Monday, March 1, 2010

Thoughts on OSR Publishing and Reviewing or "We Can Say Bad Things Too, Right?"

My apologies in advance if I ramble in what follows, I'm still sorting out some of my own feelings on the subject...

I buy a lot of OS publications. Much of it I know I'll never use directly in my game, but still find enjoyable and also attractive as a collector. As I've said here before, I've been reluctant to review many things coming out of the OSR - part of this hesitancy has to do with the fact that I'd been out of the hobby for a very long time compared to many readers. Besides that though, our community feels small, and I haven't wanted to hurt any feelings.

I occasionally feel torn, because many of the things that attract me to the old school gaming community - the DIY, homebrew, share and share alike ethos that I know and remember from the height of my gaming days can be at odds with standard business practices, as well as the new awareness of intellectual property. Sometimes I wonder if purchasing anything from an OS publisher is the beginning of the end of a great thing, a sort of commodification of art.

That being said, I also know that old school gamers are for the most part very much adults now... I know that times are tough and that many people want to make a living from the hobby we love because of unemployment, to supplement income, or just because, in perfectly understandable earnestness, the idea of doing what we love and making a living at it at the same time is a big part of what is called Living the American Dream (or just following your passion, leaving the U.S. patriotism out of it). Of course I don’t have a problem with this, and the profit motive can encourage quality as well as new materials period.

Then the question arises of supporting the OSR. I’d like to see the hobby grow and preserved for a number of reasons, but I do not in any way feel obligated to support old school publishers. Whether it's someone just putting out a PDF or a more established or officially incorporated publisher. When there's a profit motive involved, obligation I feel not. If I feel any such obligation to support the hobby’s growth and legacy, I’ll direct it first to any nonprofits (or nonprofits-to-be) such as TARGA or OSRIC. Any criticism or review of such organizations or their materials I would be more inclined to be charitable with, as of course I would be with someone offering their work for free or in the spirit of just gladly sharing their creation with others, tips appreciated but not expected, so to speak.

So coming back to the subject of reviewing most OSR publishers' work, I wish to qualify some things I might say in the course of a review that might adversely effect an opinion of me. I do this in the wake of a short (and I think very positive) review of BHP's White Box Set for a reason... although I feel my review was sincere and off the cuff, I can see how it would offend some folks in the "nothing in the OSR should be criticized, lest it not help the OSR grow" camp.

Is there such a camp? I don't know. Based on my own experience with small communities with certain similarities to ours, I would guess so. But here's the thing - I'm amazed at the amount of traffic my last post garnered here. I do keep track of such things for a number of reasons - what interests the readers, what's currently hot in the OSR, etc. It seems a good time to take advantage of the interest to point out what the main purpose of this post is... If you really want the OSR to grow and improve, honest, forthright criticism is helpful, and I hope any other prospective reviewers consider this. Publishers and others who wish to see the OSR grow should welcome and consider constructive, heartfelt criticism, even if it seems petty or at first misguided, and even and especially at this stage of growth. Hopefully it won't be taken personally. As long as it's respectful, the quality and reach of OSR publications will gain from it.

Anyhow, maybe this post wasn’t necessary, and thanks for wading through it if you've read this far. I'll hereafter be able to refer to it as my "Standard Review Disclaimer".


Aaron E. Steele said...

We'd be doing everyone, including the author, a dis-service if we weren't honest. As long as we are respectful while being honest, I think that's the main thing. I think someone else remarked that, for a lot of old-school authors, the material they create is their children. If the review suggests ways the product could be improved, rather than how it failed, that sort of constructive feedback is easier to accept.

Telecanter said...

I think what's at odds here are critique for two purposes. Giving feedback to friends and community members can allow them, as Paladin suggests, to make improvements, revisions, or at the very least, start a dialogue about some general point of gaming.

Critiquing a product is about whether you think it's worth buying. Products are assumed to be finished and most likely won't be improved or revised.

As far as buying OSR products, it's sort of an unfortunate situation all around, the community is excited about something a member shares, praises it, and that member packages it and tries to sell it to that same community.

But then I too have dreams of quitting my job and trying to make a go at selling various gaming products. Can't blame anyone for that impulse.

Anonymous said...

I have worked with a couple of OSR publishers and several individuals. I've yet to meet anyone who is in it for the money, or who even believes they can make anything more than a bit of pocket money out of this. Generally any profit made is sunk back into the business to produce the next product. I think we're on the cusp of that changing for the better.

