The Strength of the Comic Mini-Series

With the dozens upon dozens of ongoing monthly comic book titles that have been canceled in recent years, it’s a wonder why the Big 2 still pursue that as a business model for new titles (old titles have the staying power of time behind them, so they’re exempt from this rant).

Here’s my trouble with releasing an ongoing series before the market has been primed: it’s hype. Period. They want to hype something that’s going to “last forever, so get on it in issue #1.” It’s BS.

I get wanting to release a new title to expand your listing on Comixology (or bookstore shelves…if those still exist by the time you read this). But this practice demonstrates short-term thinking on the part of the executives and creative directors. “Get the numbers up this quarter, we’ll worry about next year when it comes around. Besides, we’ve got 14 big crossover events ready to launch between now and then, anyway. Ka-ching!

N0w, you know me. I don’t like to complain about a problem unless I can provide a solution. Fortunately, I come from an era (the 90’s) that saw a fairly stable Big 2, while many other companies struggled to maintain ongoing titles beyond their flagships (like the Big 2 right now).

Embrace the Mini-Series

Remember those 3-9 issue story arcs that used to be used to test the viability of a new line? They’re still around, but the lines they produce don’t seem to have any staying power.

Here are a few titles that did it right.

The merc before he got the mouth. #1 of 4.

The ragin’ cajun. #1 of 4.

Fathom: Dawn of War. #1 of 4.

That last one is of special note. Anyone remember Fathom when it first released?

Fathom. #1 of 9.

At the time, it felt like Fathom broke the mold. A new series, from the late and great Michael Turner, that was never meant to be an ongoing series.

In fact, all of these were marketed as a limited series. You know what they all share? Damn compelling stories! Did they sell super well? I honestly have no idea. But that’s shallow thinking. Here’s why.

They Created Loyalty

There’s a saying in marketing that it’s better to go deep (long-term thinking) than wide (short-term thinking). The difference is in how you treat your customer. Deep thinking engages with them one-on-one (or as close to it as possible), recognizing that they (not your Wizard Mag. or Facebook CPM ads) are the ones who will grow your brand by talking about it. Wide thinking is the “get a billion people to see your Twitter post” marketing scams. Without the deep connection, the people looking are not going to convert long-term, they just want to see the immediate spectacle – and have been given no personal reason to stick around.

Here’s what those mini-series did:

Gambit

When Marvel saw that Gambit was a hit with fans, this solidified their loyalty within the X-verse. People (like me) tuned into X-comics that heavily featured Gambit. But, he wasn’t as big a hit as Wolverine, and thus didn’t deserve an ongoing title. But his mini-series scratched an itch with fans (brand loyalty) and helped enrich and already slammin’ ongoing title (X-Men, Vol. 2).

Some people today fail to see Gambits appeal. But, let’s be honest, most of his more recent mini-series are pretty terrible in comparison to him taking on the Assassin’s Guild in New Orleans. (Maybe some of the new generation should look a little further back on Comixology to learn why Gambit is so beloved by so many. YMMV, though, as all of this is subjective.)

Deadpool

Personally, I credit Deadpool’s current popularity all the way back to this title. Before this title, he was a token ninja with a healing factor. He also wasn’t anywhere near as insane as he’s portrayed now. He was someone who couldn’t die, and so looked at life as something to laugh at. (I like both versions, really, but it’s important to note where he came from.)

After this mini-series, we started seeing more and more Deadpool in our comics, but it was still some time before he got his own ongoing title. But in that decade or so between, Marvel was building incredible brand loyalty for the character, starting with this mini-series.

The Fathom Lines

The first Fathom series (1-9) established a comic line, with multiple spin-offs, that is still going strong to this day (often in mini-series format). Hell, this one is potentially the best of the bunch because it launched an entire comics imprint (Aspen Comics), named for the main character of the Fathom comic.

And that brand allowed a truly incredible 4-part mini-series, Fathom: Dawn of War, to become a deserved hit. It’s my belief that Dawn of War wouldn’t have achieved the reception that it did if it wasn’t for Fathom‘s success. And Kiara, the star of Dawn of War, has gone on to lead multiple titles of her own since that time.

What Do You Think?

Should comics, and comic franchises in general (movies, TV, etc.), start being more responsible with how they market their comics? Should we see an “ongoing” series restart from the same title so many times (how many #1’s has Marvel put out this year)?

In fact, should the TV properties do the same? Agents of SHIELDThe FlashArrow, and Supergirl are all going pretty strong (deserved of the “ongoing” title). But while Daredevil was groundbreaking, the second season was less so – it felt to me like two mini-series (Punisher’s origin and Elektra’s origin; awesome as they were) smashed together. I would have preferred to have them as their own standalone mini-series shows (with Daredevil co-starring). This one is less cut and dry, however, as a movie could be seen as a “mini-series” of a kind, and Netflix is a more complicated animal than comics and appointment TV.

Anyway, I’ve beat this horse enough. What are your thoughts on the matter?

