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What do you feel are the pros and cons of choosing to play/run an RPG produced by a smaller RPG company over a larger RPG company in terms of customer and product attention, support, and feedback?

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I'm leery of this sort of subjective, open ended question that really boils down to taste issues and has no real objective answers. –  anon186 Aug 23 '10 at 13:14
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I am too, but I think this one is worded correctly to be objective - there are clearly specific pros and cons to small press games. –  mxyzplk Aug 23 '10 at 13:41
    
I'm definitely looking for specifics here. Thanks for the input! –  zacharythefirst Aug 23 '10 at 14:03
    
Hm. Senzar was a small press game. Everway was wildly innovative, and it came from the biggest company in gaming. 4e is pretty damned innovative in terms of mechanics -- it's the fact that those innovations changed a (rightfully) beloved system that bugged people. –  Bryant Aug 23 '10 at 15:11
    
Edited the question, to be more specific and concise. –  zacharythefirst Aug 23 '10 at 16:00

9 Answers 9

The biggest advantage I see is that if you're a completist and don't have a large budget, you can have every product in a product line. That's quite satisfying for certain people.

What also helps with a small press RPG is they can have a narrower focus. Large press RPGs need to please as many people as possible to get a good number of sales, a small press RPG would be satisfied with less sales, so can go with a theme that really appeals a lot to a select group of people.

In terms of product attention, it can vary. If you have someone who moves from one game to an entirely different one, after they've sold most of what they will, they might not care about it 2 years after it's released, whereas a large company will keep giving a product attention as long as it makes money. A small RPG never really made money to begin with, so a developer makes the game for their own enjoyment, and supports it for their own enjoyment.

In terms of feedback, you could get a really good and friendly response, or you could get a hostile one. It'll be all over the place depending on each individual case.

Support will also be on a case by case basis. Reign got a very good amount of support, with 12 direct supplements, and 3 supplements for Reign Enchiridion. A lot of small press RPGs are one off affairs, because supplemental products just don't sell well.

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I believe that the biggest disadvantage here can be finding players to play. You can't just say "looking for players of _", because nobody's heard of __. Being online might be the only way to find players for these RPGs, though some indie games are also harder to play online than in-person.

Provided you can find players to play, you need players who will go into it with the right mindset. Indie games tend to require a different mindset than big press, traditional RPGs. With the right group of friends, this can be fantastic. With a group of D&D vets, though, it'll prove to be a challenge.

As far as a pro, though, indie RPGs are more daring, and they tend to delightfully eschew traditional RPG conventions. You'll probably find some indie RPGs you can't stomach, and some that you really love. Smaller companies aren't worried about releasing games to appeal to the larger niche, so they can afford to do crazy stuff.

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The narrowness of focus of many indie games can be both a pro and a con.

Indie publishers don't develop their games in a vacuum - they create games that differentiate themselves from others and that usually means a very specific setting with rules that are originally developed with that setting in mind.

Compare, for example, the insanity rules of Call of Cthulhu vs the madness meters of Unknown Armies.

A major "con" of this is that many indie games are based on a very specific conceit that may not be that supportive of campaign play.

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Small press benefits:

  • Likely to get personal response from the designer(s)
  • likely to find a very lively forum of dedicated fans

Small press drawbacks

  • finding a group of players may mean convincing them the game's good
  • players might not be able to find their own copies if they want them
  • limited designer resources
    • Usually only a few supplements, if any
    • slow release cycle for supplements (Burning Wheel, for example, has been one supplement per year)
    • production quality lower.
    • designer and playtester competence often lower.

Big press games advantages:

  • If successful, lots of supplements
  • Easier to find for purchase
  • usually better art and layout (but not always)
  • supplements come out far more frequently
  • easier to find players due to name recognition and easy of acquisition.

Big press disadvantages

  • they often ignore players
  • much more likely to be "politically correct"
  • much more likely to be noticed by the anti-gamer crowd
  • Rules quality more consistent, but also more median, than the indie crowd...
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It depends on what you're look for in the way of product support. Larger companies have the budget to produce more in the way of follow-on products (viz Paizo and Pathfinder), and if you're the kind of hobbyist that values this kind of product variety, then this is a happy concordance.

Historically, indie-rpg publishers seem to have approached this from a different angle: they posit that they don't have the resources to produce a large volume of published support for their games so they seem to make up for it in two ways:

  • By designing games that often follow the "one book and out" model, games that have a very tight and specific focus, and either don't need a great deal of follow-on support (Dogs in the Vineyard, for example), or come with the assumption that you and your group will be adding the support you need through house-ruling and so on, often through the very act of playing the game (In a Wicked Age, for example).

