave Noonan explains how it happened in his playtest campaign:

In 3rd edition, it wasn't necessarily a big deal if two rooms' worth of monsters attacked you at once. The CR 12 monster in room A4 and the CR 12 monster in room A5--well, that's still just an EL 14 encounter and only incrementally more difficult than those two rooms tackled separately. But in 4th edition, it really feels like something that's twice as hard. Which isn't to say it's impossible--my Thursday guys might have pulled out a victory with a little more luck and a little more foresight. But you can't blithely kick open door after door, that's for sure.

He analyzes the numbers in this post.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Sky is Falling!

I'm glad I don't have television anymore. I'm lying there in my fancy hotel bathrobe reading my free copy of USA Today and watching CNN, with the sand dunes and ocean in the foreground. CNN is working hard to scare the crap out of everyone: housing prices will continue to drop. A recession? That would be the least of worries because there are way more catastrophic economic possibilities. Another reporter reports that 75% of Americans think we're in a recession now.

Huh? I'm staring at a USA Today article where 5 out of 10 economists asked (kind of like those toothpaste commercials) believe we will be in recession sometime in 2008, while the other half say no, with one not sure. We're not in a recession now. It's not a feeling, it's a well understood definition based on data. Hmmm, I wonder where those 75% of Americans get that feeling? This stuff pisses me off because it's self reinforcing and has a bad effect on business, which effects everyone. Want to cause economic pain and suffering? Just preach economic pain and suffering. The psychology is that direct.

Kill your television.


The weekend has been great here in Monterey. The weather ranged from beautiful and bright to stormy, and even a mini sandstorm on Saturday. I visited Monterey and Carmel, but I mostly read, watched movies and even television. I haven't had TV service at home in about a year and a half so I was happy to see I wasn't missing much. The writers strike seems to have changed things, with many more reality TV shows, lots of news panel shows, and plenty of re-runs. Boring! Except for the Japanese obstacle course shows on G4, there wasn't much of interest.

After the first day I looked around and wondered what I could do here that I couldn't do at home. After all, I'm just reading and watching movies, right? It was the change of setting, I think, knowing that there was nothing here but what I brought. There was no opportunity to work on the house (yeah right), run errands, call friends over, just the fun things I brought. It's forced vacation. I would never spend the $1000 that this room would cost for the weekend, but with a couple hundred thousand frequent flyer miles, it barely put a dent in my account.

The most excitement was from discovering a new book. Phoenicians, by Sanford Holst, is a fascinating look at a secretive culture that perfected commerce, brought us the written word, and disappeared almost without a trace, leaving only legends and shadowy references in Greek literature. The most important rule in Phoenician culture? We don't talk about Phoenician culture! They didn't disappear without a trace by chance, with a culture of non-confrontation and with no army (a waste of resources), they survived on their diplomacy and secrecy. If you're interested, I've discussed a lot of this stuff in posts over the weekend in my D&D 4 campaign blog.

D&D 4 Update. As for D&D 4 itself, I've completely lost interest in looking at it since the D&D experience de-briefing reports. I think we know enough now and I'm eagerly awaiting the books. Enworld readers are now in the process of dissecting what few rules we know, probably about 10%. Personally, the feedback from the event has made me less willing to fully commit to 4.o. I think that's natural. What we've had before independent play was a series of exciting hints, previews, and design theories on 4.0. Now that we can listen to people who have actually played, who have no stake in the company, there are now pros and cons, like everything else. There are many positive elements to 4.0, but I've see a few cons that make me hesitate slightly.

My main concern are the game mechanics that feel too "gamey," that take you out of the role-playing and turn it into a tactical miniature game. Things like "marking" and "shifting" opponents for example. I've announced to my D&D group that we'll try 4.0 for six months and if it isn't working out, we'll go back to 3.5, or more likely, the Book of Experimental Might by Monte Cook. Don't get my wrong, I'm moving forward with 4.0, full steam, but it's up to each group to decide if it's right for them.

Friday, March 14, 2008

In Praise of Chocolate (plain old D&D)

For role-players, there are those of us who played Dungeons & Dragons in the past and still play and those of us who played Dungeons & Dragons in the past and have moved on to something else. The common denominator is that just about everyone who has played the game has a strong opinion. Most who have left it feel pretty good about their new game, possibly militantly so. So why is D&D so popular?

