Orthodoxy in a New Art Form


There is no place for orthodoxy in a creative field. Once you have erected barriers as to what is or isn’t allowable, or decreed that things must be done in a certain way, you have begun to stifle the imagination. Orthodoxy in a new art form is beyond tragic. It’s practically blasphemous. That’s why I have such a love/hate relationship with the tabletop roleplaying games industry.

Let me pause for a moment to recognize that yes, there are market forces and practical business considerations. Customers want what they want, so creators have to make things to suit the market. The types of products that people buy drives what gets created, how it gets packaged and promoted, and the ways that it gets sold. Absolutely. All of that is true.

That’s also an expletive deleted cop out.

Roleplaying is less than 50 years old. Less than five decades ago, this industry did not exist. Someone — you all know his name — created something that no one had ever seen before. There was no market. While there was a customer base for wargames, there was no specific base for roleplaying. Since then there have been numerous firsts. The first game in this genre, the first game with these sorts of mechanics, and so on. All expressions of someone’s unfettered creative imagination.

The business side of things makes me nuts. Like most creative fields, it’s driven largely by people who have artistic skills but no business sense. They know how to write, to design task resolution systems, to craft engaging worldbuilding. They have no clue about production, supply chains, costs, any of it. A lot of what people seem to know comes from trial and error. Most of it seems to come from creative people sharing their successes and failures with one another. Which is great, it’s camaraderie, it’s the sort of thing I want to see more of. But it’s no way to run a railroad.

Orthodoxy in a New Art Form

This is where the orthodoxy fails them. I see people going all in on doing things the way they have always been done. You have to have a big, full-color hardcover book, because that’s what people want. Everyone is running a Kickstarter, so you’ve got to run a campaign there. Nothing sells other than fantasy, so if you want a big hit you need to tap that genre.

All of that stuff is expensive. After raising a ton of money, or diving into their personal savings, or both, people then complain that there’s no profits. Either they go into a financial hole, or they barely break even. If they’re lucky, they make a little money, and can make some more off of the long tail if their game is popular enough.

In any other business, your project wouldn’t get greenlit if you couldn’t show it had the potential to be profitable. What people in any other business will do, what I do with my own publishing efforts, is figure out how to control costs. This leads to people clutching their pearls and telling you that you’re doing it wrong. There’s some expectation that you should do it for the love of the hobby, not for personal gain. It’s the same “starving artist” nonsense that all creatives have to listen to.

The reality is that publishers who have been the most successful are the ones that have ignored the orthodoxy. They may only have broken a small taboo, but in finding another way they’ve managed to make their business viable while creating something unique, interesting, and fulfilling. In the business world, entrepreneurs are encouraged to be disruptors. If you want to succeed, you need to shake things up. I wish there were more knowledgeable creative people in the roleplaying hobby that were willing to be disruptors, rather than clinging to an orthodoxy that only works for the corporations at the top of the industry.

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Why I’m Not a Third Party Publisher

Every creator has to follow their heart and create what they need to create. And every business needs to do what’s best for that business. These things don’t always seem intuitive. When people look at how others have achieved success, they love to suggest that maybe you should do that, too. I understand that they’re trying to be helpful. They just don’t comprehend the way you see things. Today I want to talk about why I’m not on one of those paths, why I’m not a third party publisher.

My day job is writing tabletop roleplaying games. That Dungeons & Dragons stuff. I’ve got my own game system, and create original settings. I often get asked why I don’t play in a larger playground. There are industry jobs that I could apply for, based on my talent and experience. The easy answer there is that I don’t want to relocate. Most people will accept that. What’s harder for them to swallow is that I have no desire to work for other people if I don’t have to. Yes, the pay and benefits might be better. I’m happier cutting my own path through life, even when it’s more difficult.

The other obvious arena is creating content for well-known games. Surely there has to be more money in working with a brand name, right? You automatically get better recognition and a built-in audience. There are licenses that you can get for absolutely free, which allow you to create your own original material and sell it. The people who choose to go that route are called third party publishers.

Why I’m Not a Third Party Publisher

When I was getting my business degree, I actually was a third party publisher. I set up a company name, and created a series of small products for the Pathfinder Role Playing Game and the Fate RPG under the Open Gaming License. The company was a learning lab, allowing me to make things at no real cost and use them to test things I was learning. I used them for research, and wrote papers about them.

