Wednesday, August 29, 2018

GAMA Is Not Me (Yet)

I am a member of GAMA, the Game Manufacturers Association, because it's required to attend the GAMA Trade Show. In years I don't attend, I'm not a member. But this year, I'm a member. I certainly don't feel like a member. As a retailer, I feel like a customer, and occasional content provider.

This is because the organization is dominated by manufacturers, and retailers are only tangentially included to help put on the show which represents such a large part of what GAMA does. Retailers are allowed to have a seat at the table, but the short one next to where the adults sit. We retailers are customers and when in leadership roles, show content providers.

GAMA has done a poor job of representing retailers over the years and worse, by taking on this role and doing it poorly, it has prevented a legitimate retailer organization, which serves retailer needs, from taking root. Retail organizations come and go, their leaders undermined, their mission ridiculed, their membership fractured.

These organizations exist because of GAMA's failings, yet they can't prosper while GAMA pretends to serve retailers like me. GAMA is divisive in this way. So what I would really like GAMA to do is stop pretending they serve the interest of retailers. Keep putting on your show and feel free to charge a fee that would include a membership amount of money, because there's strong value there and a low price, but let us go as members and admit you're all about the interest of game publishers.

Or the opposite.

The opposite would be to take a far stronger role in serving game trade retailers, starting with tightening up the mission statement to explain who exactly GAMA serves. You haven't been genuine in the past, so it needs to be right there in writing. That's right, start with stating retailers are sitting at the big table. Because the vague mission statement has been used to underserve a large portion of GAMA constituents, it should be re-written.

If the opposite means letting go of obstructionist leadership, then I'm all for it. I have no doubt the current executive director has great organizational prowess and leadership skill. But I also know the executive director is obstructionist and disinterested in retailer needs and interests. So if finding a new leader is part of the opposite, I'm all for it.

I'm a little excited to think this is the direction GAMA is headed. I'm also a little apprehensive, because I've made it abundantly clear, I don't believe this organization is really about serving me as a retailer. I don't want to be responsible for breaking your organization, if you happen to be a publisher. But I'm also tired of GAMA sucking all the air out of the room and preventing retailers from proper representation. Make it my organization too. I'm a member after all.

I'm Sorry (Tradecraft)

Sometimes customers get upset. They may have been treated shabbily, or they want it one way, but it's the other. We have a culture of false apologies. There's an interesting article about the six types of apologies, with only one of them sincere. Most apologies are to get people to calm down and move along, especially in the corporate world.

It's difficult for a faceless corporation's communications director to show compassion when their company just did something atrocious. They're hardly in a position to take personal responsibility in any sincere way. Apologies are engineered and carefully worded, and vetted by the legal department. We don't have to do that in small business. Your most important asset is you, the person in charge, who built this thing and cares. Plus it's all your fault anyway, as we've established.

If you aren't sorry, the worst thing to do is apologize. If you cut a product line or canceled an event, well that's business. You can say "Sorry, but this isn't working for us as a business any more," but that's an explanation, not an apology, and it will be viewed as such. Disappointing customers is inevitable if you're around long enough and take enough chances. If you've never disappointed a customer, you're either lying to yourself or you have an extremely narrow line of business. Congratulations on playing it safe.

If you've legitimately screwed up, you should sincerely apologize. The article I mentioned calls this the apology from love. It's when you empathize with a person, putting yourself in their shoes, and put yourself out there. It's a real apology. You messed up, you apologize. What happens next is not important. You've done damage and it's up to the aggrieved to decide if it's in their interest to continue to engage you. I think the more you try to retain an aggrieved person in your apology, the more insincere you become.

Because sincere apologies are so rare, especially in business, people will often try to take advantage of you. They assume you're the corporate mouthpiece and now is the time to hit you up for free airline ticket or a discount coupon. Some will use your apology as an admission your business process is broken and their interpretation of how you run your shop should take precedence. I once apologized to someone in a store forum and they agreed to continue being my customer, if I gave control of that forum to someone else. A sincere apologize is an opening to some people, and you've put your heart on the line if you did it properly.

Here's where you need to be firm. "I'm sorry, but no," is what often happens when the opportunist sweeps in with their demands. In my mind "no" often means "get bent" or "GFY." My apology is not an invitation to become my business partner. And here is when you get to decide if you want to continue to engage with them or have them move along. The important thing is to stay firm to your convictions and your processes, provided they're good. You did your job, you've sincerely apologized, you've considered necessary changes. I'm always open to changing bad processes and a complaint will certainly trigger that change. However, many people just want it one way when it's the other.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Wages (Tradecraft)

I want everyone to make as much money as possible, including my employees. However, when it comes to wages, retail is where the rubber hits the road. It doesn't matter how liberal you are as a store owner, you are still subject to math. Math doesn't lie or hold a political opinion, it's quite indifferent to your views, much like the science of global warming. So although I'm fairly liberal, and would like nothing more than my employees to make a middle class income from their jobs, I don't see how most small businesses will survive on their way to a $15 minimum wage (currently at $11) at the rate it's scheduled.