Market share. It's the same thing that maddens Apple people who can't get software for their Macintosh. If you want to play a role-playing game, you need players. If those players are your friends, you'll probably play what they play. If you're looking at the general public as your player base, D&D has about 60% market share. This means 6 out of 10 role players are up for a game of D&D, while maybe 1 in 10 will play the next most popular. Customers place notices on our game board for months at a time, looking for players for their non D&D games. It's simply harder to find players, and when those players leave, much harder to replace them. It's actually getting more strained as we have the role-playing "long tail" and the emergence of indie games. Want to get a Shadowrun game together? Version 3 or 4? They're equally popular. Want to play an indie game? You better have board game style role-players willing to learn a new game every week. You can't just say it's popular because it's popular. Why does D&D have this market share that drives players into its arms?

Fantasy as theme. I've yet to see a long term role-playing game survive based on anything other than fantasy. D&D does fantasy pretty well, it's what it was designed to do (it does everything else pretty poorly). I've played spy games, superhero games, science fiction games, Western games, and pulp games, and they have no staying power for the groups I've played in. Wow, that was fun, when is our next D&D session? At the same time, I see D&D groups last for years, decades even.

As far as imagination goes, there seems to be too much suspension of disbelief to play more modern games. Perhaps we're not removed enough from reality to get into the spirit? I read an article about European toy makers and how none of the modern toy figures have guns, but all the medieval figures have swords and armor. Police men go unarmed, but knights have a bewildering array of weapons. That can't be just about non-violence. Those ancient battles are resolved and their horrors are too far removed from our reality, which makes them fun and acceptable as instruments of play. A knight with a sword is fun and exciting, a Rwandan with a machete is horrifying and guilt ridden. Fantasy conflict is far removed from day to day horrors. A gun, be it a Colt Peacemaker, a laser pistol, or an Uzi, all bring up modern day horrors. Who do you know who was robbed at glaive point?

Finally, it's about mechanics. The same thing that draws people to D&D and makes them stick to it is the same thing that pushes others away. Character creation in D&D is a game in itself. Even before the "synergies" of third edition, you could tweak and bend characters to your hearts content. It was about leveling, and gaining power, and being cooler. It was always about being cooler. Those who don't want to role play can enjoy the game as a mathematical abstraction, best performed with software.

Those who want to role-play can see beyond the numbers and attempt to bring life to their characters. Often there is tension and conflict between the two, but that can be fun as well. I've spent as much time writing elaborate backgrounds for my characters (which nobody read) as tweaking the numbers. Also, if it's the only game in town, there is often no single play style for D&D. Because it's usually D&D or nothing else, it becomes the Swiss army knife of role-playing games. Want to run a mystery? Sci-fi like plane jumping game? Espionage? If D&D is what people play, you found a way to make it work. Thus the endless house rules that everyone has for their game. One of the reliefs of D&D 4 is the "fresh install" of a new gaming operating system, the same thing that maddens some people who have purchase hundreds of dollars in "applications."

So there you have it, a combination of play styles, a theme that's abstracted enough from reality, and a giant player base. So why do people love to hate it?

Oh yeah and check out this funny D&D video.

Bashing the Gygax

I don't think you have to like D&D to respect the contribution it made in the realm of gaming, both tabletop and electronic. I don't like jazz or the blues, but I respect that rock took its roots from these forms, and I like rock. The second wave of Gygax articles have been pretty critical of the game and the man. It starts getting into a Microsoft/Linux kind of debate. There are always those critical of what's popular, who will only eat vanilla because everyone else likes chocolate, or indie this or that. It's just immature, contrarianism.

For a really well done Gary Gygax biography, check out this article by Wired.

Thursday, March 13, 2008


I canceled my Diamond account today. It's the first time I've canceled a distributor account. Normally I would just stop ordering from a troublesome distributor. After all, what could it hurt to have an account open? With Diamond there have been regular problems, even when I'm not ordering.

Today I received a phantom box from them, a single trade paperback, all by itself. The cost on this? It's already poor, since it's an "indy" label (35% discount), but with shipping the cost of this $19.95 book was $17.97. It's the second time this has happened and I've requested that my account be set to ignore all back-orders. My account rep got my voice mail and had their accounting people call. Yeah, that happens, they told me, and there was no problem closing the account. It was hardly a tearful goodbye and not once did they offer to fix the problem or ask that I reconsider. That's what you get with a comic book monopoly.