Fans that support a licensed system have strong opinions. If you’re not turning out material that’s more or less the type of thing the original licensing publisher would release, the fanbase aren’t interested. It puts fetters on you creatively. You can get away with doing something so radically different from the licensed game that it has its own look and feel, but at that point you might as well create your own system from whole close. At least then you’ll own it outright.

Which is at least part of the business reasons I don’t do it any longer. You’re in competition with everyone else using that open license. That runs the range from small companies using a traditional publishing models to some random guy who thinks he can make a thing. It’s hard to stand out in the crowd, and you’re competing for those fanbase dollars. On top of that, you’re also competing with the original publisher, the licensee. Some fans only buy “official” material, and assume third party content is innately inferior.

I want to make my mark on my own. Over time I have created my own fanbase, regular customers who buy, play, and enjoy my stuff. That’s far more gratifying to me than playing with other peoples’ toys and hoping for the acceptance and attention of an audience that isn’t truly mine.

Why I Don’t Do Crowdfunding

Allow me to acknowledge that yes, having a Patreon is technically crowdfunding. I don’t look at it that way, though. These posts would get written and appear on my website anyway. Putting them on Patreon so people can see them a week earlier is a side hustle to make a few extra bucks on something I’m already doing. I see crowdfunding more as the “if I don’t get a budget for this project, it won’t get done” sort of thing.

I’ve also written about why I don’t do crowdfunding projects before. This post isn’t a rerun. Think of it more as an update. While I’m going to cover some of the same ground, my opinions have evolved over time. I’m not saying I’ll never run a Kickstarter or IndieGoGo campaign. That’s just not part of my current business structure right now.

My rationale for not embracing the crowdfunding model comes down to three points: operational capability, creative freedom, and personal integrity.

Operational Capability

There are sound reasons why I’m a one-person operation working at the kitchen table. My business is intentionally structured so that I don’t have to deal with physical inventory, rent a dedicated work space, or hire employees. Without getting into specifics, they have to do with profitability, tax law, and my immigration status.

In short, I could not run a successful crowdfunding campaign by myself. Expanding to be able to handle the logistics would screw me over so hard in so many ways. It wouldn’t be profitable, and it would cause me more problems that it would be worth even if it did make me a lot of money.

Creative Freedom

I want to make what I want, the way that I want to make it. While there are far fewer backers today who feel that their pledge gives them the right to dictate what a creator does, there are still expectations surrounding campaigns themselves. Everyone wants a range of backer levels will extra rewards. People want stretch goals. If you just want to make a thing, that’s boring. Guess what? I just want to make a thing.

At this point I could point back to operational capability, above, but I don’t have to. I don’t want to make a bunch of other stuff. At the very least, I don’t want to roll that other stuff together with this particular thing. I will make the other thing in its own time. You can’t just crowdfund a game, you need to promise a whole product line. There have to be custom dice and other shiny objects. This violates the whole spirit of the Black Box Manifesto, which I think is the right direction for me, creatively, at this moment in time.

Personal Integrity

While I am getting much better about telling people what I’m working on, I still shy away from announcing release dates. I’m a one-person operation. Set aside my physical and mental health issues. Assume that I’m in peal condition. One day I could wake up with a cold. I could step off the curb and get hit by a truck. There’s no one to pick up the slack. The project doesn’t move forward without me. It’s irresponsible to make promises that I’m not 100% certain I will be able to keep.

I have seen those tragic Kickstarters. Someone has a family crisis and spends all of the backers’ money on medical bills. Understandable on some human level, wildly unethical on a professional level. A person whose depression is under control gets absolutely crushed by the stress of a successful campaign, and it ends up destroying their life. I’m happy when I see understanding backers in those situations, because the creators appear to have started out in good faith. A lot of backers, though, just assume that you’re a scammer and make your life a living hell. There are scumbags out there, and they deserve to be roasted, but some folks don’t want to bother sorting out a person in crisis from a con artist.

Why I Don’t Do Crowdfunding

There have been times when I’ve been tempted to do one. One. Singular. Because it might bring in some new customers. My research shows, though, that they wouldn’t follow me. I’d drop something on Kickstarter, but they wouldn’t go look at my other products on DriveThruRPG. They’d expect my next project to be another Kickstarter. It would force my business in that direction, and as I’ve stated above, no. Just no. To even consider starting down that road would be a disaster.

3 Things I Learned from Roger Corman

Roger Corman has been one of the biggest influences on my career. Not on the creative side, though. He’s a filmmaker and I’m a writer, and while there are things I could take away from his process as an artist it’s his business acumen that’s helped me to be successful. So here are 3 things I learned from Roger Corman.

