I’ve known Shannon Appelcline, the mastermind of RPG.net, for nearly a decade. I write a column for RPG.net titled The Horror!, I’ve written numerous reviews for the site, and participate in the forums on occasion. When I found out Shannon was coming out with his own book on role-playing games I jumped on the opportunity to interview him.
Michael Tresca (MT): Your experience makes you uniquely qualified to write this book. Can you elaborate on how your gaming background helped you craft it?
Shannon Appelcline (SA): My best experience comes from the fact that I’ve been the active force behind RPGnet since 2002 or 2003. That’s really helped me to keep a finger on the pulse of the industry as I’ve worked with advertisers and columnists and of course participated in the forums. However, it was probably the creation of the RPGnet Gaming Index that really readied me for the book.
I started the RPGnet index project after coming back from GenCon ’05 and at every stage I learned something of use for the book. I immediately had to think about all of the elements that make up a roleplaying book–from author and publisher to game system and setting. Then I entered thousands of products into the index and approved thousands more entries submitted by others. Today we’ve got almost 16,000 games in the index plus another 2,000 magazines, all of which crossed my computer screen at some point until the point where another editor came aboard to help. Even ignoring the research I’ve done to make sure some of those entries were right, a lot seeped into my brain through osmosis.
Beyond that, I’ve been playing RPGs since around 1980, occasionally freelanced in the industry since the early ’90s, and even worked full time for Chaosium from 1996-1998. So I’ve got a pretty good perspective as both an insider and a fan over a decent span of time.
MT: There’s a distinct lack of history in the tabletop gaming industry, which is why I wrote my own book, The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games. What made you decide to write Designers & Dragons?
SA: Pure chance. I started writing some articles about the history of roleplaying companies for RPGnet in late 2006. It’s one of several columns I’ve written for RPGnet over the years, and there was no indication that it’d be any different from the others. However, two things quickly indicated that it was something special.
First, I got a lot of enthusiasm for the columns. Today, every one of those columns that I wrote from 2006-2007 is among RPGnet’s most popular articles of all time. My first article, on Wizards of the Coast, even went viral on slashdot. Second, Lisa Stevens suggested that it might be worthwhile to bring everything together into a book. It took four years to get everything together, but from about January 2007 onwards, I was moving these columns toward publication in a book rather than online.
MT: Why did you choose the title Designers & Dragons?
SA: Titles are the toughest thing. Though I always knew that the subtitle of the book should be “The History of the Roleplaying Industry”, it took me years to come up with a title that was both exciting and caught the essence of the book. I suspect I put together 20 or 30 options over the years, none of which generated particular enthusiasm. Everything from “Power Word: Publish” to “d50” (back when I thought there would only be 50 histories).
Then, in the days before I sent off the penultimate draft to Mongoose, I was suddenly struck by the title we’ve selected: Designers & Dragons. It just seemed to fit perfectly. Not only was it a play on the name of the primordial RPG, but its elements really described the book. Though the book is arranged by company, it focuses quite a bit on the designers who actually made those companies possible. And, if anyone ever drew a map of the roleplaying industry, there’d have to be a big warning that said, “Here there be dragons.” That’s because–much to their surprise–many of these designers have run into real-world dragons when they decided to wrestle with professional publication.
There are any number of publishers who had been put out of business (or nearly so) by financial mismanagement, accounting malfeasance, and even outright theft. That doesn’t even touch upon the boardroom battles for control of companies nor the potentially abusive use of contracts and lawsuits. When innocent creativity runs face first into harsh reality, the result often isn’t pretty. So, designers and their dragons.
MT: What made you decide to use a company structure as a format for the book?
SA: Again, it was pure chance. When I started entering data into the RPGnet Gaming Index back in late 2005, I went through my collection of T4 books by Imperium Games. When I got through with them, I wondered, “How did this company manage to put out so many books in such a short time period and then disappear off the face of the Earth?” The industry is full of that sort of question, which is what I think has made my company histories popular.
I could have just let that question hang, but something drove me to find out more, so I started digging through old USENET archives and magazines from the era, and eventually I had the story of the rise and fall of Imperium. I’m a writer, so it was a natural next step to put what I’d learned into writing. The result was somewhere between 1000 and 1500 words long, and it was a bit skeletally bare, but it ended up being a great blueprint for a whole series of articles. (I eventually extended it to about 3500 words for the book.)
