Rob Conley has been writing about ‘The Commercialization of the OSR’ over on his blog, “Bat in the Attic.” In his posting, Rob references Mythmere’s useful analysis of the history of the OSR (here and here). I’m still digesting both Rob’s and Mythmere’s posting, so I hope this post does not come off as me as attempting to ‘refudiate’ what either of these people have said. One of the issues that strikes me, however, which may be tangential to Rob’s and Mythmere’s posts, is the idea of the ‘virtue’ of free OSR product over ‘for pay’ product in the OSR. A number of pretty vocal people tend to spout the sentiment that ‘all OSR stuff should be free’ whenever OSR product for pay is mentioned.

I’ve given things away for free and sometimes I have sold them. I don’t begrudge anyone the decision to try to make a buck (or at least mollify the loss) represented by charging for their work, whatever it may be, so I am somewhat nonplussed that this becomes such a hot button issue for some people (some of the debates on whether or not anyone should get paid for OSR work have gotten quite heated).
One of the primary arguments advanced by the ‘anti-sales’ contingent is that many of the products offered for sale are not worth the asking price. Of course, this sidesteps the religion of capitalism (the market will decide if products succeed based on people voting witht heir wallets). But “quality” is a relative thing, isn’t it? Back in the day, we had a lot of fun with adventures like “Thieves of Fortress Badabaskor.” As far as the usual markers of quality goes in terms of completeness, adherence to the rules as written, professionalism of layout and art, etc., etc., “Badabaskor” seems pretty “bad” by the standards of most products (even free ones) today. Some of the art is pretty amateurish, the spell casters do not have spells listed, many things are not explained adequately and there are editorial mistakes galore. Despite this, we had a lot of fun with that adventure. In some ways, it’s incompleteness was almost a virtue since the DM seemed to have a lot of fun filling in the details. So was it ‘worth’ what we paid for it? I’d say if the value of such a book is in the fun that you get from it, the answer is “yes.”

I have to confess that I had some pretty frustrating experiences with publishing a ‘free’ OSR-type adventure through Dragonsfoot. I submitted an adventure for ‘free’ publication a number of years ago and waited for about two years for someone to get around to reading/editing it. It was only when I said I wanted to take the adventure elsewhere (since I thought it would never see publication) that it got pushed into publication. Then, when it was in editing, I had a number of editors demanding I make changes that I did not neccessarily want to make or agree on. One editor was quoting rules from one of the rule books in his messages to me in a manner that kind of galled me, especially since I had written the adventure years before and based the adventure on how I had ruled or interpreted rules. Finally, as author I wanted to also illustrate the adventure, but at one point the editor sent the images back to me, saying they looked like ‘crap.’ I had done the illustrations in black and white and then added a ‘zipatone’ texture digitally. The editor demanded I remove the zipatone texture because he didn’t like it. What disturbed me was that the editor seemed to be under the impression that I didn’t give a shit about how it looked when I felt like the whole project was really MY BABY and he was just the midwife who was really supposed to make sure we dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s before we sent it out.

Part of the problem, of course, was a personality conflict. Perhaps I am too sensitivem but I didn’t like the way some of the editors/producers treated me in the course of bringing the project to the point where it was deemed ‘ready’ for publication on Dragonsfoot. And, to be fair, I might have been a bit of a ‘prima-donna.’ The adventure in question was one I had originally written back in high school; I don’t think I was ready to allow strangers to poke and prod it and criticize all of its faults. But I was also unhappy because it took a lot of effort on my part to see the adventure to publication and I had to try to make a lot of concessions along the way in order to make it happen. And, after all of that, I still didn’t get the sense that everyone involved in the process understood how hard it was for me to give up so much creative control on a project in which our respective roles were not clear. Dragonsfoot wasn’t paying me for the writing or the images, so I didn’t feel like they had the right to make too many demands or the right to make more than superficial changes. On the other hand, the Dragonsfoot crew probably felt that since the adventure was being published by them, they had the right to demand that it be brought into compliance with their editorial guidelines. That is quite a conundrum. And this instance wasn’t the first (or last time) I joined a project as a volunteer and ended up regretting it. Perhaps I don’t have the right temperment for such collaborations. But (and this is the most important thing), I learned something about the work involved and being a professional from participating in the process of submitting that adventure to Dragonsfoot. I got some valuable perspective on what it is like to be involved in such a process.