Accept Limitations and Do It Anyway

I get tired of hearing Corman described as the guy who made bad movies. He made low-budget movies that couldn’t always hit the same expectations as big-budget studio features. For a good portion of his career, though, he wasn’t making films for the same market. That wasn’t the problem he was solving for. He had his niche, he dominated it, and all of his films were profitable. They’re also entertaining, on different levels, if you’re willing to give them a chance.

Here’s where I could cite all of the actors, directors, and writers Corman discovered by giving them their first big break. He won a special Oscar for “for his rich engendering of films and filmmakers” because of that. If he didn’t make films because of the limitations, we might not have those people working in film today. That’s not the tack I’m going to take here.

Corman got to make movies because he was determined to make movies. He was educated as an engineer, but wasn’t happy doing that. He tried the studio system, and worked in the mail room at 20th Century Fox, and as story reader and stage hand. That might have eventually allowed him to make his own movies, but he didn’t wait for permission. He figured out how to do it his way, in his time, with the limited resources he had. This brings me to the next thing I learned.

Innovate and Do Your Best

Corman never set out to make a bad movie. He did wring every ounce of value out of what he had to work with. Every dollar in the budget, every minute in the shooting schedule, wasn’t allowed to go to waste. He pulled entertaining performances out of mediocre actors, and figured out ways to let the great actors shine and carry the film.

If you can’t do that, you can still do this. When you’re not able to do things the way other people do them, you can still figure out a way to get them done. You end up discovering methods to do things faster and cheaper, and therefore more profitably. Sometimes those bigger players with more resources end up adopting your methods because they’re more efficient.

Possibly my favorite Corman story involves the filming of The Raven. The film finished shooting a few days early, and under budget. The sets would remain up until then, and he still had Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson under contract. Rather than send everyone home and pocket the extra money, he threw a script together and shot The Terror in two days. Is it a great film? No. It looks great, and the actors do their best with the material, but you can tell the script was just thrown together. But Corman made two movies for the price of one.

What I Learned from Roger Corman: Ignore the Haters

There will be people who tell you that you can’t. They’ll tell you that you shouldn’t. You’ll be criticized for all sorts of things. People will foist their expectations on you, telling you what you should do and how you should do it. Stick to your vision, do it anyway, and do it your way. In the end, Corman made a nice living doing what he loved. He’s had a happy life, for the most part. I’m doing what I enjoy, and the bills are getting paid, even though I’m regularly told that I’m doing it wrong. People are starting to come around for me, though, just like they did for Corman. When you ignore the haters and keep going, at some point it becomes impossible for them to be dismissive of your success.

The New Posting Schedule

The current plan for the new posting schedule is as follows: There will be 3 to 5 new posts per week, which will appear on the Patreon site at 9 am Eastern time. These will only be accessible to patrons. One week later that will become viewable to non-patrons, and will appear on BerinKinsman.com as well.
Each day of the week will have a different topic. Obviously, if I only post 3 times per week, not every topic will be covered every week. I won’t have more than one post per week on any topic.

Monday: Bullet Journaling

This topic is covers how I use my bullet journal, planning, and general productivity. There will be elements of minimalism thrown in, because I’m all about simplicity. Posts may also cross over with self-care, since I also use my bujo to manage my executive function disorder.

Tuesday: Writing

This topic is about writing and creativity. It’s a calling, a career, and a lifestyle, to be sure, and I’ve made a living as a writer for a few years now. You won’t find much advice here, because there’s plenty of that elsewhere. Instead I want to find connection with other writers, and the community, in this space.

Wednesday: Worldbuilding

This topic obliquely discusses the creation of tabletop roleplaying games and the work I do as Dancing Lights Press. It’s going to have more to do with my creative process and the use of the medium for self-expression than cliched nonsense about murder hobos and genre tropes.

Thursday: Self-Care

This topic is about making time for yourself in a world filled with stress and unreasonable demands. Because I identify as a spoonie there will be posts related to that, managing mental health, and living a productive life in spite of physical limitations.

Friday: Arts and Culture

This topic includes for posts about books, music, film and television, and other forms of entertainment. It is also the place for visits to cultural events, trips to museums, and dining experiences. While it may contain opinions and recommendations, I wouldn’t classify any of these posts as reviews.

The New Posting Schedule

This will all be subject to change, of course, based on how readers respond. If people get tired of a topic or, to be honest, I run out of things to say on a topic, I’ll swap it out.
Thoughts? Opinions? Leave a comment, I want to know!