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Interview with Ron Edwards

Posted on July 20, 2004 by Flames

How did you get into gaming?

I’ll restrict “gaming” to mean role-playing in my case, because other activities under that label have meant very little to me. I like board games and card games as well as anyone who’s not a gamer likes them, and I regard wargaming with a kind of bemused shock.

In the middle 1970s, as a pre- and young teen, I was already an avid reader of mythology, fantasy, science fiction, and adventure. To me, “fantasy wargaming” (as it was then called) offered an opportunity to bring my interests into a social group. I didn’t really understand anything about wargaming per se, or the tournament angle on the hobby at all, and thought it was pretty weird. I also thought it was strange that people who didn’t already know who Elric or Frodo were might be interested for some reason.

It’s hard to imagine now, but before Star Wars and Close Encounters, science fiction and fantasy weren’t prominent in pop culture back then – even though at the time, the marginal presence of Star Trek or Dune was considered a big splash by the book and movie industry.

So I played a fair amount of D&D and transitioned into AD&D, but never really felt like I was getting what I wanted out of the activity and only played sporadically. That didn’t happen until 1985, when anyone who knew anything about pop culture was an X-Men fan, and my friends and I discovered Champions.

What do you feel is the biggest issue facing the gaming industry?

To answer that question, you have to put quotes around the word “industry.” Or to put it a little differently, if by “gaming” you mean anything that was ever sold in a game store, including toys and models and whatever, then the industry’s fine – it just doesn’t have much to do with role-playing.

Regarding role-playing, there is no industry as the term is employed for any other sort of commerce. There’s a hobby which occasionally experiences flashes of momentary profit, or occasionally benefits on the fringe of a mainstream kid-craze that’s selling something else.

So, now, to re-phrase this question, what is the biggest issue facing a role-playing publisher, the answer is: don’t confuse yourself into thinking that you’re something you’re not. Never mind “the industry” – instead, concentrate on producing something that really makes you money and can be reliably available to whoever buys it.

That means three things:

1. Game design that really pays off for the customer in terms of enjoyment.

2. Actual and easily-reached commerce (whether through stores, website, or both, however you spin it that works for you), including mechanisms to bring people there. Middlemen are only valuable insofar as they actively work to help this to happen; otherwise, they are parasites.

3. Positive feedback to customers, being available for questions and maintaining an interactive presence that’s equivalent to a letters page in a comic book or an active blog on a film-maker’s website.

What was your most challenging work in the RPG industry?

Converting my PDF version of Sorcerer into a book between GenCon 2000 (when I decided to do it) and GenCon 2001 (when it was released). I certainly had a lot to learn, and every detail of what I was learning showed why most of the decisions people were making about this process were misguided, economically and creatively.

The challenge came from designing and implementing my product according to Idea Set #1 (which I considered to make economic and creative sense) and yet selling it, for immediate purposes, to the “industry” whose members usually went by Idea Set #2 (which I consider, then as now, nonsensical).

By the way, a great deal of this is Dav Harnish’s fault, because I saw Obsidian at GenCon 2000 and was immediately irked that a bunch of black-clad hipsters ten years younger than me had managed to publish a high-quality, very slick RPG and to get it into stores without relinquishing ownership. My eyes narrowed – “one year from now, I’ll do that,” I snarled, internally. Not a very edifying reason, I admit, but there you go.

What was your most rewarding work in the RPG industry?

Well, Sorcerer itself, in terms of being released at all – but most especially in terms of how the game has rewarded me, not so much for writing it, but for using it myself. The book is kind of terrifying, in that every time I play the game with people, I discover a whole new zone of untapped potential applications and principles of role-playing. Then I have to go write another supplement to express that. I like to joke that it’s like the damn thing is itself a demon, re-writing itself under my nose and providing further unexpected insights every time it’s used.

To be absolutely clear: Sorcerer is rewarding to me as a role-player.

What advice do you have for hopeful authors trying to get into the gaming industry?