  • By providing a purposeful and dedicated on-line presence that focusses on discussions of actual play and answering the "so what do I do with your game" kind of questions.

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Regarding your specific questions - customer and product attention, support, and feedback - I'm not sure there's a huge difference. Big companies have dedicated fora and many authoritative fans; small companies have eager creators you can interact with directly. In either case you can probably get the support you need. I guess in the area of feedback, small press has the edge, since your comments will carry more relative weight with the actual designer and creator due to scale issues.

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In my experience, the biggest plus to going with small/indie-press games is indeed the personal access to the creators. More than once with small press games, I've gotten the chance not only to talk with the creators, but actually sit down and play their game with them--you can't beat that! Many small press publishers host vibrant discussion groups, and it's not at all impossible that, if you're involved enough, you might see something of your own enter the canon.

While it's true that large-term support in the form of supplements may not be available, at least the way I play these days, all I really want is a set of intriguing rules with an evocative, lightly-detailed setting, and a online community to brainstorm with.

I'll chime in with some of the previous answers, too---most innovation happens at the small press level, and there's some amazing innovation going on. This is true even in what in some quarters is called the Old School Renaissance, where small press publishers are really bringing the origins of the game back to life. Everyway, it should be remembered, was created by a specially-created division of WotC, which was supposed to function more like a small press publisher in order to, well, foster innovation!

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Support is one of the major advantages. In general, indie and small-press publishers have a much stronger and more personal web and con presence. You can expect answers to email and forum posts from the small publisher.

While it isn't universally true, you can kind of expect a personal game to be less a product and more a passion. It is more likely to do specific things and be different from the sort of status quo of the gaming industry. They seem to often arise out of someone thinking "hey, I don't know a game that does this one thing right, I'm going to make one." And then they do...or try. (I know I'm discounting a great many games that are pretty generic-rehashings of stuff that's come before, I'm assuming you can detect and skip over those pretty quickly.)

And I think the main difficulty is that they don't have much in the way of marketing dollars. So, if you happen to hang out in the same forum the designer frequents, then you'll hear about it for sure. If not, you might never see it without going to GenCon or something.

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The major pro is more diversity and innovation. All the larger companies publish "traditional" RPGs that tend to stick to mainstream genres and be mechanics-heavy. With massive variety, you can find just about any fringe genre you can think of and lots of innovative mechanics and different approaches to the game.

The major con is support. If you want a game you are going to play for a long time, you sometimes do want a bunch of supplements and for the game to version up and be around and published for.
On "average" you might say that larger company stuff is higher quality - it does have more budget for art, editing, and layout - but there's certainly bad products and games from large companies and tremendous ones from smaller ones. With massive variety comes some junk.

Also, in the RPG world, there are only three companies that could be considered "large" by any stretch of the imagination - WotC, White Wolf, and Catalyst. Paizo might be getting there. But nearly every RPG company has one, maybe two (and most often zero) actual full-time employees, the rest being freelancers. Many of the ones that seem "large" is just because they're small but publish a lot of good product...

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I do think Paizo has as many, if not more, full-time employees as White Wolf now. WW has definitely seen a shift in their publishing philosophy which likely means a smaller staff as well, I think. –  zacharythefirst Aug 23 '10 at 4:18
    
Hm, I would've classed SJG as "large" as well, if nothing else than just the enormous amount of output they generate. –  Vatine Aug 23 '10 at 6:48
    
Let's see. I think you're right about SJC, I found a report (sjgames.com/general/stakeholders) saying they have 28 full-time staff and contractors. And Mongoose Publishing has a bunch, I believe. I can't find info on how small WW has gotten. –  mxyzplk Aug 23 '10 at 13:44
    
I wouldn't count any of the following as "indies": Steve Jackson Games, White Wolf Games, Margaret Weis Publications, Palladium Books, Fantasy Flight Games, Mongoose Press, Eden Studios, Chaosium Publishing, Pinnacle Entertainment Group, Deep7 Productions. (Deep7 is financed by its owner's film career... he is an indie film producer/director...)(Chaosium and PEG have been around too long, printing too much, to be considered indie...)(Margaret Weis Publications is tied to two former TSR employees... and has mainstream access, and big licenses.) (Eden is into too many licenses) –  aramis Oct 11 '10 at 22:51

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