We can look at the math by examining our three buckets. In retail, we have three buckets of expenses after cost of goods: labor, rent and other. When these buckets start to overflow, growing in size, our revenue needs to increase to cover them. So if the labor bucket increases by 10% a year, as it is generally doing with minimum wage, our revenue needs to increase by a third of that, or 3.3%. If we don't increase revenue by 3.3%, that money is coming from profits or if you're on the edge, you're losing money. Lose money long enough and you and your jobs go away, like it or not.

But what about inflation? We need 3.3% to cover increasing wages every year, as we've established. Inflation doesn't include wages. So now retailers also need to grow to cover inflation. Did you know inflation is actually growing pretty quickly despite low interest rates? Inflation last year in my region was 3.6%. That's another headwind to deal with, and nobody likes to talk about this, but it might be related to fast growing wages. Rather than needing to cover a 3.3% mandated wage increase, small business now needs to add that 3.6% inflation to the mix. That's roughly 7%. So should we expect small retailers to grow 7% to cover these costs?

When you look at recent historical numbers, 7% growth for retail is phenomenal. It's emerging market growth like that of China and India. Mumbai, Shanghai and Beijing had recent historical growth in this range, but most other cities are far lower. The growth rate in California cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles is 1.5-3%, not even keeping up with current inflation levels or wage growth. Certainly not both.

So when you ask a California retailer to grow 7%, you're picking winners and losers. You're essentially cutting the legs out from all marginal businesses and many average businesses and giving a gift to profitable businesses, who regardless of whether they hit that absurd growth target, can always absorb wage growth with profits. Those businesses will inevitably be large, like Wal Mart and Target. If I had local competition, I might actually like this and hunker down to wait them out, but they've already failed.

This fast wage growth scheme is really a gift to big business at the expense of small business. When I predict small businesses will disappear because of this, taking jobs with them, of which the job market is roughly half small business, this is what I'm talking about. I'm not being gloomy, I'm looking at math. The math is not good. I have no political horse in this race, I want everyone to get as much as they can.

The hope with 10%+ wage growth is the rising tides theory, but again, you're expecting growth rates of 7% for small business. The left regularly mocks Trump for predicting 4% GDP growth as impossible, but they don't seem to care when unreasonable high growth is expected from small business. A more reasonable approach to this, if we decide dictating wages is the right choice, would be a slower progression that isn't so destructive to small business. The problem is it isn't politically expedient to provide a slow correction, just like Trump's ridiculous 4% annual GDP (I know it peaked there for a quarter, but that can't last).

Finally, I really, truly, hope I'm completely wrong. I hope I'm talking out of the wrong orifice. California will be seen as an economic miracle, which it already is, but now by raising up the bottom tier of workers. It will be glorious and will be copied across the country. It pains me that I'm on the same side as the Koch brothers in this debate. As the saying goes, a stopped clock is right twice a day. I really hope I'm wrong on this.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Teen Jobs and Game Retail

There's an interesting article that states only a third of teens look for summer jobs rather than half, as they did when I was a kid in the 80's. I've got some ideas about that, some of which are specific to my store in California but others are more general.

Labor costs. My labor costs in California have skyrocketed as minimum wage moves towards $15 an hour. Labor costs are rising over 10% a year, which means the first 3-4% of my growth each year goes just to cover labor. This year my growth is flat, so labor is crushing me right now. I'm looking at cutting labor costs, and there are no easy targets.

This means fewer workers, more efficient workers, and reduced hours for workers. I don't want this to happen, but I have little choice unless I want to roll up my sleeves and take more shifts. That's coming. So you can imagine my reluctance to having someone on staff whose not 100% up to speed and who is still learning how to human in the marketplace. It's an expensive public service I can't afford.

When you change the costs of labor, you change the nature of labor. You begin deciding what is worth doing and who can do it. If you thought the labor market at $7/hour would be the same at $15/hour, you were mistaken. It just won't work that way.

Complexity. Working in my business is wickedly complex. We have a need for computer systems mastery. However, what's really critical is the various policies and procedures that need to be acquired. It's what makes an alright store, which is completely untenable in the American marketplace, into a good store. It takes about six months for a new employee to be completely up to speed, a time period I've heard from other retailers as well.