Quit “hoping.” No one is going to fulfill that hope for you; you are simply going to have to produce a saleable object, market it, and make yourself available to those who buy it. The good news is that it’s easy to do, if you have the ideas, the discipline, and the guts.

Consider that nearly all the advice you will receive is designed, probably inadvertently, to benefit the person you are receiving it from. Either the person is reinforcing his or her own assumptions and beliefs in the misguided notion that the more they say it, the more it’s like to be true; or they occupy a position in the distribution and retail system that benefits maximally from whatever they’re telling you.

Therefore the verifiable details you learn from such advice are very valuable – you should put them into your data bank. But the actual recommendations you receive about what, specifically, to do, are probably meaningful less than 5% of the time.

Where do you get your inspiration? How do you keep your ideas fresh?

Actual play and feedback from others who actually play. It’s all very well to watch a great movie or read a great book, and to say, “Wow, I’d like to role-playing something like that.” But to take a specific example, one of my supplements for Sorcerer, Demon Cops, the transition between watching the movie Wicked City and actually writing a useful supplement for the game was composed of extensive actual play. That’s different from “playtesting” – I’m talking about role-playing which makes it clear that I’m onto something publishable, not role-playing which deals with a text intended for publication in the first place.

How did Sorcerer evolve? Where is it headed?

The history of the game is a very long story. You can read about it at the Sorcerer website and a few other places linked there. There are two points I’ll make here.

1. In all incarnations of the game (file type, book, etc), it has been a profitable venture relative to the costs of that particular incarnation. Adept Press is a business, and it only exists because Sorcerer and my other games make money.

2. I am not a “game designer” in the sense of being some other sort of animal than a plain old role-playing enthusiast. The role-playing comes first; designing games is only a piece or expression of my enjoyment of role-playing as an activity. Publishing those games is only a piece of that piece.

Taken together, these two points add up to a real punch in the nose: don’t split publishing your game into “hobby” vs. “business.” It must arise from and be dedicated to the hobby-activity; it must be handled through viable business decisions. There’s no “either/or” there, unlike many people’s claims.

That’s one of those nonsensical Idea Set #2 concepts I referred to above.

I think that questions like “where is Sorcerer headed” aren’t useful. All I could provide would be meaningless hype (“Sport of the 21st century” and all that sort of thing) or hypocritical humility (“Oh, I just hope I’m still around next year”). Bah to both. It’ll go where it goes, that’s all.

What RPGs are you currently playing? if any?

I play lots and lots. One group and I just finished a wonderful set of sessions of Extreme Vengeance, as well as the brand-new Great Ork Gods, and now we’re trying out a colorful independent game called Hidden Legacy. If I were to give you the list of games I’ve played in the last year alone, we’d be here for a while.

What can you tell us about the Forge?

The Forge began as “Hephaestus’ Forge,” in the late 1990s, when Ed Healy and I decided to promote independent ownership of role-playing games. It wasn’t a discussion site then, as both of us were very active at a site called the Gaming Outpost. After a period of inactivity, the site was renamed The Forge and re-invented by Clinton R. Nixon and me, and it is an extremely active discussion site run by the two of us. It is neither a company nor an organization of any kind, and it is certainly not an imprint for publishing purposes.

The mission of the Forge is to promote independent role-playing, both by making the games more widely known and by providing resources and networking for them to be developed and sold. The key concept is “options” – whether the game is an electronic file or a book, whether it’s to be sold from a backpack or across multinational distribution chains, whether it’s just past the idea stage or seeing its tenth year of development … the Forge can help you decide what to do across all of these and more.

Now, there are some secondary features of the Forge that look like primary ones, because they’re more obvious at first glance. The most important feature is how we conduct discussions there – it’s not at all like most internet sites. Courtesy is paramount, and I don’t mean empty stuff like saying “sir” instead of “you stupid butt-head,” but real courtesy and standards for discourse. Participants are expected to communicate, not merely to proclaim their opinions. Clinton is the format moderator and I’m the content moderator, and our word is law. We don’t ban people nor delete posts, but we rely on building a sense of community which self-polices conduct there, and it’s an effective method.

