log in or register to remove this ad

 

Leaving the Game: An Interview with Robert Bohl

When I read that Robert Bohl, the award-winning creator of Misspent Youth, was leaving the RPG industry, I was surprised. During his career, he’d cultivated a definite RPG voice and fanbase. Because his work spoke to me, I wanted to know why he was leaving. Fortunately, Robert agreed to talk to discuss his career including the good, the bad, and why he’s calling it a day.

misspent-youth-cover.jpg

EGG EMBRY (EGG): I’m glad you agreed to speak with me. This is an “exit interview” because you announced Robert Bohl Games is “going out of business sale.” Let’s lead with the million dollar question, why are you shutting down your company and its flagship title, Misspent Youth?
ROBERT BOHL (ROBERT)
: Well, the few-thousand-dollar question, anyway. I should quit every week! I'm mostly shutting down because I'm bad at being a businessman, and I loathe everything I have to do to be one: taxes, warehousing, website maintenance, accounting, and on and on, ad nauseam. I mostly only sell my games because I want to get my game out as much as possible, and most people in my experience value things they pay for more than stuff they get for free. But also, making games is a lot of work, and you need to get something for yourself out of it. I don't value the money that much, but I like going to conventions (back in the pre-virus days, the long-long ago, when that was possible for anyone), and money can get you to cons. So my formula has been "games publishing pays for my cons." Only, it hasn't done so for a while. Misspent Youth is a great game, but it doesn't make enough to float me at cons. And I can't afford to fund too many of them out of my personal money, living in NYC with a toddler while working in the public sector. But I thought I had a new game to release that was going to fix this. I've been working on Demihumans since 2016, and I was hoping that it'd have a bump of popularity for a few years and, along with MY, start to make going back to cons more sensible. But very recently I had a discussion with the publishers where we decided fundamental redesigns of the game were necessary to get it in a form that they could publish it. I've gone through a lot with this game, so I just didn't have it in me to knock out huge pillars of it and rebuild. (I've given permission to New Agenda Publishing to finish and publish Demihumans, and I hope that happens.) So, no Demihumans for me. When I realized that, closing the company felt immediately like the right thing to do. I had to make myself wait overnight at least before pulling the trigger.

EGG: For those that don’t know, what’s the pitch for Misspent Youth?
ROBERT
: Teenaged rebellion in a f***ed-up future! You play 12- to 17-year-old kids who are the only ones who can save their world from The Authority, a dystopian villain your play group co-creates. You start the series setting up a catastrophe that'll come to pass if you don't stop The Authority. Every episode, you see whether you're able to change the world for the better, or if The Authority tightens its control over the world. At the end of the series, you figure out if you changed the world enough to stop the catastrophe, or if you failed, and The Authority reigns. It was no-GM-roll before Apocalypse World; it prevents GM preplanning by its round-robin scene framing structure; it's got a session structure so you always know what to do next and you always tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end each episode; it's got a really cool punk rock style; and it's got a screen-friendly PDF with a ludicrous amount of features. Plus it's got an amazing supplement, Misspent Youth: Sell Out with Me, with a bunch of premade settings and two hacks of the game, all written by tons of amazing people who aren't me.

EGG: Misspent Youth picked up some award nods, was played and praised by Wil Wheaton, and the 2017 Kickstarter had nearly a thousand backers. Clearly, MY connected with players. What do you feel drives MY’s popularity?
ROBERT
: I think it's longevity. I've been in the RPG hobby as a designer since 2006, spending lots of times at cons, on forums, and on social media, being a part of the discussion and community. Going and playing my game with people, selling it to them, and promoting it on my (now gone) podcast and on others'. That, and I think it's a well-designed game that is really about something. It has an opinion, it's designed for exactly that thing, and if that thing is your thing, then you're gonna love it. But it's funny, when you said it was popular, I was like, "Really?" Part of why I'm getting out (although it's an extremely small part) is that I don't think I've succeeded like my design peers have. Maybe I'm just "unlucky" enough to have the kinds of friends who design things like Apocalypse World and Burning Wheel.

EGG: To be clear, are you done with Misspent Youth and all RPG writing? Or will you move to freelance work of some sort?
ROBERT
: I'm not intending to write anything for publication. I have a game (Facility) that some friends are eager for me to finish, and intend to do that for them, but I don't think I'll be putting it "out there" even if I do manage to finish it. I could potentially see myself doing editing, but my heart right now is eager to get out and not look back. The publishing part of the hobby—what some people who aren't me would call the "industry"—makes me pretty sad, even though the RPG hobby as a whole is full of some of my favorite people who I miss every day when I'm not sharing air with them at conventions. It's a time of mourning for me, because I'm not sure or whether I'll be able to express myself creatively again.