Trying to think honestly about the OSR ‘for profit/not-for-profit’ issue, I long ago discovered that I much preferred to have a clear role as a paid collaborator on any project. Perhaps getting paid (even when one is paid a tiny amount) makes one feel as though one is being given a tangible reward for participation, and, strangely, being paid also seems to help me place a limit on my level of responsibility for the project. One of the problems with the Dragonsfoot experience is that I ended up feeling taken for granted — first when I had to wait for two years to have the process of editing my adventure begin, then when I felt that I had to jump theough a lot of editorial hoops to see it finished. I don’t think Dragonsfoot is to be held to blame for my feelings; I’m just trying to be honest about how I felt (and why I am reluctant to repeat the experience). My relationship to the product (and to the other people involved in the production) seems clearer when I am being paid. Being paid is not as much about the money (although, as someone with bills to pay, the money becomes more important than it was when I had a full time 9 to 5). It can also be about the ‘boundaries’ of the project. The problem with the freebies is that we did not have a clear understanding of where my control ended and the other collaborator’s control began.

6 Comments on “OSR FOR SALE”

  1. Aos says:

    I have worked on several collaborative creative projects and witnessed at least one situation where the person who put in the absolute least amount of effort expected to be given overall control. A friend of mine who has been in several bands tells me it is a very common phenomenon. Anyway, I think you are a far more patient guy than I am.

  2. James says:

    I printed out me a copy of the endless tunnels of enlandin, by the way. 🙂 Very nice! Thanks Bunches!!!

  3. Yesmar says:

    @jgbrowning: I don't agree with your statement that “[p]rice and quality are not interconnected in a roleplaying product.” It might not always be the case, but price and quality do have some relation.

    Let's say I want to release a product with an Erol Otus cover. I am of the opinion that would indicate quality to some subset of purchasers in our community. Now EO isn't going to do a free cover, so I have to pay for that quality. As a result, I have to adjust the price upwards to make the product a reality. (The artist must be paid, and that cost is passed on to the consumer.)

    I could release the product without the EO cover—I could use a cheaper, less well-known artist, or I could totally cop out and use a medieval woodcut, instead. I would argue, though, that the quality proposition of such a release would be really different from what it could have been had it had an EO cover instead.

  4. You wrote Endless Tunnels? That's my favorite adventure that I downloaded form DF. Great adventure! I've always tried to hook by players in taking a journey there but they never bit. Totally looking forward to messing them up in there.

    That said…

    I love the free stuff floating round on folks' blogs and downloads. I try to reciprocate that as much as I can. If I compile something based on OGL material I try to make that free for download. If I spend time doing a custom layout or writing an adventure module with illustrations and make it available for sale, I try to keep it affordable as a (sometimes free) pdf download and as a pay print product. I would rather have folks have the item in their hands (or hard-drive) so I keep the price minimal yet I still feel I should make something for my effort. $1 per item in my pocket seems fair to me and keeps the price down.

    Some items, I feel, are way over priced especially in pdf format.

  5. Ragnardbard says:

    Have to say, I'm always happy to pay for your stuff. Thanks also, though, for the awesome and free Endless Tunnels of Enlandin. I too printed a copy, and the tunnels have a permanent place on my regional map. Cheers mate!

  6. Matt Finch says:

    The idea that anyone could have had a problem with your art is mind-boggling to me. That right there tells me that the editor absolutely missed the entire point.

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