I strongly believe that those who sell their products must strive to produce the highest quality they can, not only in respect to the product itself, but in their customer service and business dealings.

Brutally honest reviews, done fairly and with respect, are vital for both the growth of the OSR and these businesses. We can all see when a product is substandard and yes, such things should be mentioned in reviews - if we're all too polite to say anything, how will they know. But the area of customer service is equally important - and seldom dealt with publically.

I've sadly had a few dissatisfyng transactions with some OSR publishers and the major issue for me has been their lack of communication skills. Sure, they write a wonderfully professional response that usually says little or nothing, but actually explaining the problem and dealing with the issues? - nada!

I recently purchased a pdf through Lulu from a well respected OSR publisher, only to find the file was not only NOT a pdf (as advertised on the author's website), but unviewable without first downloading software. Then, even with the new software installed, the file had no print option. Emails to the author went unanswered and Lulu was no help. I resorted to pm'ing the man on a forum and was told he was aware his email was playing up (you're running a business - fix it!) I wrote a few times trying to work out what was going on, but only received two very standard replies, neither of which actually explained his part in the affair. I was left to play detective and discover for myself what was happening.

Turns out he chose the new software option with Lulu - he didn't tell me that. He probably made a mistake with the non-print option - he didn't tell me that either. He refused to send me a pdf copy, which is what I'd paid him money for, and what he was advertising on his website, but instead said he'll send me a copy on a cd through the mail!?!? I've yet to receive it. And I'm incredibly dissatisfied with his customer service.

I mention this here only to stress the importance of customer service to those with an OSR business. Doesn't matter if you can put out a polished product, if your customer service is crap, don't bother.

We need good honest reviews to promote higher quality product and good business habits. For those who give away their product, well, who cares if its crap or if they treat you poorly - it's free!

Timeshadows said...

You always have the right to speak your mind on your own blog. :D

MDtheDM said...

I agree wholeheartedly. I remember many products back in the "good old days of the golden age" that I would not have recommended to others even if they were free. The same principle applies now.

christian said...

I like what Timeshadows says.

James Maliszewski said...

Please do post your honest thoughts about any old school products you purchase. As others have said, it'd be doing everyone a disservice if you didn't. Do be prepared, though, that there will always be people who won't welcome your honesty and take it as a slight, either of them personally or of the old school renaissance more generally. It's an occupational hazard and shouldn't deter you from proceeding with reviews.

Good luck!

ze bulette said...

Thanks all for your comments.

John: Thanks for the link to your blog post last year re: reviews, as I said there, an excellent post and well worded! I want to be clear that this post here wasn't in any way grousing for personal attention - I think I'll be able to remedy the issue with the one booklet free of charge by taking it to my local Kinkos/Fedex and borrowing a long stapler there, but I appreciate your offer and will happily take you up on it should things fall apart as it were. Cheers

netherwerks said...

Anyone seeking to make even One Penny is "in it for the money," otherwise they would not ask for the cash--and this is not a bad thing, it is called Business. Drop the pseudo-counter-culture Bullshit and let's start expecting people conducting business to act in a business-like manner. Doing anything less is rubbish and leads to all manner of abuses, acrimony and worse. Whatever community you belong to, if you ask for money for your work, which is your right, you are doing business and that's just fine--so long as your being honest and not trying to pull a fast one.

Anonymous said...

I think it is safe to say that my Supplement V: CARCOSA has received the widest range of reviews of any Old School Renaissance product. On the one hand, some reviewers consider it to be the single best D&D supplement ever. On the other hand, others consider it to be the single worst D&D book ever. And there are plenty of people somewhere in the middle.

While I didn't find some of the extremism helpful, I do appreciate honest, constructive criticism. James Maliszewski's extensive review of CARCOSA is a model for how to review a product. His review points out where he thinks that CARCOSA fails as well as where he thinks it succeeds.

I recommend his review as a model for all reviewers. :)

Anonymous said...

Actual Play reports are the best review. If people aren't bothered to blog about how well/badly the new rules +/ setting went, they've probably not been a great buy. Read-throughs are alright but how the product fares at the gaming table or when you have to prep for a session is what counts as far as I'm concerned.

I'd prefer it if after the readthrough the reviwer got off their arse and played the hell out of it in order to find out - does it break under pressure ?

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