Lies, Damn Lies...

Retail sales plunged .6% say the headlines today. Sales plunged. They nose dived, they toppled, they tumbled. That sounds horrible! How can retailers survive? The big question is what number are retail sales plunging from? These guys are using the wrong numbers. The press is comparing month to month numbers. Retail sales plunged .6% from January. Never mind that this is mostly about cars and restaurants, the big problem is you don't compare month to month.

January tanked compared to December, because of Christmas. You would look like a fool if you made that comparison, but there are hundreds of articles that do this for February compared to January. Everyone in retail knows you compare numbers from the same period a year before, adjusted for holidays that fall on variable days. Even then, if February 2007 had record sales, and February 2008 dropped by .6%, then you're still doing pretty darn good. If you 're an "A" student and you bring home an A-minus, you're still getting supper.

Retail sales for February 2008 compared to February 2007 were up 2.4%. That's really good! Black Diamond Games sales were up 74%, but I've stopped comparing due to the differences between the two store; still, it's fun to say it! The only place I could find that explain these statistics is the census bureau website. These guys appreciate numbers and their meaning. Also not mentioned by the press, that .6% number has a margin of error of plus or minus .7%. So they got nothin'. Here's a good summary from the census bureau folks:

Retail trade sales were down 0.6 percent (±0.7%)* from January 2008, but were 2.4 percent (±0.8%) above last year. Gasoline station sales were up 20.2 percent (±1.0%) from February 2007 and sales of sporting goods, hobby, book, and music stores were up 6.3 percent (±2.8%) from last year.

Campaign Blog Update

For the three of you who read my D&D campaign blog, I've got two new entries. One is a much better satellite photo of the region. The second is about "tagging aspects" from Spirit of the Century applied to Phoenician culture and used in D&D. If you aren't in the campaign now, you didn't get the email with the PDF player's guide, now available for download. I'm not looking for new players at this time (people ask at the store).

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Facing Reality (politics)

“With all due respect, I’ve won twice as many states as Senator Clinton. I’ve won more of the popular vote than Senator Clinton. I have more delegates than Senator Clinton.” Barack Obama

Republicans would never be so spineless as to suggest someone winning a campaign combine forces like the dual-ticket debate that's going on now. Obama is winning. There are winners and there are losers. Clinton is losing. She is currently the loser. Didn't these guys play little league as kids? Geez.

As for a "dream ticket," that's a joke. Hillary Clinton is divisive and disliked. Independents would be more likely to vote for McCain than a Hillary-Obama ticket. Obama, however, is a more attractive opponent against McCain.

Global Market

I can thank the Australians and Canadians this month for buying up my overstock on Ebay. I would say about 80% of my auctions are now being shipped to these two countries. I'm actually learning about the problems and pitfalls of various international shipping options. Don't ship UPS because they have horrible broker fees in the receiving country that can cost more than shipping. The USPS, on the other hand, is loathe to pick up packages from the store. They'll send my regular carrier, who is as lazy as they come.

The global economy is not "de-linked" from the US quite yet, but Americans are actively slowing their spending while the rest of the world is only cautious. Combined with an abysmally weak dollar, and you see bidders on eBay spending more on shipping than the product, and not blinking an eye. I've had a number of $30 auctions this week with $30 in shipping to Australia. Not a problem mate.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Economics of Adventure

Perhaps the death of Gary Gygax had people wondering about their old D&D books. We took in a couple collections recently, including a huge collection of 1st and 2nd edition D&D modules. "Modules" are what they used to call adventures, for you young-ins. All the display cases are filled with modules right now, or at least they were when I left last night. Customers were snapping them up from me as I was pricing them. To give you an idea of collectibility, a used Player's Handbook from 1st edition, unless it's a first printing, is worth about $5. A good condition Tomb of Horrors, one of the earliest 1st edition adventures by Gary Gygax, goes for $35. Adventures sell poorly when they're new, but this is reflected back in their rarity and collectibility.

Why do adventures sell poorly? Lets compare it to a popular supplement book. Say you've got a new release of Complete Left Handed Adventurers. This long awaited tome of adventuring knowledge finally satisfies the southpaw demand for new left handed feats, spells and prestige classes. Even better, with a few complex charts and some Java programming, you can convert this ground breaking book for right handed adventurers, which means everyone can use it. The players can use it, and the dungeon master can even make left handed non player characters, or given a few hours of conversion, right handed NPCs. That's 100% of your D&D audience interested in CLHA.

