FOMO, Peak PbtA, and the Golden Age of Gaming

Living through a golden age of game design is not awesome if you’re an aspiring game designer. Or a player, for that matter.

Just this week — and we’re on Tuesday, mind you — I’ve already seen two new PbtA games on Kickstarter. Just this month I’ve backed two (Andrew Medeiros and Ash Kreider’s The Watch, and Alas for the Awful Sea by folks I don’t know and can’t nail down here in the Plus). And that’s just PbtA. I also backed Jason Pitre’s new edition of Sig: Manual of the Primes this month.

Let’s see…in the past 12 months I’ve backed 19 completely original games, four supplements, and two new editions (you can probably guess which ones). Just in terms of practicality, I’d have to run a completely new game every … 3ish weeks this year just to give them all a spin. I think the pace is exhausting me and my players, and many/most of my backs are probably just going to sit on my shelf.

I’m still deciding on how I feel about spending $25 or so on a game I’m honestly going to run once, if at all. I’m happy to have backed them for Kickstarter-y “support the creator” reasons, but still. But still.

Let’s not get into the boardgames I’ve backed, too — another golden age I can’t keep up with. I’d have to play games literally 6 times a month to try everything.

On the designer side, I think I’m closing in on understanding this really tough mental/emotional obstacle I’ve been struggling with for months now.

So like…The Watch, right? Looks great. Night Witches inspired military drama in a light fantasy setting. Fantastic, I’m all in. Looks like there are several clans that characters, maybe playbooks, center on, and they’re all themed/rooted in various animal types: bear clan is maternal and protective, owl clan is sly and sneaky, and so on. It’s great. Meanwhile, I’m sitting on my third year of fucking around with Monsterknights, which takes on the fantasy thing in a completely different way, literally no crossover at all other than the animal/character thing. And then I’m like “welp, that’s what you get for sitting on it for so long.” Not for creative reasons, just mindshare reasons.

Our golden age is such a hothouse and so high pressure, at least from where I’m sitting (on the sidelines, not sure when or how to make my move). In terms of pure commerce, I almost certainly need to reframe/reskin my design so there aren’t two light fantasy PbtA games with animal identifiers. And that’s fine, not even that hard. But it’s one more mental/emotional obstacle to overcome, one more “why bother, ugh, wait long enough and someone will design your game for you.”

So I guess that’s where I’m at.

There are so very many PbtAs out there. There are so many good, occasionally great, games out there. We’re starting to see excellent coverage on major genres and some neat variety within those genres: The Watch and Epyllion and vanilla Dungeon World and Brendan Conway’s Chaos Worlds all trivially sit side by side but how many more sides are there? Dunno.

How many more games will people buy/support? Is there an upper limit? I confess I may be projecting my own upper limit onto the world, here.

Feeling: #existential

0 thoughts on “FOMO, Peak PbtA, and the Golden Age of Gaming”

  1. Speaking as a consumer, I’m at my saturation point. There are many games I would love to support, but financially I must, more often than I’d like, say no. Saying no is made much easier knowing I could never play every game in my pile of shame as it is.

  2. There’s definitely an issue of consumer mindshare that can be daunting to an unpublished designer. I know that I wasn’t thrilled to hear that a ‘successful’ (read: delivered a successful kickstarter) designer was working on a game with much of the same setting and theme as mine, and even some similar mechanics.

    I think the games are sufficiently distinct and the market sufficiently broad that both of us can succeed separately, but I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t at least 30 seconds of “well why am I even bothering”.

  3. Hate to break it to you on animal stuff but…
    – animal-based stats in The Wildlings
    – zodiac animal classes in The Mountain Witch
    – probably more, it’s not something worth worrying about

    There were, like, 3-4 cyberpunk PBTA games that came out last year. Doesn’t seem like it’s a problem yet. Actually might be a good thing in the long run because it’s now impossible for a single game to dominate an entire genre the way that Dungeon World has. If you look at Vincent’s lists, a lot of the fantasy stuff is a supplement for DW, whereas other genres are much more diverse.

    It’s totally true that PBTA games are getting to the point that indie games got around 2007-2008 or so, where it’s no longer possible to own and be familiar with all of them. This is great, no? It’s not possible to watch every film that’s released, or even every horror film. That forces people to be more selective, so we’ll probably get more targeted idiosyncratic PBTA games that try to appeal to specific interests (rather than broad genre emulations).