EGG: Why close and exit the publishing industry instead of taking a break or licensing the game to another company?
ROBERT
: Taking a break would mean keeping the company open, filing taxes every year, dealing with website hosting, paying to store my games, and so on. All that misery-inducing business stuff I talked about earlier. All the bad parts with none of the good, basically.

EGG: Would you entertain offers to buy Robert Bohl Games? Or sell the Misspent Youth IP and its remaining stock?
ROBERT
: I actually am in talks with a couple of publishers to see about handing off the rest of my stock to them and giving them the rights to sell the screen-friendly PDF (and to host the free Eyebleed edition). I hope that pans out and would be willing to hear from others who are interested. I want the game to be out there, I just don't want to shepherd it anymore.

EGG: Because of Misspent Youth’s message, I want to ask you about the times we’re living through. With what’s going on in the world, Misspent Youth feels as timely as ever. How do you react to what’s happening in America? What do you do to be more inclusive at the gaming table?
ROBERT
: How I react to what's happening in America is with disgust and outrage at the evil, and hope where I see the good. I'm starting to be more and more hopeful, which is scary for me. As far as what I do at the table to make it more inclusive: I make it clear that expertise is never required, and am always ready to support people who need help or are new to RPGs; I'm very excited whenever I'm with a novice player. I've got zero tolerance for misogyny, racism, and other kinds of bigotry. I make an effort to make sure everyone gets equal spotlight time and table chatter time; if we haven't heard from anyone in a long time, I check in, or even say "Hey, X hasn't had a lot of focus, I'd like to see more from them." I try to create a spirit of "we're all in this together, we're equal creative collaborators," and so on at the table, as well. I also avoid playing games that have rotten political messages or exploitative art. And I'm willing to directly confront toxic behavior; I got no problems causing a fuss.

misspentyouth-selloutwithme-600.jpg

EGG: How did you first get into gaming as a player?
ROBERT
: When I was just-post-toddler age, my dad used to have friends over to play those old cardboard-cutout-square war games. They let me play a few times, even though I can't have had any idea what I was doing. But I was hooked. When I was around 5, I distinctly remember begging family friends to let me play D&D, and realizing That Was For Me. Finally, my parents bought me the D&D Basic Set. I started out playing on my own, on trips to and from my grandma's house (a memory I used to think of as very sad, but a decade or so ago I reread it and realized the book tells you you can play this one adventure on your own). I don't know how many years it was before I was playing with other people, but I got there eventually.

EGG: When you started as a creator, what were some of the positives of the industry?
ROBERT
: I immediately flashed on the Gen Con Forge booth (and the profusion of booths that came out of it when they closed it down) in the 2006-2010 era. To me, that was a time when everyone knew one another's games, everyone was positive and friendly, and I could spend an entire con posted up there, volunteering or selling my own stuff, talking games all day, playing all day, playing all night, and making friends. One of the phrases we threw around a lot was "a spirit of mutualism." I loved that mutualism, and miss it. (That era was also horrifyingly undiverse; there are so many better things about the time we're in now, and I don't want to ever give the impression I'm the guy saying "Those were the good old days.")

EGG: What highlights do you recall from creating and publishing?
ROBERT
: Working with the editor I've worked with most, Elisa Mader. She makes my writing so much better. I write in voice a lot, and it means I need to break the rules of English and set up a few new ones of my own. She always manages to make sure I keep that game's voice while making what I want to say much, much clearer. She's terrific. Working with artists. They're like f***ing wizards, man. They can make something out of nothing! I love getting stuff that I had a very strong image of in my head, in particular. Like that strip of kids running in silhouette on the back of MY. What I get back is never exactly what I have in mind, but 90% of the time it captures the same idea and adds incredible things I'd never have thought of. It's kinda like someone takes the shared imagined space of an RPG and crystalizes it in the real world. Finally, working with Evil Hat. Even though we didn't wind up getting Demihumans out the door together, working with them was a peak experience for me. I thrive on deadlines, and their project organizer, Sean Nittner, is extremely organized and great at providing them. They always pay, and on time. They're deeply committed to putting out responsible games that don't hurt people, and they make some of the best games around. And Fred Hicks is a font of transparency with his frequent posts about Evil Hat's business; he provides free and vital instruction to thousands of publishers.

