Every year, Gen Con, accompanied by the not as hyperbolic as you might think slogan “the best four days in gaming,” descends upon downtown Indianapolis. Part fan gathering, part sales convention, Gen Con represents the biggest launch opportunity for both large and small board game companies. To have a game at Gen Con is an crucial opportunity for American game publishers, as close to sixty thousand potential customers will have the chance to look and purchase over the course of the weekend. Each year, major publishers compete for booth space and promotion, with events and promotions everywhere you look. This year, all hotel keys had Bob Ross’s smiling face in preparation for a new game made with backing from Target. The lanyards had Buffy characters, courtesy of Upper Deck. Huge, wall sized posters of Starfinder, the most talked about RPG of the convention, adorned every corner of the hall.
In contrast to that, there is a growing number of smaller publishers and DIY gaming enthusiasts no longer trying to compete or work with large companies, but instead trying to forge and bolster their own community. Zak Smith, renowned painter and founder of the “D&D with Porn Stars” blog, spent most of his time at the Lamentation of the Flame Princess booth (think Dungeons & Dragons but with weird fantasy and horror themes), taking in the sights and ruminating on the changes within the DIY community. He was blunt when asked about the advantages of working within a smaller community.
“The art is better, the layout is better, everything is. We’re at the point where publishing is cheap enough and the talent pool is starved enough that we can do literally better work and you can do it in this sphere, and also not just compared to mainstream publishing but also compared to what you can do in a lot of other spheres”, Smith said excitedly when talking about his newest game, Demon City, currently on Patreon. He went on to offer a comparison point from his own experiences: “It’s just a simple fact that every time I’ve worked with a mainstream company, there’s imperatives from either the fans or the perception of what the fans want from the parent company that provides the money that make the game worse.”
Smith was clear that DIY game creation was not only creatively advantageous, but financially as well. Standing next to Patrick Stuart, with whom he collaborated a few year previous, he simply stated “So in order for [a major publication company] to make money, they need to appeal to 30,000 people to pay their writers, and for us to make money we need to appeal to 3,000 people and everything over that is an extra.” To drive home his point, he told an anecdote about describing to China Mieville how much he makes on each book he sells. Mieville’s response? “We should write a game.”
Smith came to Gen Con last year as well, and was shocked at how ponderous he felt the big game companies had become. As he tells it, at some meet and greet, creators from major companies were effusive in their praise, and all lamented the fact that they felt hand cuffed by the demands of publishing for such a broad audience. Smith had an epiphany and spent the next year building and communicating within the DIY scene. “I can throw a better party than these people”, he jokes now, and was proven right as a penthouse hotel room was crammed full of seemingly half of Gen Con until it was shut down when five separate floors lodged noise complaints simultaneously.
Speaking to Stuart separately, he echoed Smith’s appraisal of the advantages of indie publishing rather succinctly. “We can be a lot weirder than they can,” he explained while discussing Veins of the Earth, his award winning RPG setting, a literal deep dive in to the fantasy civilizations living within the earth. With rules on light deprivation coupled seamlessly with the histories of both mythical creatures and entire cultures, it is as impressive a feat of world building as any narrative fantasy book produced in recent years. A few hours prior to Veins winning “silver” for best writing at The ENnies, an indie game awards ceremony, Stuart was introspective about what pushes creators forward within the community. “A combination of basically print on demand, blogs, G+ and various sort of things brought play, publishing and ideas really close together,” he began. “So you’ve got people who are playing games online all the time with each other, they’re all doing blogs and trying to compete with each other but also impress each other.”
While Stuart and Smith were both established commodities within the game publishing world, Mike Evans, a relative newcomer who burst on to the scene when his game Hubris (if D&D is ‘70s prog rock and old Conan serials, Hubris is Pantera and Clive Barker novels) won a silver ENnie for best ebook, echoed some of their sentiments. When asked if perhaps the community was insular and exclusionary for newcomers, he emphatically stated that “It’s always been pretty damn welcoming,” mentioning how the response and encouragement he got from established creators on his blog years before breaking in kept him writing and producing on his own time. To Evans, the DIY gaming community mirrors another recent movement: “the DIY community are the craft brewers of the RPG world, because we all know that we’re in competition with each other on a slight level, but it’s…like oh, okay, cool. This guy did this, this guy did this, and there’s a sharing, communal sense.”
While every fandom has issues below the surface and no community is a monolith, the passion and energy within the independent RPG publishing world at the con is infectious, and the participation and popularity is growing with each passing year. Walking around at a massive thing like Gen Con, the major publishers are consistently busy, with lines for product and crowded demo tables. And yet, merely a few rows over, small booths stacked with books and manned with creators feels almost entirely different, like a zine swap meet that somehow broke out at an industry only meet and greet. “Most people have a game and they play it, and they could play that game for the rest of their life. But they come here because they want something else out of the experience, and very few of the games are giving people that second thing,” Smith said, in between showing people some new art for Demon City and answering a question on Red and Pleasant Land, his Dracula meets Alice in Wonderland game setting.
These small booths and nondescript logos are where people can find that second thing, if they’re willing to search. As things like Game of Thrones take over the pop culture landscape, more and more people are finding their way back to a hobby that defined a phase of their adolescence, one that allowed them to conquer evil or save a princess and for a few hours a week simply live in someone else’s skin. Now, as those children grow and look for ways to rekindle those wonderful memories, the ease and breadth of self-publishing has created an entirely new world for them to return to. Standing along a wall, listening to Smith speak over the tens of thousands of people walking past, his voice already hoarse halfway through the first day, Patrick Stuart threw out a small invitation. “If you are a lapsed roleplayer and you haven’t seen anything in a while, you should know,” pausing for effect. “If you’re interested in other fiction and stuff and you’ve branched out, take a look at what people are doing now, because there’s really way more influences and way more adult, sophisticated, complicated things, and way more variety of people working on this stuff than you might expect.”