  4. John W. Sheldon, I had the exact same feels when I started getting serious with Urban Shadows. Monsterhearts was already a thing and someone had just announced work on a modern day fairy tale game and I had to ask myself ‘do we really need more modern fantasy pbta?’. Clearly people were into more, and of course the end products were different enough to stand out from one another; but it’s scary to stand on that point and face it.

  5. For me, I go to a book store and get bargain books I’ll read years later and aren’t bothered by it, so buying stuff I might only play once or read once isn’t a big deal. But I have had to back off how many things I help fund, just because of my buying power in CAD$.

    I examine each project by value like page count, size, b/w, and especially what shipping costs and the final $ amount. A lot of games lately price me out, but PbtA games generally are nice and cheap. Movie tickets are like 16$ here, so if I figure I’ll play a one shot or two shot it’s worth double a movie ticket and I’ll help out the creators. I’ll especially back something if they go out of their way to give backers something they otherwise wouldn’t get.

    For instance The Veil was way cheaper for backers, I think you need to incentivize backers that way, it kind of leaves a bitter taste in my mouth when it’s just a pre order thing and it’s the same price as when it comes out and the exact same product. Something limited or just a few dollars cheaper. Just show me the backers matter more than just the average joe who picks it up later. That’s my 2 cents.

  6. J. Walton that’s already happening too, I think. With instead of genre emulation they’re becoming super focused on a specific story instead of the entirety of a genre. I don’t mind that at all though!

  7. I’ve recently been treating most new PbtA games the same as traditional “campaign settings”. Most of these games certainly do really neat things, and have novel moves and things, but really, it’s not going to play all that different from other PbtA games. So I evaluate them based on if it will play with my groups. If not, then I don’t need it.

    I’ve also reached a bit of PbtA burnout myself, and am looking toward other games for novelty and ideas now.

  8. As someone who is less “aspiring designer” and more “constant tinkerer”, and as someone who has a hard realistic cap of how many RPGs I’m going to play in a given year (almost certainly not more than 50 sessions or 8 different games), I’m feeling this hard right now.

    Honestly, I’m more inclined to back PbtA games because they take up less new neural space. “Oh this is different because X” is easier for me to read rapidly and store than learning a whole new system/setting/etc. I’d say that impulse is 80% of why I passed on Age of Anarchy, for example. But I’m reaching a financial limit on even that, as well as a give-a-shit limit and a shelf-space limit. That goes double for games that have “optional” (but not really optional) cards as add-on extras, or have expensive-but-large-and-beautiful props. Between my reduced Canadian buying power, the ever-growing cost of shipping, and the fact that my bookshelves are all exploding with stuff, I don’t have room in my heart, wallet, or home for big messy games.

    Trying to back PDF-only is a bummer, because even if I manage to get around to reading a PDF game, I often won’t run it, because without a physical artifact, I forget it exists and don’t propose it to my players. Not to mention that I think every single cool game I’ve backed digital-only has gone into a Bundle of Holding within 2 years, sometimes before I’ve even managed to read it, let alone run it.

    I backed The Watch because of the names attached and the cool factor of the project, but that’s only going to get me so far, and only so many times.

    I’m no expert, but I feel like the various markets that operate on my consumption of RPGs are all bubbles about to burst.

  9. I’ll especially back games exploring subject matter I’m interested in, The Watch exploring toxic masculinity with the extra awesome setting attached with only female protagonists is important design work, as far as I’m concerned. The designers are awesome but even more compelling is the trend towards the exploration of real and substantial issues in our games.

    That coupled with a team that’s not just white dudes is pretty much guaranteed to get my money. I’ve been reading a ton of cyberpunk lately and every piece of fiction I’ve read that is compelling also has these components in them.

    Relevance and diversity make for the best cyberpunk I’ve ever read! For that reason I’ll rearrange my spending to back projects with an eye on these things. Because I don’t think it’s just interesting, I think it’s more important than most of the things I purchase. It’s a design trend that deserves to be rewarded more than other projects, imo.

  10. On a designer level I’m definitely sensing a pressure building. I understand the existential dread because it really does feel like a foot race sometimes and one that I lose fairly often. On the other hand as a whole I feel like we’re moving towards particularly focused games later that will probably stave off the bubble burst for at least a little while longer. I’m not particularly sure what a bubble burst in this market is going look like though.