EGG: Will you continue to roleplay?
ROBERT
: I hope so. I don't have a local group. (Who does in coronAmerica, right? But even before this, not me.) I am not someone with mood disorders, but playing online makes me feel incredibly anxious and leads me to second guess myself constantly. Who knows when cons will open up again, or if I'll be able to afford them any better when they do. I expect I'll get to play every now and then, but the odds are high I'm losing playing as a regular hobby, too.

EGG: What do you see your legacy as?
ROBERT
: I hope I've made good people feel welcome, happy, and comfortable. I know I have. Some people have told me. So that makes me feel wonderful. I hope I've made the bad people uncomfortable, too. I hope I let them know that they can't bulldoze everyone. Or at least, that some of us will f*** up your bulldozer as it barrels over us.

EGG: Robert, thank you for talking with me. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts and giving me some of your time. Thank you for the fun you’ve brought to the gaming table!
ROBERT
: Thanks so much, buddy. It's a pleasure chatting with you.

Author’s Note: Robert Bohl Games website includes a going out of business sale here. Robert Bohl Games can be found on DriveThruRPG. Both Robert Bohl Games online storefronts will eventually shutdown as Robert winds down the business.

Egg Embry participates in the OneBookShelf Affiliate Program and is an Amazon Associate. These programs provide advertising fees by linking to DriveThruRPG and Amazon.
 
Last edited:
Egg Embry

Egg Embry



It's a shame to see anyone creative leave the industry. And for these kinds of reasons.

I haven't played the game, but I became aware when Wil Wheaton had Kelly Sue Deconnick and Matt Fraction (two comic writers I like) on his tabletop show to play, and it seemed really good. I've meant to try it ever since I saw that show.....so I'll have to grab a copy and finally get to it.
 

Reynard

Legend
It's sad the way this industry eats up creative people. A big part of that is the meager pay. Add to that the stress of publishing and it is easy to see why careers are short. As someone who does freelance writing on occasion just as a hobby (in other words, I don't rely on the money for anything) I am still appalled by how poorly RPG creators are paid (when they are paid at all) and how backward the industry is in regards to royalties. Add to that the fact that the success of RPG cons is based almost entirely on volunteers and the industry doesn't have a great look. I hesitate to use the word "exploitative" but it's close.
 

VengerSatanis

High Priest of Kort'thalis Publishing
Unfortunately, this comes across as divisive. We clearly have different perspectives. I don't want to be punished for that, but it's the world we live in.
 

Cergorach

The Laughing One
It's sad the way this industry eats up creative people. A big part of that is the meager pay.
It's not that this industry eats up creative people, every industry eats up people that start unsound businesses. This writer/publisher finally realized "because I'm bad at being a businessman", something more people should realize. How many start a business making cars because they love making cars, but at the same time are terrible at business? Not many, because there are so man (upfront) costs that they quickly realize that their business isn't viable (and they don't have the money to lose). Writing RPGs is a very low upfront cost business, so they often find out that their business isn't viable way too late. In this case it seems that this was realized not to late...

That doesn't mean that the product they make isn't loved, but it's just not loved by enough folks. Profit margings might be to small, or just the time it takes to make a new product is to long.

We also see this happening a lot with gamestores, fans selling games, but are terrible at business and/or customer relations. How many people that go to demonstrate their game again and again, quite often with an appeal to only a very small group of players...
 

Jd Smith1

Adventurer
It's not that this industry eats up creative people, every industry eats up people that start unsound businesses. snip... How many people that go to demonstrate their game again and again, quite often with an appeal to only a very small group of players...

So very true. There's an old saying:

Do what you love, and you'll never work a day in your life, because they're not hiring.

The history of RPGs is a tale of bankrupt businesses and broken dreams.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
The history of RPGs is a tale of bankrupt businesses and broken dreams.

Restaurants are far worse, they can't even get loans, and most fail within the 1st couple of years. Bohl is just smart for getting out while the getting is good. Like anything, there is a talent to being in business, it's not a small focus when you get a business degree: "what are successful habits of business people", and all the why's and how's.
 

Jd Smith1

Adventurer
Restaurants are far worse, they can't even get loans, and most fail within the 1st couple of years. Bohl is just smart for getting out while the getting is good. Like anything, there is a talent to being in business, it's not a small focus when you get a business degree: "what are successful habits of business people", and all the why's and how's.

Very true.

Restaurants are good examples: lots of people open them with great intentions and creative ideas, only to fail miserably.
 

RobNJ

Explorer
Cergorach is right. This is very little about me being chewed up, except by capitalism and the terrible way the US does taxes (designed to make people unhappy and hate government). I've always known I was a bad businessman who hated doing the required work, but I loved games enough that I kept enduring it.