Now lets look at an adventure. Left Handed Gully Dwarves in the Dunjon of Celestial Pain. I made this up using a handy adventure name generator. Unlike a supplement that appeals to players and a dungeon master, this adventure may appeal to the dungeon master. Players who read adventures are to be bent over a brazier and impaled by a portcullis (sorry, a reference from an earlier post). Assuming an average game group has five players (including the DM), you've just narrowed your market down to 20% (although DM's buy a disproportionate amount of products).

It gets even narrower. Left Handed Gully Dwarves in the Dunjon of Celestial Pain is a 1st-3rd level adventure. In reality, this adventure is for 1st level characters, that will take them through to third level. For the sake of argument, lets assume that it works for levels 1-3, which is roughly 15% of where you can be on the 1-20 level scale. This isn't entirely accurate because there are a few "sweet spots" for adventures, one being low level adventures like this one, when games first start (most games die later on, unfortunately). The other sweet spot is around 5th-7th level.

Back to the math, you have 20% of your customer base potentially interested in buying a product that will be useful to them 15% of the time, and then only once. Complete Left Handed Adventurers can be used over and over again, while a game group can only use that module once, ever. As a product, it has re-usability only slightly higher than food. So 15% (the adventure spread) of 20% (percentage of DM's) is 3% of your customer base. When I say customer base, I mean my role-playing customer base, which is 15% of my customers, of which 60% play Dungeons & Dragons (a total of 9% of my customers). You don't see me sending out postcards to the .27% of customers I think might like this product.

From a store perspective, my average Complete book will "turn" or sell around 6 copies a year. That's fantastic on a scale where four turns is great. A WOTC adventure will turn maybe two times (acceptable, but not good) while a third party adventure will turn one time or even less (poor). One turn is in the realm of community service. It's no longer product, it's a decoration with a price tag. I've heard it said that one reason for the D20 license was to allow other companies to come in and provide the products like these, the 3% products that a large company can't be bothered with.

So there you have it, nearly impossible to sell up front, worth a small fortune in 30 years. Come snap up some 3.5 modules, I mean 30-year bonds, while supplies last. If you believe that, I've got a mint copy of Complete Left Handed Adventurers I would like to sell you.

Monday, March 10, 2008


I was thinking about the pre-order system and how troublesome it is. It works like this: You, as a customer, do research and use your psychic powers to place an order ahead of time with your retailer, who you know and trust and who is NOT going out of business any time soon. You do this rather than buying it online, where you probably found all this useful information, since almost no game manufacturer advertises.

I, as the retailer, with this invaluable knowledge and intuition based on unstated demand, place my order with the distributor, provided the distributor will be carrying the product and informed me in a 5 page spreadsheet or order booklet three months before. They will hold me to this order, sending me this product even if it's a year late, printed on toilet paper, or has been sold for weeks or months at Target, sucking up all the product demand.

The distributor, who is on the ball, not behind on their payments to the manufacturer (and can thus get the product), not being bought or reorganized, and certainly not staffed by incompetents, then tells the manufacturer my magic number plus some overage for those who don't pre-order and subsequent restocks.

The publisher, who always makes high quality product without defects that could dilute the desire for pre-orders, calls his printer, who he has paid diligently, orders product based on this pre-order number, plus a reasonable amount of overage. He times this so that he'll hit the street date he has diligently promised to both retailers and fans (which is why they've placed their pre-order), somehow accounting for his Chinese shipping container of product getting stopped for an unknown number of days or weeks by the Department of Homeland Security.

It works fabulously.

Alright, this is a slight exaggeration. Lets look at my retailer position a little more closely. If five people express mild interest in an upcoming product what does that mean? First, those five people expressed interest because I personally talked to them. I know them and what they play. This method of gaging interest is pretty much all I have. So with five people interested, you might think you can do some math. Hmm, five people, say 50% chance of buying it, rounded up, means three copies. However, customers express so little interest in new releases that five people is actually a HUGE number. Perhaps those five people are game masters for an RPG group, and actually represent 25 people, one book for each of their players. We had one pre-order for Dark Heresy and five people expressing interest and we sold 28 copies before the distributors ran dry. I pre-ordered 20 of those copies because I had advanced warning of the short print run. The other 8 copies were scrounged from distributors after the fact, made worse by retailers who didn't pre-order any. If I hadn't known it was a short print run, I probably would have ordered maybe 5 copies.

