Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Legend of Yore: A Fantasy Heartbreaker Story

Our tale begins long ago, in 1986. Our hero, a young lad of 16, begins his long journey into game design innocently enough, on a family car trip. Bored, the boy decides to design his own role-playing game. Thus begins a journey that is not to end until the next century, a story full of reverses, disappointments, and the cold clutch of reality.

In 1986 our hero’s experiences with role-playing are quite limited. He has played Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, and Middle Earth Role-Playing from Iron Crown Enterprises. This is the extent of his experience. Still, he has been exposed to a number of different and innovative sets of rules, and has found them lacking in some respects. As he designs his own game, he comes up with several ways to streamline and simplify rules that he has found in these other games. His game, at this stage called “Archers & Alchemists,” contains a couple of innovations: a basic life path system that leads to career-based rather than class-based characters, and a table that reduces combat actions to a single simple roll. The game is fun, and he and his friends enjoy playing it. He continues to run it for his friends through 1992, by which time it has acquired a new name, “The Legend of Yore.”

At this stage, it is suggested to him that perhaps he try to publish this game. Up to this point, the thought had not crossed his mind, but now, the seed has been planted. Why shouldn’t he get his game into print? It is as good as, or better than, many other games out there. He begins to research what would be required to do this. He talks to hobby store owners, he talks to his gaming friends, and his relatives. He learns of the distributors who buy games and sell them to hobby stores. From one hobby store owner, he hears some words of discouragement: “My advice—play this game with your friends, don’t try to print it.” Our hero dismisses this advice, and decides to print his game.

Now resolved, our hero gathers money, setting up a company and selling shares to family and friends. With this capital in hand, he seeks out artists willing to work for free or for a small fee. His friend offers to edit the book for him, free of charge, and buys desktop publishing software to do so. Our hero spends nearly a year getting his book ready for publication, and finds a local printer. Once all of the work is complete, he prints 1000 copies of The Legend of Yore. The year is 1996. He sells the first few to his circle of friends, and begins trying to promote his game.

Two distributors show interest, and place orders for his game. Our hero goes to local hobby stores and runs demos. He attends local conventions and runs the game. One of the distributors even writes a full-page article about his game in their quarterly circular, praising The Legend of Yore as a great new fantasy RPG. He buys a booth at GenCon to promote the game. Then, disaster strikes. A flood damages much of his stock, and several hundred books must be destroyed. He has a lot of lightly damaged stock as well, some of which he takes to GenCon with him. Cutting the price of the flood-damaged books to $5, he sells out of his stock at GenCon. Flush with success, he returns home hopeful and excited.

It turns out that the low price was the main driver of sales at GenCon, and the word-of-mouth he hoped for never materializes. Not deterred, he begins a supplement for The Legend of Yore, consisting of a GM’s screen and four adventures. He continues to promote it locally and at local conventions, getting a few sales in this area. Troubling news begins to surface, as two hobby stores contact him, letting him know that their distributor has informed them that he is out of business and The Legend of Yore is out of print. He tries to interest hobby stores outside his area by sending them a free sample. This does not result in any orders.

This turns out to be the beginning of the end. Our hero returns to GenCon the next year, and sales are meager. Those few who drop by indicate they hoped for a supplement or something at this point. Sales, never stellar to begin with, continue to decline gradually over the next few years. In an effort to kindle more interest, our hero sinks another few grand into a printed supplement, ordering 900 copies. Sales do not improve, and no distributors will take the supplement.

This is how it continues, until sales finally trail off to nothing in 2005. The remaining stock of The Legend of Yore, about 300 copies now dried out and falling apart, along with the majority of the supplement printing, is pulped.

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I hope you found this story interesting. This tale of woe is not a tragedy, however. Although The Legend of Yore was a waste of money from a business standpoint, I do not regret publishing it. It got me started on the game design train, and I am really happy where that train has taken me now. I also learned a lot of valuable lessons along the way which led directly to my current POD printing philosophy, and to the creation of IPR as a way to help other folks avoid the problems of the three-tier (really four-tier, these days) distribution system.

The Legend of Yore is in many ways an archetypal fantasy heartbreaker, and I find it so problematic these days that I would only republish it with a complete rules revision. I find many aspects of the game world embarrassing, and would only be satisfied with a complete rewrite there as well. Someday I may do these things, but I have a lot of new projects I am interested in now. I think somebody said that everyone should write a fantasy heartbreaker, and this is mine. I learned a lot about game design on the way, as well. Doing something is the best way to learn it, and I learned a lot the hard way.

One thing I absolutely do not regret, however, was ignoring the advice not to publish it at all and just play it with my friends.

5 Comments:

At 2:42 PM, Blogger gains said...

All the evidence I've seen points to a lesson well learned. Future successes built on a few missteps.

Besides it shows you definitely have the self-confidence for this business. I still debate if I'm just wasting my time with my design ideas.

 
At 7:18 PM, Blogger Brennan Taylor said...

Don't be fooled, I'm just as wracked by self-doubt as everyone else in this business. Still, never give up. Reputations are built on relentless self-promotion.

 
At 7:59 PM, Anonymous adj said...

I'm curious to know what parts are "embarassing" as you put it.

But I also agree that you were right in trying to publish it. At the very least, you know the outcome of the effort; it isn't something to look back on and say "I should have published this."

 
At 11:15 AM, Blogger Brennan Taylor said...

The really embarrassing parts have to do with game races and the implications my rules have for real racism (different stat bonuses for people of the same species, for example).

The rules themselves are excellent examples of an attempt to improve D&D, which I don't have as a design goal any longer, but that's not embarrassing per se.

 
At 7:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Eh, same race (and even different-race) differences could just be a differential in cultural emphases ;-).

But, On an entirely different note, I'm running a game in The Known World tomorrow evening. I'm using the Bridge System, made by some amateur game designers I met at the last con up in Portland (I think one of them went by 'Ogre', you may've run into him). The Bridge System is great, I've fallen in love with it for any classically run tabletop RPGs.

I'm using your "Screen of the Gods" adventures as the skeleton for my own plot arc. Looks like Daniel Cooper is planning on using his days off to commute on down from Vancouver, WA to join us for the weekly game :-P.

I'm excited to run it! The Known World won't be dead as long as I can help it ;-).

-It's Julian, duh.

 

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