There certainly have been terrible, rotten people who've tried to chew me up (cough Mapgie cough), but mostly, they're a disincentive to try too hard to stay in the game, not what pushed me out of publishing. When contemplating whether being a publisher was still worth it for me after facing the death of this latest game, the idea of having to endure scumbags treated like beloved people made it an easy decision to make.

(This is Robert Bohl, and I don't know how to change my username, but I'm not a NJian anymore :).)
 
Last edited:

RobNJ

Explorer
That said, Reynard's concerns about the hobby writ large are accurate, in my opinion and experience. Con booths being run by volunteers (which I've done, but with a very small group, not Wizards or something), the lack of royalties, the low pay rates, it's all true.
 

Von Ether

Adventurer
So very true. There's an old saying:

Do what you love, and you'll never work a day in your life, because they're not hiring.

The history of RPGs is a tale of bankrupt businesses and broken dreams.

It's gotten to the point that when someone claims their product is "Made by gamers, for gamers." it gives me a red flag - not a warm fuzzy.
 


Jd Smith1

Adventurer
I take it by that you mean you prefer to buy from bigger more "professional" companies. If so, you should demand they pay their talent living wages.

Except that whatever they pay, is actually paid by the consumer. Which means you are lobbying for higher prices.

No thanks. Sorry for the game designers, but no, thanks.
 

Von Ether

Adventurer
I take it by that you mean you prefer to buy from bigger more "professional" companies. If so, you should demand they pay their talent living wages.

Nope. Just exactly what I said, regardless of the company size.

On that side note, I've seen professional small companies and much bigger, messier enterprises inside and outside of the gaming industry.
 

Reynard

Legend
Except that whatever they pay, is actually paid by the consumer. Which means you are lobbying for higher prices.

No thanks. Sorry for the game designers, but no, thanks.
Interesting. I mean, as long as you are okay with hobbyist level material that works I guess. But it's a pretty entitled position to suggest that you deserve high quality material for less than it actually costs to make it.
 

Jd Smith1

Adventurer
Interesting. I mean, as long as you are okay with hobbyist level material that works I guess. But it's a pretty entitled position to suggest that you deserve high quality material for less than it actually costs to make it.

It's what the market will bear.

I'm paying for something I can do myself, but would rather not. I'm paying for convenience. If they start raising prices, I'll just make my own.

The value of something is what the market will bear, not what the maker needs. For me, and obviously, most paying gamers, the value of RPG material is evidenced by the current prices.

I don't need RPG publishers; RPG publishers need me. And unless the hobby has a sudden, massive expansion, that dynamic won't change.
 

It's what the market will bear.

I'm paying for something I can do myself, but would rather not. I'm paying for convenience. If they start raising prices, I'll just make my own.
You might be, but for many gamers, the ability to design a playable game is NOT present.

The value of something is what the market will bear, not what the maker needs. For me, and obviously, most paying gamers, the value of RPG material is evidenced by the current prices.
Most nations have minimum wage laws. Most major game publishers work around them via dodges of "independent contractor" or "buying the rights"...

It's ethically dubious.

My one published article was about half minimum wage, no residuals, and no rights retained. This isn't a complaint- just a statement of fact. And SJG pays better than most. SJ has a strong ethical approach. And I'm certain my editor took a few hours... doubling the cost to SJG. (He was great to work with. The whole process with SJG was great.)
 

Jd Smith1

Adventurer
You might be, but for many gamers, the ability to design a playable game is NOT present.

I meant scenarios. There are endless numbers of rules systems already on line.

Most nations have minimum wage laws. Most major game publishers work around them via dodges of "independent contractor" or "buying the rights"...

It's ethically dubious.

You cannot legislate economic reality; that is a fact that has been driven home with regularity for the last fifty years, and is currently playing out in numerous countries right now, such as Greece.

And it is not 'ethically dubious', whatever that means. No one is being conscripted for RPG publishing. You can accept the wages the market will bear, or turn your talents to some other line of work.

The sales market for RPG products is small (compared to the total market), and unless there is massive market expansion, the current situation will not change. This is simply a fact.

This is not limited to RPGs. The music industry has been turned on its head by the ability to share/pirate music, and traditional pushing houses have had rocky seas because of the unbridled flood of indie writers self-publishing through increasing numbers of venues.
 

Halloween Horror For 5E

Advertisement1

Latest threads

Halloween Horror For 5E

Advertisement2

Advertisement4

Top