When you have an idea for a part of an RPG, how do you get that idea in front of people? It may seem a strange question in these days when there's no barrier between 200 words about a mechanical oryx and the entire Internet, but it hasn't always been so simple. Especially if you wanted people to pay to use your idea, and thus "letter to the editor of a gaming magazine" was off the table.
Well, how did other ideas about RPGs get in front of people? Oh, look! It's Industry-Leading Fantasy RPG Dungeons & Dragons! I guess that's how it must be done. So, you'll need:
- at least three thick core rule books, more if you actually want to play the game in a defined setting
- a game focused around dungeon-diving, combat, and looting
- cover art, interior art, and professional layout and printing
And so you set out to create all of these things, to package your handful of good ideas in. They don't have to turn out terrible or anything, but the most charitable way to describe them is uninspired. They're not the good idea you want to bring out to the world. They're just its packaging.
And then of course there's the matter of getting paid for this. Who do you sell all these professionally printed books to when they come out? Individual people? No, you need more reach than that; you need to sell your books to the distributors who sell them to game stores who sell them to individual people and now you're two removes from your original audience. Maybe you give up on that and just try marketing to people directly, but either way it ends at the same place:
You, at or beyond the brink of financial ruin, carting suitcases of books around gaming conventions looking for someone to buy some and pull you back, but the vast, crushing majority of people who try to engage with your product get hung up on something in the "packing material".
Doesn't it just break your heart? It broke Ron Edwards', who let it out in this essay:
The basic notion is that nearly all of [these] games have one great idea buried in them somewhere. It's perhaps the central point of this essay - that yes, these games are not "only" AD&D knockoffs and hodgepodges of house rules. They are indeed the products of actual play, love for the medium, and determined creativity. That's why they break my heart, because the nuggets are so buried and bemired within all the painful material I listed above.
It is killing, just killing, to contemplate the authors' naivete about the actual market and nature of RPGs as a business. Consider their status from the perspective of the three-tier system of marketing. As fantasy games, they were competing with TSR. As "lines," they were competing not only with TSR but also with such aggressive line-developers as White Wolf, AEG, and FASA (at the time). As lower-budget labors of love, they offer neither the coffee-table degree of glitz as single objects, nor the promise of multiple sequential objects, that the bigger companies presented.
So economics is the second reason that these games break my heart: basically, they were and are doomed. The world of the 1990s was no longer a place in which a house-rules variant of D&D can take wings in the marketplace and fly. They're dead.
These days it's used to address things that share a commonality of form with the heartbreakers of old, whether or not somebody paid thousands of dollars for what, in the end, were a bunch of expensive garage ornaments.
As long as you have a few good ideas and they're surrounded by flawed or uninspired filler, you have a "heartbreaker".