What does “indie” mean for gaming?

Calling a game “indie” has certain connotations, but what does indie really mean? This thought came to me the other day when I was reading through a conversation on a message board about what people’s preferred games were. I kept on seeing people who said they liked “indie” games and started wondering, what is an indie game?

It’s probably useful to consider context. Video games, for example, have a different scale when it comes to the sizes of the organizations that produce them. Don’t believe me, then just look up the credits for the people that create games. Lots and lots of people create games, and in a capacity akin to filmmaking. Revenues are often tallied in 10s of millions of dollars. The world of tabletop gaming is much smaller, and by all measures.

Therefore, indie in video games will probably fit what I suspect is the definition of the term in the popular imagination. Connotations for indie are generally assumed to be a small organization, and team, of people operating their own little entity that produces games. There are no shareholders to appease, and it is likely the that games produced, as well as the company itself are relatively small organizations. This is where indie lives up to the term it is an abbreviation of, independent. In this case, independent of corporate influence.

When it comes to the world of tabletop games, the concept of indie is less obvious. For all intents and purposes, I’d estimate that 99% of the tabletop industry qualifies as being “indie”. (I have no official stats to back this up.)This makes the term almost meaningless for tabletop games because it can be applied to pretty much everyone. What would be the exception were publishers that didn’t qualify as indie. Yet, the term persists, and I’m not always clear on what it is supposed to mean.

Some ideas that could be applied would have to be assumptions that the number of people involved in the production of a product (game or supplement) would probably be fairly small. Additionally, the associated revenues of the products are probably small as well. It would also be presumable that the audience for those products is proportionally small as well. The repeated term “small” is relative, but tabletop gaming, especially role-playing games, is a niche hobby. If we apply the admittedly vague criteria above, then indie games are essentially a niche within a niche. So, very small.

Ultimately, the sticking point for me is that games shouldn’t be described as an indie. There needs to be a different term because indie is largely meaningless. While it is possible to infer meaning when the term indie is used, it isn’t a clearly defined concept.

There’s one other dimension to this, marketing. Calling a game “indie” brings with it connotations of its own, often about attitude. Indie games can buck corporate directives, which is positive, but it’s the concept of “cool” that also is associated with “indie”. Those small companies and products are given different considerations and have different expectations of them. These can be dubious associations, but they are just as prevalent as any other idea lumped into the definition of “indie”.

Nothing really needs to change in the industries I touched on here, at least as far as operations are concerned. What would be nice is perhaps a different approach to discussing organizations of different sizes. Indie is a catch all term that people assume has more meaning than it actually in fact does. We need some new semantics in gaming. While I’m all for supporting smaller creators, I think it’s time to think up a new vernacular for having those conversations.

Poetry, a public domain treasure

Pretty much anything published before 1923 should be in the public domain. This includes poetry. Aside from Shakespeare’s Sonnets, The Divine Comedy, or maybe Beowulf, I suspect most people don’t consider public domain poetry much.

As someone that reads a lot of genre fiction, it’s almost impossible to avoid poetry. Fantasy authors seem to have a particular enthusiasm for it, and love to write odes, bawdy drinking songs, and whatnot into their texts. This goes back to the beginning, at least as far back Tolkien, which contained poetry as a sort of world-building tool. However, I also enjoy poetry in its own right. I respect it and a writer’s ability to create it immensely. Try writing some verses yourself, and you’ll see why these people merit their accolades.

While poetry isn’t anywhere near as popular as it once was, it remains a valuable art form. I’ll avoid a formal analysis of this poem, but here is a decent example that fell into the public domain cracks.

LXXII
Warnings

  • When Heaven sends sorrow,
    • Warnings go first,
    • Lest it should burst
    • With stunning might
    • On souls too bright
      • To fear the morrow.
  • Can science bear us
    • To the hid springs
    • Of human things?
    • Why may not dream,
    • Or thought’s day-gleam,
      • Startle, yet cheer us?
  • Are such thoughts fetters,
    • While Faith disowns
    • Dread of earth’s tones,
    • Reeks but Heaven’s call,
    • And on the wall
      • Reads but Heaven’s letters?
  • Between Calatafimi and Palermo.February 12, 1833.
  • LXXIII

Taken from public domain eBook Verses on Various Occasions by John Henry Newman. Accessed 16-09-2022, original source: https://standardebooks.org/ebooks/john-henry-newman/verses-on-various-occasions

Whether you agree with the religious nature or not of the poem isn’t the issue. I like it because I feel like it sounds like a sort of faith-based prophecy criticizing people from the old ways to the new. It’s exactly the kind of thing I’d expect to see in a fantasy novel where forms of prophecy are very common.

There is so much out there, so many wonderful books and pictures that sometimes people forget poetry even exists. The poem cited above is one example, but there are many, many more.