The second feature of this kind is the heavy emphasis on ideas, or “theory” of role-playing. By “theory,” we don’t mean airy-fairy speculation; we mean “ideas which make maximum sense.” It’s a pretty heavy-duty atmosphere and takes a lot of getting used to, but everyone is welcome if they can grasp the tasks and goals. A lot of people associate my own “big model” of role-playing with the Forge, and it’s true that a whole forum there is dedicated to it – but that’s just one of the many ideas and issues that get worked over.

However, I’d like to emphasize that the Actual Play forum is really the most important forum at the site. It’s where both proposed designs and theoretical conclusions see their testing. Almost as important is the Publishing, which is full of nuts & bolts about all the economic and logistic options of seeing your game become a viable product.

Oh yes – and independent publishers may acquire specialty forums, which they moderate (not me), dedicated to their games. The Riddle of Steel is especially actively discussed there, as well as games like The Burning Wheel, Universalis, and My Life with Master. Authors such as Cynthia Celeste Miller (Cartoon Action Hour) and Jared A. Sorensen (octaNe, InSpectres) used these forums as jumping-off points for their games and ideas.

In addition to the forums, the Forge includes a Resource Library where artists and useful links may be registered, quite a few articles and reviews, and more.

You do a lot of Conventions, what makes a good Con experience and what makes you groan?

I actually don’t do that many. Cons are expensive, and more importantly, my time is very limited. However, the best Con experience for me arises out of networking. Either a fellow publisher or author makes a point of sharing valuable information and advice, or I’m able to help someone who wants to publish, or both. Great play is easy; I get that all the time, so a Con isn’t going to provide me with anything special (and my range of games to play is maximally wide already). And I have no special interest in “being there” for the publication of any particular new game. So it’s all about the help and communication among fellow authors and publishers, and about helping people who are interested in doing it themselves.

That concept has been put into practice in a major way. In 2002, I decided to transform the Adept Press booth at GenCon into a kind of little convention of its own, in the exhibit hall. With the help of other publishers (e.g. Driftwood Publishing), we were able to marshal the resources and enthusiasm of the Forge into an amazing experience based on short demos (actual play) and a coffee-house discussion atmosphere, as well as constant sales, for many, many games. I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that the Forge community transformed from a “who? what?” into *the* go-to idea factory at GenCon practically overnight. I received the Diana Jones Award in 2002 and was invited as a GenCon Guest of Honor in 2003 on the strength of this sort of activism as well as (in the first case) Sorcerer as a game.

The booth at 2003 was even more powerful, and we’re all under way for this year. Luke Crane (Burning Wheel) is also spearheading a small-con, multi-title promotion approach on the east coast that he calls “Forge East,” and we might see lots of more of that in the year to come.

What’s next for you?

Here’s the current snapshot.

1. Elfs, a game I first published in PDF form in 2000, is now available in book form. I’d like to do the same with my more recent game Trollbabe – money isn’t an issue (Elfs paid for its own first print run within four days of sales) – but time may be an issue.

2. I’d like to publish Demon Cops as a fourth print supplement for Sorcerer in early 2005, as well as a more general book or essay about role-playing.

3. I love the Trollbabe comics that I write, which are illustrated by different artists for each story. It’s a dream come true, although I am a fairly inept scribbler, artistically speaking. But I’m learning, and I love doing it, so expect to see that happening indefinitely.

4. As mentioned above, I’m gearing up for the Forge booth at GenCon again as well as supporting “spawned” programs and efforts around the country – and with any luck, internationally. I’m especially excited about the recent Scandinavian presence on the Forge, as the role-playing culture in that part of the world is exceptionally sophisticated and ell-supported by the larger culture.

For more information on Ron Edwards, visit The Forge or Adept Press.

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