The more obscure the product, the more important it is to pre-order. A 30-day supply of a Dungeons & Dragons book by Wizards of the Coast might be 15 copies. A 30-day supply of your average RPG supplement might be 2 copies. If a product catches fire, you've got much more likelihood of finding one of those 15 copies than the 2 copies. Role-playing is the worst. The genre is stretched so thin, with so few people playing so many games, including out-of-print games, that many new RPG releases get one copy for the shelf. When a game system dies, I cheer. It's wrong maybe, perhaps evil, but for the love of god, there are too many options and too few customers.

I've actually considered dropping "one" from my ordering regimen. This is usually the number of RPG books I get for marginal games. My thinking goes like this: Buying one is gambling on such a small group of people that there's no certainty to the order. Buying two usually means I can at least think of one person likely to buy it. Buying one copy is intuition, a crap shoot, a prayer in the wind, habit. Role playing games are primarily ordered in ones and you can look at my discount shelf to see where many end up. Part of my intuition game is knowing when to re-order zero, almost as important as ordering zero to begin with. Here's a truth for you: The difference between retail success and failure is zero and one.

Despite all the pre-order problems, it works very well for me. No, really. I pre-order everything, even those pesky "one" items, often put there as a place-holder to remind me to get a product. Maybe I up my order from one to two if I've heard something on the grape vine, or maybe I attempt to weasel my way out of my one copy, if I know it will suck. Usually when retailers are bitching about product outages, I'm comfortably reading it from the store with a shelf full of product. It works for me because I participate, unfortunately it's still very troublesome for the other two tiers.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Lineage and Tradition

I've been thinking about what the death of Gary Gygax means for role-playing as a hobby. If you accept that role-playing isn't just about games, like Sorry or Scrabble, but a sub-culture, you can start asking some larger questions. For example, when a sub-culture is new, its founders alive, its media available, it's about right now, products rather than texts, writers rather than founders, without a lineage going back to the past, no tradition, it's just there, defined by those who profit by it and buy product. We have a game industry rather than a gaming tradition. The general public may not appreciate it. People in very similar sub-cultures may even denigrate it. Society at large may even denounce it or scorn it. There's certainly a sense of self deprecation and occasionally self-loathing from players themselves who haven't put their head around what it means to do what they do. When that same sub-culture has a history, a lineage, a tradition beyond the here-and-now, it has a certain level of respect. That respect is both self respect for those within it and the respect of the culture at large.

Rock and Roll is a sub culture. Up until the 1970's, it was still considered fairly new, a potential flash in the pan, and very dangerous. It was about the music industry and the fans who bought records. The parents who criticized Elvis for wiggling his hips were still anxious parents with children, albeit adult ones by then. When Elvis died there was examination of the sub-culture, self examination from within and examination from outside by the general public, the press, and academia, many of whom were fans of Rock and Roll and wanted a closer look. Rock and Roll evolved from just a profitable part of the music industry to a well understood, albeit controversial, sub-culture. Rock and Roll gained the respect given to things worthy of examination.

Rock and roll now has a lineage and tradition. It is taught in colleges as literature. In one rock and roll class I took in the late 80's, we studied something a little frightening and controversial, rap music. There was a lot of controversy about including Rap in the lineage of Rock and Roll, like a bunch of grognard wargamers scoffing at role players. Nevertheless, it was debated and eventually accepted as the latest addition in a lineage that goes back to jazz and the blues, much like D&D, it's armor class system derived from miniature naval combat rules. Nobody in that class disagreed with the premise that rock and roll was an important part of our culture, although our parents were probably not sure if we were being truly educated. Nowadays, nobody hides their music collection and most parents don't rail against rock and roll, provided the performers don't push on societal values too hard (it is their job, after all). But I think it was the death of Elvis that cemented rock and roll into our culture.