Running a strong, service oriented business can be summarized by our policies and procedures, three inch, three ring binder. Acquiring that knowledge over summer break isn't possible. It's not going to happen. Likewise, we don't hire adults as temporary workers. We do hire permanent part-time people, so there is room for that. Most kids who apply make it clear they have no intention of staying after the break. By the way, I generally consider my employees new until they've hit the three year mark, and they do tend to stay five or more years if they work out. So if we don't think someone is in it for the long term, we're really not interested.

Liability. Employees recently sued a company in California for the right to sit in a chair, and they won. The legal landscape has changed dramatically over the last decade, and just saying the wrong thing can destroy my business. Having a child on staff unaware of workplace norms is dangerous. It's not only dangerous from a legal standpoint, but we live in an age where review culture can destroy a small business just as fast as a lawsuit.

Consumers made the landscape the way it is. They voted in the laws and they are responsible for an increasingly hostile business culture. It wasn't this way when I started 15 years ago, but it's the world we live in now.

By the way, my 13 year old son is an official store employee. He makes minimum wage. He gets worked hard when he's on staff, because I can't afford to pay him for less than adult work. He cleans bathrooms and sorts cards. That is, when he's around. We do everything legally, so he can only work when his school sanctioned work permit allows. That means a ridiculously few number of days a year, although that will increase with time. He needs to save for college. It's not like his dad is making it rich selling hobby games.

Friday, August 24, 2018

On the Road Store Management (Tradecraft)

Last year I spent five weeks driving cross country over the summer. I would place sales orders on my laptop from hotels with fast WiFi. I would pay bills the old fashioned way, dropping hand signed checks in a mailbox. More often than not, the check was closer to its destination than if I had mailed it back home.

This year I was more ambitious, with a plan to drive through Mexico and Central America, our farthest end point being Honduras where we would visit the Copan ruins. I had been there 17 years ago and got as far as the road to the ruins before we were stopped by a "peasant uprising." Despite driving days to get to Honduras, including abandoning our vehicle in the border and hitchhiking the final few miles, not seeing the ruins in this fashion was the highlight of my trip. This time we would get there.

Along the 8,000 mile trip, I visited game stores in Mexico and Guatemala. A friend helped translate so I could get  a glimpse of hobby gaming in these countries. I wrote about that and posted photos on my Facebook author page. Game stores in these countries are in their early phases. Customers play Magic, about half with English cards and half in Spanish. RPGs and board games are just starting to germinate, with only one store I visited in Guatemala City having any stock at all. Part of this was cultural and part was economic. It's an exciting time for the trade in these countries, and as the market emerges, it will be interesting to see where it goes.

The Hideout, in Guatemala City. Oldest and best stocked store of the trip

Preparing for this trip business wise meant first setting up online banking. There would be no checks in the mail. It took this trip to bring me into the modern world of Internet banking, something I've had for my personal accounts for well over a decade. There would also be no trips to the bank for emergencies, like when my old payroll company insisted on a wire transfer after we were short one day. I wire transfer is like asking for a hand delivery from the Wells Fargo stagecoach driver, a giant manual pain in the ass for everyone involved. Adjusting to online banking was difficult, with its week in advance scheduling and plus or minus a day check arrivals (usually minus). I eventually adapted.

I handed off my weekly ordering to my manager, which meant I was truly free this time on vacation, unleashed from phone calls and the grind. My job was to make sure money was in the bank, which sometimes was difficult, and pay bills once a week from a Google sheets document. I was able to get my work load down to four hours a week. Disconnecting from day to day activity was not only critical for relaxation, but it protected me from the unknown, notably the availability of wifi and cellular service.

My cell phone is on AT&T and the way that worked was Mexico was included in my bucket of minutes and regular roaming, but Guatemala and Honduras were not. I set my account up ahead of time to transition to a "day pass" while in those other countries. This meant I was charged $10 a day for roaming. That seemed like a lot of money at the time, so in Mexico, with some help, I bought a wireless hot spot and a sim chip to get cheaper local rates. What it took weeks for me to learn and many hours at kiosks, was I'm a giant user of data, and there was no data plan big enough for my American style usage. $10 a day was a bargain, and I gladly went back to that and sold off my hot spot. The roaming cost $120 and the hotspot, which sold was $140.

Hotels in these regions often offered WiFi. We would pick hotels based first on secure parking, because of our fancy vehicles, and second on WiFi availability. Although hotels would advertise WiFi, it often left much to be desired. WiFi would sometimes be down. Like just broken and we're sorry. WiFi might only work in the lobby. WiFi might be so slow and unpredictable as to be useless. However, 3G cellular service was all it took to log in and pay bills, and most often than not, access my POS system back home. So WiFi was a luxury, but 3G was plentiful in any reasonably sized town.