Wizards of the Coast in court against TSR

With Halloween just around the corner, I’d hoped that a dispute between TSR and Wizards of the Coast (WotC) would just be a joke. Zombie Gary Gygax rises from the grave to duke it out with an army of D&D 5e playtesters. All of whom are led by a canny band of actual play YouTubers. It could be big!

Sadly, it is in fact a very real lawsuit where WotC is suing to protect its image and claim to older TSR intellectual properties such as Star Frontiers. I first read about this lawsuit via Polygon. People have been very critical of D&D, and WotC as an organization, but this lawsuit is a thing to behold because the person they are suing deserves to be dragged into court.

In the article, there are samples from the new TSR’s version of older sci-fi RPG. The racism couldn’t be more blatant, and I’m shocked that anyone could be so hateful and think that in this day and age there’s actually a market for that kind of product. That’s one part of the lawsuit. It speaks for itself, and if it wasn’t WotC taking the creator (Justin LaNasa) of this game to court, someone else would. The stuff that is the working draft of Star Frontiers New Genesis is unconscionably racist.

However, the bigotry component of the lawsuit isn’t everything. This is also a battle for IP ownership. It will be interesting to see how this one plays out because according to the Polygon article, WotC has admitted to being negligent with regard to renewing copyright on older IPs. It is conceivable that the gaming giant loses control of products previously associated with TSR, the business taken over by WotC a couple decades ago. (Has it been so long?) If WotC somehow loses this part of the lawsuit that means that they accidentally ceded the rights to products they legally obtained. That is some poor management, and someone should be fired for that.

In my opinion, the real story here is not WotC or the loss of IPs, rather it is racism. Someone took it upon themselves to codify explicit racism into a game for profit. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if WotC hadn’t filed this lawsuit. Would this iteration have actually gone ahead and published such a steaming pile, and think no one would notice? Really, it’s shocking, and I’m genuinely happy that WotC is suing to make sure this claptrap never sees the light of day.

*I have deliberately avoided linking to the original content in question, as well as “new” TSR.

Keeping up with the Awards’

Last week, the winners of the Hugo Awards were announced. After looking over the list, I realized I was familiar with very little of the content in ANY of the categories. Immediately, I felt the twinge of guilt I always feel for not being more current and promised myself to indulge in some of the stuff that had at least been nominated. Then I realized how silly that was because let’s face it, there’s no way to keep up with everything out there.

Think about it, aside from the Hugos, there are the Nebula Awards, the Locus Awards, and the Bram Stoker Award, and this list could become very long. There are a lot of awards from a variety of organizations. Is it even possible to stay on top of all this?

One of the people on the list of Hugo Winners was N.K. Jemisin (Best Graphic Story or Comic WINNER: Far Sector, written by N.K. Jemisin, art by Jamal Campbell (DC)), and I swear, at the rate she’s going she’ll die one of the most decorated writers of genre fiction ever. Robert A. Heinlen has won six Hugos, but I suspect Jemisin could overtake him, despite everything else she’s won. Then again, she has a ways to go before they name an award after her, so we’ll have to wait and see. Anywho, I hadn’t even realized Jemisin was nominated because I’d completely lost track of the fact that the Hugos were going to be taking place! I know, I’m a bad nerd.

The thing is, I don’t know that I really care. All of that great content will still be there in the future -ironic for science fiction, right?-and I can explore it then. By the time I finally get around to it there will have been more rewards granted, and more content, and more rewards, and so on, and so on, and so on…

At the end of the day or the beginning of the night, whichever you prefer, there is simply too much out there. Awards help filter through some of the detritus, but there’s a lot of stuff out there. When it comes to entertainment options, there’s no shortage. There was a time when my to-be-read pile was filled with stuff from various awards and honours, almost exclusively, and a lot of what I got through was first-rate. After a while, it all became too much. There’s a sense that you have to keep up with the current trends, the best new books, and the most award-winning title. It isn’t true though, and while I think the creators that are considered for an honour, let alone winners of the awards, are worth your time, it’s impossible to keep pace with everything.

That is to say, don’t bother. There’s so much out there to enjoy, don’t let the awards make the choices for you. I’ve made this mistake in the past and found myself lamenting that I’d pushed some of my own interests aside in favour of what was supposed to be the “it” thing. Learn from my mistakes kids, and unless they overlap, keep focused on your interests.

(Now, where was my library card to go check some of these winners out…)

*List of winners of the Hugos can be found here (<- actual site) and here (<-Gizmodo).

Publishing date and the public domain: When a work doesn’t enter the public domain

During his lifetime, British author E.M. Forster received awards, honours, and all kinds of platitudes for the quality of his writing. His novels have been made into films and plays, and have stood the test of time. For anyone that isn’t familiar with his works, they are almost certainly available through a library, but also available as public domain works.