    On a consumer level this is actually the first time in like a year where I don’t think I have more than a single kickstarter outstanding besides waiting for a couple of physical copies to ship or arrive like Blades and Veil. That’s for a couple reasons like spreading kickstarters throughout the household with way more games that my partner was interested in having for herself and tight budget during novembergeddon but it’s still the first time that has happened in basically ever since most my leisure bucks have been pretty heavily invested in Kickstarter since the ransom model days.

  11. With every passing year I’m less and less tempted by the new, especially when it comes to RPG’s. I still love RPG’s and play RPG’s but I’ve hit a point where I’m pretty good with my cultivated collection. I think partly because I side with the more traditional side of gaming and the RPG influx tends to be more narrative driven it’s got to really stand out to even draw my attention, this seems to be double so on the indie/kickstarter side of the thing where it’s more like new game of the week.

    On board games I’m a little more willing to take changes and follow the new. Board games in terms of investment in time and group dynamics have a much lower entry barrier. I also can feel some what accomplished after one or two plays of it and even if I don’t play it again for 6 months it’s cool, because unlike an RPG the continuous flow doesn’t matter.

    I also find each board game experience to be more individual then re-skinning the same RPG engine over and over again.

  12. Fraser Simons True. It’s also, I think, partially that a lot of the major genres are covered now, so if you’re gonna make “another” PBTA game in a genre, you’re either thinking (1) what do I want to say about the genre that’s different than Game X? or (2) how can I deal with certain parts of the genre in a better / more interesting way than Game X, which has some known weaknesses now? But sometimes it’s just random, based on what stuff people have been developing, like how we’re going to get 4-5 thief TRPGs this year (Blades in the Dark, Project: Dark, Dusk City Outlaws, etc.).

  13. As a consumer, I’m slowing down. Less money, and a big backlog of stuff to play.

    I also have a nagging feeling that I’m engaging with games superficially. Not giving them enough time, playing just one or a few sessions here or there.

    Fortunately, I do not design.

    Also, I want that fucking game, Beakley.

  14. (This is going to sound bonkers, but imagine a sort of PbtA FLAILSNAILS. For a very limited set of games, there’s character portability in terms of stats and a couple of other numbers, but the base moves change from game to game.)

  15. (Michael Prescott Um Kirt Dankmyer has Cross World which I think is trying to do that sort of thing.)

    I have sort of a dumb statement: I have enough games. What I look for now is inspiration. One of the cool things you can get from PbtA games is inpspiration for stuff in other PbtA games. For example, I once pulled in the Sagas “Tempt Fate” basic move for a nanomachine riddled character – the 7-9 result gave 1-hold to the nanomachines to be spent based on the character doing what the hive mind wanted.

    This is where my brain goes now: Will this new thing help inspire me in the games/genres/worlds I want to play in? I can;t usually tell up front from kickstarters, so have been passing

  16. I sort of feel that these issues are part what you said, exactly, and partly about collector and completionist impulses, partly about community status and positioning, partly about the odd liminal zone of friendship and consumerism where you pay money to play products of freinds design that maybe sometimes you helped create, partly about different expectations of play (both between groups and within ourselves, and between ourselves now and ourselves ten years ago when we put down our unexamined expectations about what play is), partly about market forces and how little we actually understand them, and… Probably more.

    It is, in short, a mess.

  17. But still!

    Talking to alumni from my school, they related that, in their day, the university library subscribed to all the journals in the field and all grad students were expected to have read all the new papers each month. This was unimaginable to us given the number of journals and volume of papers now published.

    While designing The Warren, I definitely felt compelled to have/have read every available PbtA game, published and upcoming, to develop a comprehensive understanding of the design space. I was lucky to have begun work when that was possible. It’s now an unreasonable expectation and counterproductive strategy if you hope to publish your own game.

    Since then, I’ve backed many but not all of the PbtA games and have yet to read many of them (or I read them in development and forget to read the finished work).

  18. At Gencon a few years ago, new acquaintance Hamish Cameron and I realized we were both working on PbtA cyberpunk games: it was fantastic! We ran a playtest of each for each other, and they were radically different, despite verrrry similar inspirations, which made for some solid collaboration and conversations.