Most of my store problems, like my trip last year, were about me, rather than staff. I shorted a payroll for the first time with our new payroll company. They apologized to me, and asked if I just wanted to run it again, which they did with no charge. A big cash buffer might have gotten my four hours a week down to three. Most game trade pre orders have about a three month in advance window, and since I pre order every single item that comes into my store, those things rolled on in while I was gone. Any disconnect from the buying process won't be felt until late fall, and don't think I'm not worried about that.

Overall, I had a wonderful and relaxing time. Part of this trip was fantasizing about retirement in the region. I visited city after city saying, "I could live here!" I'm wondering if six months a year might be enough and how my store would function without me for that long. That's probably just vacation withdrawal talking, but if I start writing about visiting Guatemala for a six week Spanish intensive, you can bet it's on the horizon.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

10 POS Requirements (Tradecraft)

I regularly get asked about which point of sale system to buy. I spent 10 years in IT, so I have some idiosyncratic ideas about technology, but it mostly comes down to computing ubiquity. It needs to be transparent and just work. I'm not interested in multiple updates, migrations, servers, or new features.
I currently use Lightspeed Onsite. Do I recommend it? No. Why do I continue using it? I'm grandfathered in and pay a support contract once a year rather than a monthly fee. I pay more for remote access to my POS each year, than I pay for my POS. When looking for a new POS, which I may be doing this year, here are ten considerations:
1. When the software breaks, who gets called? Is it a dude? Dudes get hit by buses. I want an 800 number and an organization so when I'm driving through the jungles of Central America, my staff can get things fixed by calling an organization, rather than chasing down a dude (why my AC has been broken for a month).
2. When the hardware breaks, who gets called? We have consultants we can call, but we don't have a support contract with them, so they may be a couple days out. This is not acceptable, really, but it's the best we could do with a Mac based system. Meanwhile, staff can muddle through with Square on their phones or a store tablet, as they're all trained for that.
3. Does it generate purchase orders? This is the keystone to our purchasing, which is often $10,000 a week. It should generate POs based on re-order quantities by item. If it can't do that, I don't want it. For example, when the Player's Handbook, gets below 4 copies, order up to X, or order X copies from Y supplier.
4. Does it generate cost of goods numbers? This data is generated from #3, purchase orders, and it should use either the COGS from the last purchased item or better yet, perform cost averaging. I need this for my Open to Buy worksheet and it's non negotiable. Some good systems can't do this.
5. Does it do reporting? Better question, does it do the right *kind* of reporting, as most POS reports are useless to me. I need to do turn rate analysis (which often requires an export to Excel), top sellers, customer reports, sales tax reports, general sales reports, and end of day reports. Does it allow for custom reports and saved reports?
6. Does it handle special orders? Not some layaway work around, but does it offer separate tracking of customer purchases of things I don't currently have in a robust system? There's only one system I know of that does that well, and I'm using it. We do over 400 special orders a year.
7. Is the company supporting the software? I care more about bug and security fixes than software features. It's also possible the company "supports" the software, but they place most of their effort on a newer product (Lightspeed). Security standards change so quickly nowadays versus a decade ago, an abandoned POS system is quickly out of date and may incur additional fees from credit card processors
8. Does the game trade integrate or work well with the software? Can I upload purchase orders to suppliers and have it interact with their database? Most don't do this. Can I export POs to common file formats? I can't export to a CSV so I can't order direct from Reaper, for example. Can I create "bundles" or larger units that can be broken down into smaller units (AKA CCG boxes)? Most importantly for some stores, does it integrate with Crystal Commerce of TCGPlayer Pro? This is where ION shines, but the top off the shelf POS systems will never have this.
9. What does it cost? Does it require a large capital purchase up front or can I run this software on a cheap PC or tablet and pay a monthly fee? An onsite version will require hardware, software, accessories and often an integration specialist. It can cost up to $5,000. I can't recommend a new store buy an onsite POS at this stage. Look to the cloud and a modest terminal with a few accessories. Expect to pay monthly either way, but expect a cloud based system to not require a consultant, unless you're migrating.
10. How does it feel? You have to like it. It has to excite you and make you want to engage. If it's on a PC and you're a Mac person, it may turn you off. If it looks like a DOS application from the 80's, and you like graphical interfaces, a crude interface may leave you cold. Some of the most robust systems feel overwhelming to use. Some of the most user friendly only have partial overlap into what we do or lack key features. My own POS was designed for clothing boutiques, and it has some useless features (for me) to prove it.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Sucking (Tradecraft)

It is quite possible, through no fault of your own, that you suck.