However, despite the fact that Forster was writing at the outset of the 20th century, one of his works may not be available in the public domain. The novel, Maurice, is to put it crudely, a gay love story. Fearing retribution for having written favourably of a homosexual, Forster buried the book and requested it be published posthumously. He was, apparently, afraid that the book would destroy his career. With his death in 1970, Forster’s “unpublishable” manuscript finally saw the light of day.

However, despite the book being a very worthwhile read, especially as a quality LGBTQ+ work, it isn’t available in the public domain. Despite other, and Forster’s most critically acclaimed works, shedding previous copyright protection, Maurice’s later publication date (1971) shields it from joining the author’s other novels. That doesn’t mean it isn’t accessible, but not in the public domain.

It is a curious situation that a book was published some 60 years or so after it was written, and remains separated from other works in Forster’s oeuvre. The Trial by Franz Kafka was published posthumously; although, it is now in the public domain, along with other works. The publication date in this case is the main issue. Originally, Kafka’s original works became public domain, but the translations which were published later did not enter the public domain at the same time, or at all. The same is the situation with Maurice.

It can be purchased or borrowed from a library, but it remains under copyright protection. It is an anomaly, but not a unique one. If you are interested, the book is very good. It was chosen as a selection for the book club I’m a part of and will be reviewed once we’ve completed the novel. This article was put together to cover a unique trait of the novel, but not one I had wanted to discuss at length during a proper review.

Dragons of Autumn Twilight (Dragonlance: Chronicles #1), a review

What books do fans of fantasy fiction think of when they reflect on the works that define the genre? After The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, or A Game of Thrones and its subsequent sequels, it’s fair to challenge people to name works of fantasy fiction. “name your top five fantasy novels…” I imagine people would name Harry Potter or Conan as well, so we’re up to three or four now.

And that’s the rub, isn’t it? People might struggle to name more than a few. Despite its apparent popularity, fantasy is not well-explored by most people. Interestingly, one of the books-series of books, actually-that I often see on shortlists of “Best Fantasy Novels” is Dragons of Autumn Twilight by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. In fact, I picked it up and read it because someone else suggested it as a favourite work of fiction.

This novel is the first in a trilogy that details the adventures of a group of heroes in a fantasy world (Krynn) created for the tabletop role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons. Tanis, Sturm, Caramon, Raistlin, Flint, and Tasslehoff find themselves pitted against the forces beyond their comprehension, and seemingly well beyond their capabilities. They read like archetypal fantasy. Dragons, medieval wizards and warriors, elves, dwarves and so on. So much about this book perfectly encompasses what I suspect most people imagine when they think of fantasy fiction, for better or worse.

This book scratches a particular itch. On one hand, and let’s just get this out of the way, detractors of fantasy will point to books like this as an example of why the genre is garbage. Overall, the sophistication of the story probably fits with YA novels. The characters feel somewhat contrived and based on well-worn cliches. On the other hand, who cares what they say!

So much of what has become a staple of geeky culture is evident in this book. The humour, the character archetypes, and of course, the fact that the story is one giant D&D reference. Back when this novel was published, in 1984, people thought about stuff like TTRPGs much differently. There was the infamous Satanic Panic, which would have been at its peak when this novel was published. Tabletop gaming, in general, was much more niche 38 years ago when this book hit the stands. Yet, this book has endured and has cultivated fans for decades. From start to finish, Dragons of Autumn Twilight is like a precursor to every geeky joke and anecdote you might expect to hear people swap at a gaming table.

This last point is probably the most important for the novel’s legacy. It’s easy to tear this book down because it isn’t highly refined literature. However, it is fun, and it is fun in a unique way for its fans. Sometimes a book can be greatly enhanced when the audience gets the “in-jokes” that are peppered throughout the story. Weis and Hickman wrote their tale to include all of that, but the thing that stands out for me is that they get the in-jokes as well. They could be swapping them with the readers because they’re also the audience. Both author and reader played TTRPGs, principally D&D.

It was a level playing field between the creators and the consumers, and even if the stories don’t break the mould, they bring to life what a lot of gamers were engaging with during TTRPG sessions. These novels were created to breathe a different sort of life into D&D (see Shannon Applecline’s Designers & Dragons), and they ultimately succeeded. The original Dragonlance modules served as inspiration, and have become something of a cult classic in fantasy fiction.

No, Dragons of Autumn Twilight is not for everyone. People who like fantasy and D&D might not even like Weis and Hickman’s treatment of the source material, but there are those that do. These novels are for the people that play games, first and foremost. That was always the intended audience, and it always will be. If you’ve ever played D&D and enjoyed traipsing about the wilderness, clashing with evil spellcasters, and slaying monsters, then these books are for you. They were always meant for you.