    If you’re working on a thing, and it’s similar to another thing, there’s some chance of audience confusion/burnout, sure. But you’re also gaining a community of people who get it, who are dealing with the same tangled possibility space you are, people you can talk to. Hamish’s work turned into The Sprawl, mine became the Singapore Sling transmission for Technoir, but those conversations were the real winning bit for me.

    And some people that played either were probably frustrated with some of their contents, wish they were more or less or different or better, and even if they didn’t have the bandwidth to make it themselves, they probably wished there was an alternative. If the thing you make is good, it’ll find its audience, and likely some of that will come from folks dissatisfied in whole or in part with adjacent games. Their frustration likely isn’t with the PbtA bit, so that makes the transition easier.

    And don’t forget the Jason Corley principle: once it’s out of your hands, people are gonna do all kinds of things you didn’t expect with it. Maybe only one move will be the part they love, hack, blog about, and discard the other parts you love as dross. But you’ll still have made the thing to your own satisfaction, and added another brick to the vast edifice of This Thing of Ours, and that’s winning too.

  19. Man, people are still releasing 100 different exact duplicates of D&D a year and SOMEONE is buying them. Just do your thing and if you never actually publish it, but get it into a form where it’s fun and good for your group, that’s all you need to achieve virtue, and all beyond that, as the Oracle at Delphi once said, is gravy.

  20. All I’m saying is that your Monsterknights game better be 100% different than the monster knights game that me and Christian Griffen created a Google Doc brainstorm thing about last weekend. Or we will end you.

  21. J. Walton psh, I can take Christian. And maybe you. Not at the same time though, that’s cheating!

    (I should probably just wait for you two to design my game for me, like always.)

  22. I used to keep up with the latest in story games, but I haven’t the last couple years. Now I’m making a game for my group and I’m liking it enough to think about going further. It is NOT PbtA, but after reading this I’m still feeling like I’ll be that guy that puts out the fantasy heartbreaker that he thinks is going to revolutionize gaming and beat D&D and that everyone laughs at. I’ll be like, “Vincent Baker and Luke Crane ain’t got nothin’ on my game!” And everyone will be like, “The Ottawa collective made something like that last year – only way better.” And then I’ll say, “Where the fuck is Ottawa?!?”

    Actually, that sounds fun. I’ll just go full tilt and claim that my game is the newest, originalist thing since Fiasco and you be a damn fool if you don’t play it. Tell Morningstar I’m comin’ for the crown! (In a few years when I finish the game, know what I’m saying?)

    I’d like to think you can make a better game if you aren’t paying attention to everything and you’re just making your game the best it can be. But do we see that happen? I think it is hard in RPG or board games to make something really good without being fairly current so your game doesn’t feel dated.

  23. For me the question is “why are you designing”?

    I design games because I want to play something that doesn’t exist yet. If other people like it, great. If they don’t, just make sure you’re not throwing money into a hole, and you’re good.

    (Also MonsterKnights sounds cool.)

  24. I tend not to back clones, and anything with PbtA falls in that category. There are new story ideas there, but if someone I know wants to explore that setting, then they’ll buy the book themselves and no one else will need to. The mechanics are largely interchangeable. So, eh.

    If something comes along speaking of new ways to do something, new mechanics, well, that has my attention.

  25. Peak Indie for me was this weekend, ’cause the FLGS got in a big consignment from IPR. I picked up Epyllion, Cartel, Mythos World, and Masks, and was more than a little relieved to pick up a couple Fate games (Iron Edda and Interface Zero 2.0) as well as some genuine oddities like the Aegis Project and Blazing Hearts (or Saddles). Got to pick this stuff up when it shows up ’cause it’s feast or famine.

  26. Hello, I am one of the Alas for the Awful Sea people. I dont get on G+ as often as i should, however I’m very glad i saw this post as I’ve really enjoyed hearing what you all think on this.

    My POV is pretty close to Hamish. When i have an idea for a game the question for me is, is there a game already which tells the story i want to tell? If yes i go play that game. If not i make my own game.

    Importantly here i am talking about story not genre or system. As mentioned earlier, 2 pta cyberpunk games can tell stories that are completely different!

    But yeah like many of you i make games because it is a stupid and wonderful compulsion that keeps me up at night. And also like many of you Feb has been too amazing and I’m already broke 🙂

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