Sucking is quite common in game trade retail, or really any small business, because there are few exits besides financial ruin. You run a store, perhaps you become good, then great, and then you really need to go do something else, but you can't. You either don't have the means to go elsewhere, or you have what they call golden handcuffs. You do have means, through painstaking mining of capital and sweat, and if you go now, you'll lose your paycheck. You suck and your stuck.

Not sucking is the goal, and sometimes that means you need to stop doing the same sucky behavior expecting non-suck results. For me that meant giving up my day to day place at the counter. I was burned out, I needed to do something else, but I didn't know how. As it turned out, I was like the baby elephant in the circus, where they chain up its little leg and it learns not to pull on the chain. When it becomes an adult, it never occurs to the big elephant it could break free. You don't want to be the elephant with a chain on its leg.

Luckily for me, I had built the business up enough to have the means to step aside and let someone else bring the day to day passion and enthusiasm to the business. Some will tell you nobody can replace your enthusiasm and passion, just as they'll tell you other lies, like you can't work with friends, or making a hobby into a business will ruin your hobby. You can most definitely hire passionate people. In fact, the advice I often give is you don't personally need to bring the passion, but someone does.


Now let me take a step back and say a lot of times you are not sucking. We are running businesses here. The business needs to be profitable or there's no point. If your customers are dwindling and your sales are falling, that's certainly your fault and there are things you can and should do to address that. But if your business is growing and you have critics, people angry at you for following your business model, then you may (but not always) be doing something right.

People don't get angry at irrelevant people in their lives. When a random plumber in Ohio is a jerk, well, there's a jerk. When the president of the United States is a jerk, the person who speaks with their voice, in your name, to rest of the world, then you're angry and have something to say. The president has relevance in your life. As a local business person, the angry ones are often those who don't like your behavior, but still see your business as relevant in their lives. Otherwise they would be indifferent. They want it one way, but it's the other. The textbook definition of suffering (I have unusual textbooks).

If you have a bad experience in my small business, it was either:

  1. Because you were treated shabbily, in which case I'm truly sorry and you may enjoy learning whoever treated you that way is likely no longer in the business (or customer facing if it was me). My job is trying to minimize those bad experiences through training and improving policies and procedures. We've come a long way. We've always got a long way to go.
  2. Because you are a difficult person, in which case you more than likely had it coming, as my staff bends over backwards far, far beyond my spinal tolerances. This is incredibly rare, and you probably know you're a difficult person if you're that difficult. This is not news to you and maybe you have reasons. Whatever.
  3. Because you wanted it one way, but it was the other, in which case you need to put yourselves in our shoes and understand the insanity that is running a game store. More than likely you want us to carry something, but there's no market. It's math, not vindictiveness that results in stocking decisions. The other, more common complaint is we have a "pay to play" system in which you add a small amount of money to your store account to use our magnificent play space. It's like going bowling with the promise of buying a slice of pizza in the snack bar. It's frankly a ridiculous system and it blows my mind anyone complains about this. It's entitlement at its worst. The cost for hours of entertainment is so close to zero people often insist it be.
As a store owner, your job is to know which of these things is the issue when a customer is unhappy. Issue number one is obviously intolerable from either you or your staff and you have a lotta 'splaining to do. Issue number two is rough, and you can try bending backwards a little more, but this is usually where I give a well practiced shrug. It's perfectly fine to fire a customer. Issue number three? This is where you might be tempted to change your business model to make people happy. The truth is they still won't be happy, they won't support your store, and they'll sap resources from you that could go to better, real customers that accept your reality. This happens a lot. Stop bending backwards. Stand up straight. Find your spine.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Book Sales

I am told sales of Friendly Local Game Store are exceeding expectations. I've had questions about how it has been selling in various channels. I just received a statement for my second royalty check, with a break down by channel, so lets take a look:

The quarters are mixed up a bit here. The channel sales (game trade distribution) and Gameplaywright Retailer are sales to date (Q1 and Q2), making it look bigger than it should be. The GAMA Trade Show was also Q1, so that should have been included previously. Still, this should provide an idea of where the book is selling. My guess is my Q3 statement will show Amazon dominance.

ACD, GTS and IPR seem to be doing the best in keeping it in stock at distribution, each having a handful of books in various warehouses, with IPR going deep. At ACD Games Day, I was talking to my old manager, now head of purchasing at ACD, about how my book was never available there, a common complaint with small publishers. It turned out it was selling through faster than they could get them in, the predictive abilities of distributors as bad as retailers. A non RPG book is not a typical game trade item, so nobody wants to get stuck with excess copies, thus there's careful ordering. This book is not a typical game trade item, so I expect Amazon to be the main source after a while and distribution to drop it.