A Smarter Way to Publish RPG Settings

Most of the game design articles this week have centered around making games more accessible for new audiences. In this article, I’d like to touch on a method for 3rd party publishers to attract some of the extant RPG audience that’s out there.

Go All-In with Setting

Let’s face it; most 3rd party published supplements are new settings to be played with a particular system. This was the way I went with Jadepunk: Tales From Kausao City and Shadowcraft: The Glamour War. And I’m here to tell you, I wish I hadn’t. It’s not that designing for Fate Core wasn’t incredible fun, nor lucrative (the Fate audience is great to its creators, in my experience). The problem lies in narrow distribution.

Just like how no one outside of the Mutants and Masterminds community is going to know what Emerald City is, and most people who don’t play Savage Worlds will have anything but a passing awareness of Deadlands, few people outside of the Fate community know what Jadepunk is. And that’s sad because Jadepunk is awesome (seriously, everybody says so).

“What?! Jadepunk is AWESOME!”

So unless you have the clout, and extreme patience, to build a single system from the ground up, I suggest you…

Distribute Widely

There are more systems than players in today’s market, and most players already have their favorite 2-3 systems that see 99% of the play at their tables. That’s a huge barrier to entry right there.

So what’s a fledgling game designer who wants to sell their shiny new game to do?

I suggest you write up your core setting document, sans system and put that out as a sort of “RPG travelogue.” Most RPG players are pretty smart, able to figure out how to make their favorite system play for film or comic book franchises that are out there, so there’s no reason they couldn’t do the same for your setting.

See where I’m going here?

The unique thing that you have to offer in this instance is your setting, so this approach makes sense. By only releasing the setting (at first, see the next section), you are giving your setting mass market access – anyone can try it out, without having to learn new mechanics. (And what if someone’s table loves your setting, but hates the mechanics you attached it to; they won’t give it the time of day.)

Once your setting is released…

Add SOME Systems

“But I want to play with mechanics,” I hear you saying. Well, this is where you get your chance. Once you release your setting, you can poll your buyers (or Kickstarter backers) and ask what systems they like. Then you can get to work on conversion documents targeted at your audience like a smart missile zeroing in on exactly who is most likely to buy it.

Personally, I wouldn’t make these conversion documents very long; 10-40 pages are probably enough for most systems, but it’s really up to you at this point. And the most beautiful part: by making conversion documents for your setting, you’ve opened the door for others to make them for their tables, increasing the value of your setting to the wider market.

After a few years of applying this method, you would hit the most popular systems out there, and your setting (if it’s good) and it’s conversion documents will sell better than if it were attached to a single system.

What Do You Think?

Does this sound like it would work? I’ll tell you, Jadepunk has been out since 2014, and I know many people who would love to give it a try, because of the setting, but who have a distaste for Fate rules. (Even some of the people who have worked on Jadepunk have said they want to convert it to their preferred systems).

To me, if setting is your thing, this is a no-brainer.

Back to Basics: RPG Mechanics in 20 Words

There are a lot of cool gaming mechanics out there. I mean, a lot! But many games (like Jadepunk, admittedly) were built on the complicated rubrics of other games. This overcomplication, I believe, has resulted in the kind of mechanical bloat that we see in some big name games that require 500 pages, or multiple books, to cover it all. I think it’s time to get back to basics.

In my anecdotal experience, I’ve seen games spring from two places: tabletop wargaming and group storytelling. I’m not going to go into the “story vs. simulation” argument because I think nothing could be more pointless than to argue over how we define fun.

My Perfect Game

Subjective as hell, I know.

As I grow older, and find that I enjoy differentiating between spinning a good yarn and playing some HeroClix, my RPG tendencies lean toward any game that doesn’t require a grid or other tabletop implement – give me character sheets and dice, and I’m good to go. Going “back to basics” means (to me) to head back to a bunch of people getting together to tell a story; but when I (Captain America) decides that a fellow player (Iron Man) needs to have his armor knocked off his face, the other player may not like that, and we need to figure out who gets what. Enter mechanics.

The absolute basic mechanic (and I would argue that this is true even in wargaming) is this 20 word game design:

Player tells the table what they want. GM tells the table what they want. Highest roller gets what they want.

Imagine we’re telling a story and I, as Cap’s player, say that I punch Iron Man’s, your character, lights out. You’d be like No! My armor…is crap compared to my vibranium shield, I retort. Who’s right? Roll your armor against my shield and let’s settle this once and for all.

But that means the armor and the shield need stats; I hear you saying. I answer with am emphatic YES. Give them stats.

And my fighting ability? Sure. Throw that in there. Oh, but now we have two stats, how do they stack? See how this complication thing works? From dice to item stats to skills…next we’ll be talking Cap’s enhanced attributes vs. Iron Man’s toughness and strength. It can be never-ending with this crap. And that’s so damn cool and so damn annoying.

Where Should the Complication End?

That’s as subjective as the kind of games you like to play. And I know that sounds sort of anti-climactic for someone who usually approaches this sort of thing with a voice of authority (which is totally fake, by the way), but that’s how it is.

