Media 101: The Quick And Dirty Introduction To Your Game
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  1. #1
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    Media 101: The Quick And Dirty Introduction To Your Game

    Ashcans. The popularity of ashcan editions come and go in role-playing game publishing, but a conversation about them with an indie publisher while I was at Gen Con brought to mind a couple of things about them: 1) RPG publishers don't use ashcan editions for marketing purposes as much as they could and 2) RPG publishers don't use them as a way to create new audiences. One thing that we don't see as much as we could in tabletop RPGs is a lot of outreach, and a lot of that has to do with the scale at which many publishers operate. Ashcans are a tool that can work around that.


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    Originally, ashcan editions were used in comic book publishing to establish copyright and trademarks for their books and characters. Called "ashcan" because they were often made using materials that were going to be thrown away, these editions typically numbered from two to five copies. One would be sent to the Library of Congress and one would be filed away in the publisher's archives, and if any additional copies were made they were usually given as gifts to people in the office, or creators. The production values of these ashcans were lower than normal, usually only done in black and white.

    Over time, ashcan editions would be used as promotional items, or limited editions for sale at conventions. These ashcans would introduce readers to new comics in a way that would be economical to small, independent publishers.

    These benefits can also be applicable to role-playing publishers as well. With the age of Print On Demand publishing, creating ashcans are even easier than they used to be. Working with Lulu, or your local copy shop, you can make enough inexpensive editions to easily stock a convention booth. An ashcan can be a quickstart introduction to a game, or it can be a barebones version of the rules that has enough information to allow some level of play but isn't a complete game. A number of publishers utilize ashcans these days, at all sizes of operations. Catalyst Game Labs have released ashcans of games like their Valiant Role-Playing Game. This past Gen Con Chaosium released an ashcan edition of their upcoming new edition of Runequest, with 100 copies available to fans. Magpie Games have had success with ashcan editions of Velvet Glove and Cartel over the last couple of years. And these publishers are just a couple of the examples.

    So, why release an ashcan edition? The most important reason is that it generates buzz for an upcoming game. In the current RPG market, there are a lot of games. A lot. There are more games than any of us can play in our lifetimes, if we play a different game each time we get together with our friends to game, and in a publishing world where the default mode of play is to engage in long term, ongoing campaigns it makes it even harder for new games to get traction.

    Some may scoff at the idea of ashcans. More and more, the default in role-playing publishing is fancy, high-end hardcover books with full color printing, but that also means that the price tags on the games get higher so does the bar of entry. With ashcan editions leading to a full game, launched traditionally or through a crowdfunding project, you can start to build the audience that you will need for sales, or to prime the pump for eventual crowdfunding.

    So, what should be in an ashcan edition of an RPG? First off, it should be playable, which means that it needs to be in a relatively complete form. Character creation isn't a requirement, if the game can be played with robust enough of pregens that can work as well. This avenue isn't as good for a game that is still a work in progress, because you have to have enough of the mechanics in play to be able to get multiple play experiences out of the ashcan. If the game is based on an existing system like Fate or Apocalypse World or D20, instead of putting everything that is needed into the ashcan, you want to put to put what makes your game different into it. This is actually the easiest of options, and if you are using an existing system it gives you the space to show where your game will diverge from the baseline, and why your game is necessary. Don't underestimate the importance of this as an eventual marketing tool.

    Size matters as well. An ashcan edition should be portable, and created with ease of play in mind. An ashcan edition is a play document, and should be put together in such a way as to be able to facilitate play. It should be short, to the point and put together in such a way that it is easy to find the information needed to use it in play.

    When I had the conversation about ashcans with that publisher at Gen Con I mentioned it as part of a multi-step process to bring to press a new edition of their game. The is a concept in the indie music scene called the street team. Street teams are like alpha geeks, in that they are the so-called "super fans" who follow a performer and whose enthusiasm is used by the artists and their labels to promote the performer to local record stores and potential fans. The "job" of the street team isn't anything formal, just to be enthusiastic and to share the music that they love in order to get inroads into local places. The indie music scene, while still larger than the RPG market, the scale of things is similar enough to make what works in one scene work in another. Street teams are typically paid in unique promotional items, which can be things like otherwise unpublished CDs, concert tickets or other items.

    This is where the ashcan edition comes to play in the RPG example. I've already talked about the difficulty in getting attention for a new (or sometimes even an established) game. With an ashcan edition, publishers can create their own street teams. These people take their ashcan editions and run games with it for other people. This creates a stream of enthusiasm. If these people are online, on social media, they can talk about their experiences with the game and that starts to build an audience. Perhaps the ashcan comes with a Dropbox link that allows the players in these games to download a PDF of the game. This gives them the chance to run games themselves.

    The idea of a street team is a viral one. They should grow the audience. Obviously, they should grow the audience past the ashcan edition and into the fuller version of the game. Like with the music street team, there can be rewards for helping to build the audience. This could be early access to completed PDFs of the final game, or it could be any number of other items. One thing that is important to remember, however, is that just because a game launches or a Kickstarter funds, it doesn't mean that it is time to give up on the street team.