ACD stock of FLGS

GTS stock of FLGS

Go Indie Press Revolution!

Sales in my own store have reached 32 copies (part of channel sales and Gameplaywright retailer). I've avoided selling these online, although several other stores are doing so. There may be something in my contract not allowing this, I can't recall. I buy them like every other store. I initially received six free copies as part of my publishing contract, and those got given out to staff and family.

New copies sold online are still money in my pocket, as opposed to used copies which provide authors zero dollars. If you ever get a chance to buy a new copy of a book for roughly the same price as a used copy, buy the new copy to support the author.

Total sales this quarter, reflected in the chart were $6,069. From this total, the costs of two print runs were deducted, and I receive half of that. There are no other expenses deducted. We're talking 1,000 copies.

What does this all mean? It's a small niche book with probably a limited revenue producing period. I figure I've seen half the revenue at this point based on what I've been told by my publisher, a third if I'm really lucky, so it's clearly a labor of love for all involved. It's ranked 29,172 in Amazon's Business and Money section, amongst 2,000,000+ books, whatever that means. Top 15%?

I enjoyed the writing process, although I don't think anyone wants to see another game trade book from me unless I can come up with something really clever. I've got another labor of love book project idea, but I need a more mainstream publisher, if anyone knows one. It's a fun travel book about chicken buses in Central America.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Age and D&D

In 1977, a 39 year old game designer, a previous insurance underwriter, published Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. I mention some of these details, because this is about age and D&D. The target market of this game was likely the men (and occasionally women) who played similar games at the time. That's what I surmise from this early photo.
Lifted from Wired Magazine, from Gail Gygax

At age 11, I was clearly not the target market, but this game still fascinated me, and by the time I was 13, myself and friends would try to out geek each other by quoting the rules. We only had three books, the holy trinity, and they were so well used, you could run your hand across them with eyes closed and instantly find various sections, like combat tables and treasure charts.

This was our game, and on page 12 of the super secret Dungeon Master's Guide, that everyone owned because everyone eventually DMed, it spoke in great detail about aging. As an adult, I can't help wonder if this brilliant insurance underwriter used actuarial tables or other data to come up with this clever bit of game mechanics. I note that 40 is the cut off age before you become a decrepit, middle aged human, losing a point of Strength and Constitution, but gaining a point of Intelligence and Wisdom. Gygax was likely thinking about this at 39 when he wrote it. Because first, who wouldn't at age 39, and second, he was in insurance, where mortality and risk was the business. Was it data, the desire not to feel old, or something else that created these brackets? We'll probably never know. Here's the chart for age categories (photographed out of my taped up DMG):

Codification of adult life in very serious table format had the effect of making this seem authentic to a young teenager. Tables were something we had just learned about. Tables were magical devices used by adults to display huge amounts of information in visual format. I wouldn't see an actual actuarial table until I was in college, and that also blew my mind. Statistically knowing the likelihood you'll die at a certain time by gender and age was straight out of the DMG.

As a young teen, this stuff was magical, and the message was clear, being young was heroic and good. We were young. Our characters were young. Getting old was bad and it ruined your plans, so this table tended to be used in only the most dire circumstances, like getting touched by a ghost. Poor fighter is now a wretched 50 year old (like me now).

Nobody actually used this section on character creation. In theory, if you read this section, you could roll up a character who accidentally fell into Young Adult status against your own designs. The DM could penalize your Wisdom and add a point of Constitution. For example, if you roll a 1 or a 2 on a D4 for your Cleric's age (18+1d4), you'll start at 19 or 20 and fall into Young Adult status, ruining your character plans. We saved this section for ghosts and haste spells.

It wasn't until we were adults that we started playing with this table to gain an advantage. My friend Jay would play an elderly wizard and tweak his character for some extra Intelligence points, in exchange for feebleness, something we would have never considered as teens. We've min-maxed the heck out of the aging rules, going so far as having people who couldn't even walk for the sake of brain power. That's adults realizing the power of the mind over the body. As kids, anyone over 30 was elderly, and when we played other games, like Top Secret, 30 seemed like a prime age. Most of my characters started at 30.

I didn't give this stuff much thought until we started getting older, but kept playing, adding younger players. We've got my 13 year old son, players in their 20's, those around 30 and quite a few of us in our 40's and now 50s. We're all at the same table, playing the same game by the same rules. If you want to keep the 13 year old from walking into the meat grinder because of his real world low wisdom, that's the parties business, not mine as the 50 year old DM. Generational D&D is something we're learning as we go. I no longer consider 30 the pinnacle of character perfection. In fact, if I think about it, it's probably the waning days of physical prowess without the benefit of experience (wisdom).

