Thursday, 5 November 2015

The Economics, Anthropology and Sociology of Small Press RPG Publishing

If you were going to caricature neo-classical economics you'd say that it's bullshit because people don't just act to maximise their wealth and react to economic incentives in their commercial behaviour. Actually what they choose to make, what they choose to sell, and who they choose to sell it to, is governed by all manner of irrational choices. This is perfectly true. People do things because they like them. Or because their father did them. Or because they don't think they can do anything else. And so on.

I listened to this episode of Econtalk with huge interest earlier today. It's full of fascinating observations, but one of them is that traditional economic textbooks and economic studies of the firm tend to start off with supply and demand: what determines how much stuff a firm produces? But actually this is in many ways the least interesting thing you could possible discuss, and ignores much more fundamental questions - how do people choose what market to be in? Why do they make the things they make?

Somebody could write an interesting article about the DIY RPG hobby. Here you have a selection of people around the world who are largely working on RPG products part-time, who are doing so mostly because they enjoy it (and partly because it makes them some money), and who seem to plough quite a lot of the profits they get back into the industry by buying other people's stuff. Customers buy products partly based on what is good, but also, I think, partly out of a sense of good will: there is a feeling of comradeship in the hobby that influences purchases. There no awareness of or care for economic profit - I daresay I could have made much more money using the time I spent producing Yoon-Suin by doing something else. But that doesn't account for the pleasure I got out of it.

Adam Smith was a genius because he understood this so well: we may "truck, barter and exchange" in some contexts, but actually things like emotion, reputation, and our sense of how others see us is of much greater significance in others. Yoon-Suin may not have been economically profitable, but it was certainly profitable in other ways, if you mean by "profit" the enjoyment of seeing the finished product (despite its flaws), the pleasure of hearing that other people are using it, and, let's face it, the ego boost that comes from people telling me it's good. There may have been an opportunity cost associated with the project (I could have made much more money doing freelance translation work) but think of the opportunity cost in pleasure associated with doing things that you find boring!

Somebody could write something very deep, rich and textured about the economics, anthropology and sociology of small press RPG publishing. They really really could.


  1. This is almost identical to the small press magazine and especially poetry magazine publishing in the 1960s to 180's US. You had do it yourself editors self-publishing a small magazine, and selling it to friends and advertising in the Poet's Market as a publisher. Contributors were given a free copy. You would send out a bunch of submissions, and over time buy a bunch of little mags, and eventually get known by others and know others, keeping each other in business. Hell, there is no market for poetry, except for a few superstar poet laureates. This was in the days before e-mail, and you had to send in an SASE (self addressed stamped envelope), if you wanted a reply.

    Regarding the DIY rpg publishers, the scene might be a bit darker. Why are some OSR types openly hostile and downright hateful to indie rpg's/story games and to White Wolf?

    1. I think, to be fair to the DIY OSR people, it's because there is a history of D&D being looked down at by fans of indie RPGs and White Wolf games. Two wrongs don't make a right, obviously.

  2. Did they? I didn't know that! I am slightly familiar with the forge, white wolf games I am unfamiliar with. To me it seems that indie game movement of the forge may have behaved somewhat like the mid 20th century avant-garde art movements in the continental Europe in terms of their esotericism and elitism. Was that the case? That's just an impression from their postings, I never was able to get in touch with any of them.

    Incidentally, I think that the Indie game movement has been with us ever since Dave Arneson and later Gary Gygax were banished from TSR. Gary went on to write the Lejendary Adventures and Castles and Crusades, which remained obscure.