    Like in the music scene, there's more to a stream team than just building an audience, although that is a very important part of the process. A street team member can demo a game at a local gaming store and, perhaps, lead to stores picking up games for sale. Never underestimate the power of enthusiasm when it comes to a store deciding to carry a game. Some publishers have done this for a long time, like the Men In Black program that Steve Jackson Games runs. A street team is less official, and unlike programs like a demo team they aren't considered to be official representatives, nor do their rulings carry any sort of official weight to them.

    One thing that does probably need to be addressed is that the enthusiasm that would drive a street team is a doubled-edged sword. The same enthusiasm that drives a person to want to push for a game that they love can also be the enthusiasm that leads to edition wars and one-true-wayism. This means that a publisher can't just "fire and forget" their street teams. There has to be oversight and, even though everyone involved needs to know that that the street teams are not official representatives of a publisher, there has to be repercussions for the negative actions of street teams. Doing this does mean work on the part of the publisher.

    I know. Publishers are going to say that they don't have the time or resources to do these things but, ultimately, there comes a time when a choice needs to be made between what they can do, and what they need to do in order to build an audience for their game, and eventually for their company. It isn't an easy choice, but the idea of the articles under this theme is to give game publishers ways to do things that will work under their scale.

    Be sure to check out my Laying The Groundwork article for the introduction to this series.
    XP RangerWickett gave XP for this post

  2. #2
    The Alligator Alley Entertainment guys did just this for GenCon. They put out a Basic Rules version of their Esper Genesis (5e Space Opera/Adventure.)

    They already have Basic Rules out for free as a PDF, but it's hard to promote a digital product at a physical convention. And you can do cool things with a hard copy, such as get it autographed, that you can't do with a PDF.*

    And just as they mentioned in the article, while this Basic Rules print run had enough to run some 5E Space Opera, they are a teaser to the full-fledged Core Rules coming out later.

    *Don't get me wrong, I love me PDFs, but I like have both digital and physical more.

  3. #3
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    I'll have a "Preview Edition" of CAPERS from NerdBurger Games available in the next few weeks. It'll be on DTRPG and I'll be taking softcovers to conventions. For those that want the PDF, too, I'll gather email addresses and send the PDF after the convention.

    I'm ALL IN on using an ashcan as a promotional tool. We'll see how it plays out.

  4. #4
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    Quote Originally Posted by Shiv View Post
    I'll have a "Preview Edition" of CAPERS from NerdBurger Games available in the next few weeks. It'll be on DTRPG and I'll be taking softcovers to conventions. For those that want the PDF, too, I'll gather email addresses and send the PDF after the convention.

    I'm ALL IN on using an ashcan as a promotional tool. We'll see how it plays out.
    I'll be watching this really closely. It's a neat concept for building buzz. I think it's only going to be a win.

  5. #5
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    Quote Originally Posted by Von Ether View Post
    The Alligator Alley Entertainment guys did just this for GenCon. They put out a Basic Rules version of their Esper Genesis (5e Space Opera/Adventure.)

    They already have Basic Rules out for free as a PDF, but it's hard to promote a digital product at a physical convention. And you can do cool things with a hard copy, such as get it autographed, that you can't do with a PDF.*

    And just as they mentioned in the article, while this Basic Rules print run had enough to run some 5E Space Opera, they are a teaser to the full-fledged Core Rules coming out later.

    *Don't get me wrong, I love me PDFs, but I like have both digital and physical more.
    I'll admit I thought the gencon book was the full release, but i also thought it was just a bunch of conversion rules. Thanks to picking up that preview edition, I actually look forward to the system enough that i ordered the whole core set- which is exactly what its meant to do.

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    It is important to remember that an ashcan is only one of the steps in the process, without that leap to the people running/showing off the game to other gamers and in gaming spaces, you aren't going to get any of the impact.

  7. #7
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    Quote Originally Posted by Christopher Helton View Post
    It is important to remember that an ashcan is only one of the steps in the process, without that leap to the people running/showing off the game to other gamers and in gaming spaces, you aren't going to get any of the impact.
    Agreed. And that's the part I need to figure out. What I can do to encourage/reward without giving the game away for free? No one gets anything if the Kickstarter doesn't fund.

    Free discount code for an at-cost book, if they back for the PDF? A PDF of my first game? Something else?
    Last edited by Shiv; Thursday, 28th September, 2017 at 12:24 AM.

  8. #8
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    Quote Originally Posted by Shiv View Post
    Agreed. And that's the part I need to figure out. What I can do to encourage/reward without giving the game away for free? No one gets anything if the Kickstarter doesn't fund.

    Free discount code for at cost book, if they back just for the PDF? A PDF of my first game? Something else?
    Put it into the ashcan itself. In big, bold, block letters: "If you like this game run it at your game store. Run it anyplace that lets people run games. Run it for your friends. Its future depends as much on the fans as it does the publisher." Tell it to people when you sell it at conventions. You can never assume that people will know what to do.

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