While walking down a wet street in Guanajuato, Mexico last month, right after a big monsoon storm, I slipped on a ramp and fell hard. I knew I was falling and from years in martial arts, just let it happen, rather than struggle and smash my head. I cut up my arm a bit, but it occurred to me our more adventurous travel days may be fine for this middle aged 50 year old, but might be a bit too much for an "old" 61 year old. Gary Gygax might have had that part right. That's my 1 extra point of middle aged Intelligence and Wisdom talking. 61 year old me might have a different idea about that though, much like 50 year old me doesn't feel as decrepit as the DMG would suggest.

Oh, and thanks Wizards of the Coast for D&D 5th editions complete omission of aging rules. I hope to still be playing your games when I'm Venerable.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

So You Say (Personal Weird Stuff)

You can skip this one, it's more personal than tradecraft. I lasted about two months between my declaration of political neutrality and calling the Trump administration evil (they started it), so lets delve into philosophy for a moment. Maybe we'll talk about sex next (the third rail of gamer discussions).

When I first opened, I had a philosophical attitude. A Zen attitude, if you will. I was inspired by one of my favorite stories, that of Zen master Hakuin. That's what this post is about, if you want to bail now. I've written about Hakuin before, but this is in more detail.

There was once a Zen master named Hakuin Ekaku. He lived next to a couple and their daughter, and when the daughter got pregnant, she panicked and named Hakuin as the father. His response?

 "So you say."

When the baby was born, Hakuin was given the baby and he took care of it, raising it, feeding it, loving it. Then the real father was discovered, a local fish monger (evil merchants), and the family demanded the baby back. Hakuin's response?

"So you say."

Hakuin's mind was not troubled by the cares of the world, the whirlwind of distress in the mind of others. Take care of and love a baby? Sure. Give up that child you love? Sure. In the face of chaos, Hakuin's mind was calm. He was also brave in the face of adversity, while the silly common people were fearful leading to deceit.

That was my initial attitude in running my store. Unfortunately, I am no Hakuin. I have no doubt an untroubled mind could deal with the chaos of a store, but that's not me. I don't have the spiritual cajones to back up my "so you say" with appropriate action in the face of chaos.

One of my favorite Tibetan texts talks about evil merchants. The most scorching of commentary is reserved for these folks who are in the thick of the day-to-day world. They are accused of all kinds of cheating and skulduggery. You'll hear better talk of prostitutes than merchants. It's like a merchant shortchanged them on the monastery robe order and boy are they getting an earful now.

My philosophical attitude in the face of the general public changed quite a bit. I still cultivated "so you say," but I did so with an every growing framework of what was appropriate, what I would tolerate, what I would and would not discuss. "Action through non action," the Taoist approach of Wei Wu Wei was not an option. People would get hurt. The worldliness of running an establishment would regularly challenge my "so you say" attitude, while I tried very hard not to be the kind of wretched merchant I was warned about by angry teachers.

The truth is there are few profession that are incompatible with "so you say," the pursuit of a spiritual path. All professions that aren't harming others are compatible. Some, like the game trade offer more grist for the mill. I think it's much harder to follow that path when your peers are so very far from the road, and your customers are looking for distractions. But we do bring happiness to others, albeit momentarily, so we've got that. I've reconciled this, that what we do is a positive in the world. I am no Hakuin, and with long hours and a chaotic life, I wasn't getting much closer to being one.

If you harden your heart and start wielding the sword of discernment without compassion, which this trade seems to demand, you'll become jaded and you'll be stuck down a mental cul de sac. You might end up with a great business, but an empty heart. I was warned by others to get out before I lose my soul, and this is what that's about. Opening your heart without that sword in hand leads to being taken advantage of instantly in this public facing trade. There are those who are unsuited for this trade, people pleasers who can't handle complainers and those who desperately desire to satisfy customers who don't fit their business model. Finding that balance is incredibly elusive, compassion and wisdom in equal measure. Taking victories and defeats with equanimity, your words each night simply being, "So you say."

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Sick Retail

I just got back from a couple months touring Mexico and Central America and one thing that struck me was the robust nature of their retail. In big cities, malls were packed with people and storefronts were filled to capacity. American stores that had died in the US were thriving and I visited Sears, Radio Shack and if I had wanted to, Thrifty Drug Store, where I had spent many allowances as a kid on plastic model kits. Retail was strong, and aligned to the needs of the community. Amazon was weak or nonexistent. It reminded me of touring stores in Canada and seeing so many strong retailers there. It is the US that is suffering, overstored by a factor of ten and beset by brutal online competition. US retail needs an unwinding and it won't be fast or pretty.