I'm not saying Gary Gygax is at the same level of cultural importance as Elvis, but he is the Elvis of role-playing. There are other names in the lineage, and he shares the D&D founder distinction with Dave Arneson, but he is the first and most iconic. His death cements that. I also wouldn't make this comparison if it was 1990 and role playing was D&D and a few other iconic classic games. Looking at role playing games now, we have a growing sub-culture, not just a mature market. We can talk in terms of culture and not just markets. D&D dominates for sure, probably accounting for at least half of role-playing sales, but does that mean it accounts for half the games being played? I doubt that. I think it's probably far less than that due to its tendency to grind out volumes that fans of that game consume in large quantities (that's how you know you're a D&D fan).

There are trends within the industry, within this sub-culture, that represent a shift beyond just business. The garage bands of role-playing, for example, the indie press crowd, is more a movement than a business. It's the "rap" of the role-playing world and it works outside of the system for the most part. It gets little respect accordingly and is scorned by all but the fans and serious critics. The same could be said about the PDF movement, which no longer requires that a game product be appealing to mass audiences to be successful. As long as these small clearing houses can pay for the electricity of the server they sit on and it's Internet connection, there aren't a lot of expenses associated with selling them.This has transformed what people play probably more than anything. Games will never die now, they'll just go to PDF. Games have a long tail, surviving well beyond their print runs. Combined with online role-playing, tabletop gaming played in online venues, you can play nearly anything ever printed. Want to run that hard to find Tomb of Horrors adventure? A print copy is $35 on eBay but a PDF is $4.95 on RPGNow.

So you're probably rolling your eyes at all this, but think about how we will feel about role-playing games in another 30 years. The founders will be gone for the most part, some forgotten some enshrined in our minds. We'll have their legacy in rare print products and electronic archives, along with mentions in the footnotes of future game editions. We will have grandparents who have played these games when they were new and full of wonder, the equivalent of when Elvis first shaked his hips on the Ed Sullivan show. They may have sons who played the game right now, where computers and technology begin to play a role. The grandsons of these early adopters may also be playing. The game they play may not be Dungeons & Dragons. It may not even resemble our role-playing games. Hopefully they'll involve good memories of getting together with friends, opening up and playing pretend (in a manly way), eating unhealthy foods, working as a team, fighting the bad guys and taking their stuff.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Gygax Tribute Game

I just got back from playing in a 3.5 version of Gary Gygax's Tomb of Horrors. I own the original adventure and have both played in and ran it as dungeon master, but that was 25 or more years ago. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I remembered almost none of it, other than some iconic traps that you could never forget. I let the new guys figure those out the hard way.

I played a Radiant Servant of Pelor variant, aka a cleric who kicks butt against undead. Unfortunately there weren't any in the tomb for the six hours I played before having to leave. It shows how much I remembered! Despite the 3.5 upgrade, the adventure has a first edition feel, starting with why this crazy lich would create this tomb which seemed to serve no other purpose than to challenge adventurers to plunder it.

Occasionally there would be disconcerting things that seemed to serve no other purpose than to vex adventurers. Often you were forced to roll the dice and move through traps and portals because there was no other way forward. If I had a dime for every time the rogue searched for traps - pretty much every 5' square we traveled. After years of learning about things like "dungeon ecology" and adventure pacing, it was strange to play in this often capricious and illogical adventure. It's how we did it in the old days.

Despite the old school ways, some of my best D&D memories are Gygax adventures: Sneaking around the sleeping giants in the "G" series. The one-way stadium turn style in White Plume Mountain. The sphere of annihilation mouth in Tomb of Horrors. They're not only good memories, but iconic encounters that we all stole and used in our own adventures. These adventures stretched us, challenging us to write our own stories. I often had more notebooks in my school backpack for D&D than I did for school, as the binders of characters and adventures multiplied. I don't recall ever staring at a blank piece of paper, worried about writing a school essay, but I do remember quite a few creative blocks while staring at a blank piece of graph paper, the only deadline that matters being the D&D game with my friends that weekend.

Tomb of Horrors: Go ahead, stick your hand in there. I dare ya.

White Plume Mountain: One way in, no way out (unless you rolled your "bend bars/lift gates.")

Steading of the Hill Giant Chief: The thing with the giant adventures was the true perception that things could get out of hand very quickly. There was no adventure pacing, no safe place to rest, just a big lair of giants you're invading. This was D&D without a net and many a character never returned from these adventures. Get them angry and woken up and you're in a heap of big trouble! This sense of fear and the possibility that anything can happen is missing in todays more formulaic D&D.