Ironically, that Imperium article never got published online. I was worried about some discussions of financial theft (there are those dragons again!), and I wanted to get the information just right, so I had some people who were aware of the issues vetting it for me. As a result, it wasn’t ready for publication when I got my RPGnet column started, and it never quite fit into sequence before I brought the column to an end (so that I could work on a print book).
In any case, from there on my path was set. And, as it turns out, it was a really good model. There have been a few brief histories of the industry printed elsewhere, in books like Sean Fannon’s The Fantasy Role-Playing Gamer’s Bible, but none of them could possibly go into the depth that I was able to by focusing on a huge number of companies, and examining how those companies both embodied and advanced industry trends.
MT: How much do you cover the other hobby games? How are they relevant to the history of tabletop RPGs?
SA: They appear when they’re relevant to the roleplaying history. That means that you see miniatures at the start of the industry and CCGs for most every company that existed in the mid-1990s. You can’t underestimate the importance of these other hobbyist industries, as there were a few roleplaying companies that were directly taken down by their CCGs–ICE, Mayfair, and almost Chaosium–and then there were quite a few others that went down due to the erratic RPG purchasing that CCGs caused. When companies went big into board games, that also appears.
Thus, you get a discussion of the origins of the ‘eurogame’ in the Mayfair article. PBMs appear thanks to Flying Buffalo and there’s a big box on computer RPGs in the TSR article.
So, there’s lots of different stuff covered, because many of the hobbyist industries tend to run together at times.
MT: In your foreword you mention trends emerging throughout the book. What’s the foremost major trend driving the industry today?
SA: I think it’s somewhat hard to see trends when you’re still inside them. The shapes become more obvious in retrospect. However, there are three things going on right now that have the potential to be revolutionary.
Most obviously, you have story-game ideas (or narrativist ideas or indie ideas or whatever you want to call them) increasingly sneaking into the industry. There are at least three companies pushing this, which I think is enough to clearly delineate a trend. First, you have Evil Hat, who’s done very well with their Dresden Files RPG. And, I think they’re representative of other indie publishers getting more attention. Second, you have Cubicle 7 not only directly building on Evil Hat’s work with Fate, but also getting other indie publishers like Arc Dream attention.
Third, you have Margaret Weis Publishing, a pretty mainstream company, using ideas straight from the indie community for Smallville and Leverage.
If I had to make a bet, I’d say that’s going to be the trend that’s most obvious when we look back from 2016. But, there are two other things going on that could be a big change.
On the one hand, you have Wizards of the Coast who certainly looks like they’re trying to convert book-buying patterns into an online subscription model.
On the other hand, you have Paizo who is doing their best to out-Wizards the Wizards from five years ago. Not only are they getting lots of support, but they’ve also got some great sales plans of their own, specifically a subscription model for all of their print products.
Though it’s less likely, I think it’s possible that 5 years from now you could say the trend was either RPG companies moving to online subscriptions or Paizo taking a big chunk out of Wizards’ business.
MT: Have you seen a boom-bust cycle to gaming? And if so, do you think there’ll be another upswing in tabletop RPGs?
SA: The RPG industry has gone through a boom and bust cycle every decade. In the early ’80s, after the early rush into the industry, you had a glut of “generic fantasy” RPG publishers who went away, Judges Guild among them. Of course TSR almost died in that bust too. Some RPG companies were also affected by the black and white comics boom and bust of the late ’80s, because they had more distributors in common at the time. In the ’90s you had the CCG boom and bust, which played out largely in the RPG industry. Then in the ’00s you had the d20 boom and bust.
I think the tabletop RPG industry would be in an upswing right now if not for our Wall-Street-driven Great Recession, which hasn’t ended no matter what the government’s accountants say. I hope that as the economy slowly grows, we’ll see RPG growth again, because we certainly should have moved past the damage caused by the d20 bust. But I also think it’d be foolish to expect the industry to return to 2001-2002 levels–just like we’re not going to return to the big years of the early ’80s, when D&D pushed into Toys ‘R Us and B. Dalton.
For those high-stepping boom times, we really need the next big thing, and I’m not 100% sure that the RPG industry has a 4th big thing in it.
MT: Where will the book be available?
SA: I selected Mongoose as a publisher because I knew they had great distribution. So, hopefully the answer is “everywhere”.
MT: When will the book be available?
SA: Mongoose says August. I’ve got my fingers crossed because I’d love to see it as a GenCon release, but it’s a pretty hugely big book so if it takes longer to get out, it takes longer to get out…
MT: Anything else you’d like to add?
SA: The book has been 5 years in preparation, so I’m pretty thrilled to see it finally moving toward actual publication! Thanks for the interest & questions!