It got me thinking about hedges, notably the game store cafe model. I realized American retailers are contorting their stores to fight the drag of brick and mortar retail circling the drain. Again, not just game trade retail, but all retail. Brick and mortar retail won't disappear into the vortex, but it will need to be re-aligned, with perhaps 30-40% of stores closing, and a quarter of malls re-aligning. We could really do with a lot more closings, but Americans seem to think they can buck the trend.  The cafe model is used by stores to stand above their peers while the market re-aligns. However, a secret nobody will tell you is it's actually a model that doesn't follow through on its economic promises.

Those successful with the cafe model only do a relatively small fraction of their business with their cafes. They make a huge investment, go through tremendous training, and for what? Granted, any profitable element grafted onto a successful game store is a win, but it's not like you'll double your revenue by adding a cafe. Most are more in line with 15-25%, with only the rarest of stores hitting 50% and usually with professional food services staff. The Fantasy Flight Event Center comes to mind.

So stores spend a small fortune on build outs, hire additional trained staff at higher wages, and for their efforts get a relatively small sales boost, enough to raise them into safe competitive territory with a Unique Value Proposition, but nothing like what you would hope with such a large investment. In fact, I often wonder why spend $50K-100K for such a small boost when I could open a business for regular people who would actually utilize my services. How about a standard coffee shop, for example? It's because these hybrid store owners are retailers who love games and gamers and want to solidify their place in an unsteady marketplace. They have great stores first, and cafe whatever a distant second.

I mention this because store owners believe this hybrid model or some hybrid model is the only way to succeed nowadays. It's certainly one way. It's certainly not a way for those without experience in either retail or food services. It's definitely a good idea in a failed regional market where all stores are terrible and another one is about to open at any moment. In my own sheltered market in the SF Bay Area, selling games and holding events is still a useful value proposition, albeit one that is no longer unique and one where the cracks are beginning to show. In the rest of the country, where retail is circling the drain, I can't imagine opening a retail store without something pretty darn unique up my sleeve. If that's slinging coffee, then so be it. Just don't expect to get full value from your investment. It has always been the case that a pure play is more profitable than a hybrid, whether it's comics and games or games and coffee. That hasn't changed.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Punching Nazis

I understand the desire to punch a nazi. These people call for violence against others. They have a historical precedent for fascism that resulted in the death of millions of innocents. Seeing them come out of the woodwork like cockroaches engenders a response. We naturally want to crush them, and like the fascination with zombies, many see them as less than human, an excuse to bring violence to bear. Captain America punched Hitler, right?

We are told a third of the German population was responsible for nazi atrocities, while a third were indifferent, and another third opposed the nazis but were unable to do anything by the time they gained power. It sounds a lot like our current political break down. The parallels are weak but they're easy to manipulate to prove a point or create a meme. Nobody wants to be powerless or indifferent in the face of such horror. We have movies about going back in time and killing Hitler. We are so obsessed with this historical mistake, it's its own fantasy genre. Now seems to be time to act in the very real threat of the rise of fascism and American nazis.

However, this is not Nazi Germany. We have a sickening administration in power, but it's not an administration that has turned its back (entirely) on the rule of law. We still live in a country where we can vote politicians out of office. Although our government treats immigrant children with disdain, ripping them from their parents, drugging and imprisoning them, we still don't have cattle cars full of the political opposition. They are cruel, but they aren't at the level of Nazi Germany cruel.

The Trump administration is vile, but there's a political remedy to stopping their agenda in just a few months. If you turn your back on the rule of law by resorting to violence, you turn your back entirely on the political system, and admit civil war is the solution to this countries problems. Civil war is what this countries enemies would like most, resulting in the death of millions. I think it says how bought, corrupt and ineffective the federal government has become that we feel the need to solve national problems through physical violence. I have to ask everyone to just have a little more faith in what's left. I spent the last couple months traveling through Mexico and Central America saying, "I could live here." I understand the loss of faith in the American system.

Beating children does not make them better adults, only more violent ones. Smacking your spouse is not an effective method for marital bliss. Punching a nazi won't make them less of an asshole. In all these cases we perpetuate violence. We make the world a more violent place when what we really want is harmony. Worst of all, you plant these seeds of hate and violence in your mind, damaging your own psyche on this quest to murder the future Hitler before millions are killed. This makes you a more violent person, a less rational individual. Don't be helpless. Don't be indifferent. Find a way to stop fascism through the least violent means. Right now those means are at the ballot box. Fuck nazis, do it for your own mental health.