Think of this as a manifesto of how I intend to approach my future designs: getting back to basics, which I define as the above 20 word game mechanic.

Tabletop RPGs as Solo Adventures

I’ve always found trying to play a roleplaying game solo to be of great interest (maybe because my best friend is my dog), but not a great exercise. Games just don’t support the format. But maybe they could? Maybe the old “choose your own adventure” stories hold a key here?

If you’ve read them, you’ve likely had a similar rush to the one you get when you the GM tells you how terrible your decision turned out for you. If that isn’t what we’re looking for in solo RPGs, I don’t know what is.

Even video games are reinvigorating the “choose your own adventure” format; just look at the success of TellTale Games’ lineup of (great) “choose your own” games.

Customization is the Key

I haven’t played a TellTale game since the first Walking Dead series they released (not for lack of want, let me tell you), but one thing I noticed in that first game, and especially the aforementioned “choose your own” books from the 80’s, is the lack of character customization. And for a tabletop roleplaying game, customization is everything!

My Pitch…

A solo game where you create a character and”play” through a series of adventures, “leveling up” certain skills along the way, as well as gaining new items to use (TellTale uses some of these concepts, but I’m going back to tabletop/fiction stuff now). And those items can have big repercussions for future decisions – “progress through <option A> only if you possess <device option B from the last chapter>.”

That could be a fun exercise for a small DTRPG release next year (Siri, put it on the To Do list), but this is a digital age, we need…multiplayer solo gaming (that’s how you all play your MMOs anyway, amiright?). So we include a posting template on a web page that lets you plug in your choices. Then out comes your personalized story, to share with all of your friends on social media.

So, who’s ready to invest?

What’s the Future of Tabletop Roleplaying Games?

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My thoughts on the Future of Tabletop Roleplaying Games

I believe the future lies not in the multiple 300+ page tomes that must be consumed and memorized before play – because, historically, that has not attracted mainstream appeal – but rather in short documents that can be read and mastered in 20 minutes, and taught in 5 minutes. After that, a (short) tome of advanced rules can be released to give the full (traditional) experience of tabletop gaming.

The topic is subjective as hell, but what do you think the future of RPGs looks like?

Flaws are Great and First Vlog Episode

Did you see my first Vlog post? It’s a follow up on the post I made here last week about letting perfect be the enemy of great. But I said something in it that I felt deserved its own post: “great things have flaws, and perfect things don’t exist.”

And that’s so true. How many things have we seen, from Batman to Fortune 500 companies, that are great, but highly flawed? Can you name the perfect piece of fiction? What about the perfect company? The fact of the matter is nothing that is great is without major flaws and nothing that is perfect actually exists (presently on this Earth, anyway).

Let’s throw away the concept of perfection, embrace and love those flaws that show our humanity, and just focus on making great stuff.

By the way, can you suggest a name for my new vlog? I’m thinking the message will be about second chances, following the activities of a creative producer (likely with quite a few behind the scenes reveals of things like future Jadepunk and Shadowcraft releases).

Discipline for 2017

New Years is upon us, and that means resolutions. Most years, I wait until after Christmas to review the previous year and consider the trajectory of the next, but last night I found a six-year-old notebook. What was in it? Goals. But, more than that, goals that I have not yet achieved, still pursue, and shouldn’t take more than a season to reach. Talk about a lack of discipline.

And can you believe that the first line of the notebook said this:

Seriously!

Now, what was written after that was actually pretty correct: …you just have to do it. Discipline is built through action. The more you do something, the more disciplined you’ll become in keeping with the habit. The only secret to success in the pursuit of discipline is progressive overload (that’s a weightlifting term for starting small and slowly increasing the load until you are achieving epic lifts).

I could lie and say I didn’t know that six years ago, but starting small isn’t sexy enough; screw Steve Rogers or Bucky Barnes, I want to be Captain America today! So, naturally, this goal was something that didn’t get achieved…

I mean, it’s an ambitious (and ambiguous) goal, but it’s not like I didn’t spend most of my life in just that condition. I knew how to get back to it. Patience and discipline, neither of which I had.

One goal I did pursue, in fits and starts, is…

But the sustained effort required to make a living with my writing was not there. And in the last two years, especially, it’s been all over the place.

So what am I going to do about it in 2017?

I’m going to be patient; I’m going to be disciplined. I’m going to start small (yes, those are 5 lb. weights on the literary bar), and I’m going to be patient and keep thinking about the long game.

My goals for 2017 are to: get my business back on track (getting Jadepunk, Shadowcraft, and PME getting regular launch dates and my marketing infrastructure established), publish an Intrepid Story every quarterhit my fitness and martial arts goals (which I won’t post here, because boring to read about if you’re not into that), and document my progress (if I’m successful, then a record of how I did it could be beneficial to others in the future).

Some of those goals require funding that I don’t currently have (but that I do have lined up in January), others require help that I need to procure, but most of them require that I get off my ass and start, but start small.

What are you hoping to accomplish in 2017?