[fighting for the hobby on the ashcan front]

What is The Ashcan Front?
For Gen Con Indy 2007, Paul Czege and Matt Snyder organized a booth focused entirely on selling ashcans. We're doing it again for Gen Con Indy 2008.

What is The Ashcan Front's relationship to The Playcollective?
The Ashcan Front was separate from other indie community booths at Gen Con Indy 2007. But for 2008 we're partnering with The Playcollective on a two-booth endcap. It'll be a clearly divided space, with separate shelving and everything. But the Playcollective shares our enthusiasm for ashcans, and so we'll have some of theirs on our shelves and Matt and I will have My Life with Master and Nine Worlds and Dust Devils in with their other games. We're excited about this partnership, because it means Matt and I can represent for our core titles without diluting a stand-alone Ashcan Front presence with them, and because it means Ashcan Front participants will be right in with the community of designers, working together, making connections, feeding each other's enthusiasm, and talking about design.

What's an ashcan?
For purposes of this endeavor an ashcan is a printed RPG rulebook with the following characteristics:

  • The game rules have been playtested and are 90% solid in the designer's opinion, but the game isn't quite delivering on his/her design goals and so he/she doesn't consider it fully baked yet.
  • The text is written not with the aim of fully baked games, to communicate the architecture of play to the customer, and to inspire play with the fullness of its vision, but with the goal of provoking playtesting and feedback toward the as-yet-unrealized design goals.
  • As such, the text includes overt language about the game's design goals, and directly calls out mechanics that need validation and/or refinement.
  • The text invites the purchaser into conversation with the designer.
  • The book as an object has a hand assembled or copy shop aesthetic, or in some other way is clearly not "store ready".

What's the inspiration?
The project was actually inspired by a playtest Paul did at Forge Midwest in 2006:

"I'd been designing a game privately, and soliciting input from folks I respect, but even so I just wasn't solving the most challenging of the design problems. So I announced the playtest on The Forge, and described the game, and suddenly Clyde L. Rhoer and Chris Moore came out of the woodwork. I didn't know either of them, but damn, they were my target audience for the game! And they both gave me great feedback. The experience made me realize that designers who get stuck really need a good way to pre-identify and communicate with their target audience and get feedback."

Can you explain the rationale for the "hand assembled or copy shop aesthetic" requirement?
The idea is to borrow the aesthetics of homemade indie comics (which are awesome) as a way of differentiating the activity from game publishing, and of getting productively out of the Producer/Consumer paradigm.

But neither should an ashcan be cheap looking. If you can manage it, you want to put some love into the crafting of the books, like the indie comics guys do with their homemade comics, because that's how you subliminalize a message to prospective buyers that you love the game and won't be flaking out if they choose to enter into your design process.

Can you tell me more about these "indie comics" of which you speak?
Certainly. How about a few links as a starting point? Check out Paul's write-up (with images) at Story Games here.

Also, Partyka is the collective of four indie comics artists, Shawn Cheng, Sara Edward-Corbett, Sean McCarthy, and Matt Wiegle. They feature their own artwork, and that of other friends, and have links to where you can buy everyone's indie comics.

And the three significant conventions on the indie comics scene are SPACE, SNAP, and SPX.

I'm thinking about doing this. How much should I plan to charge for an ashcan of my game?
Not less than $10.00, unless your page count is pretty low. Your design work won't be furthered by an over lubrication of the price.

Let's say designers start doing ashcans and next year at GenCon there's a bunch for sale at two to three dollars each. So I come home with seven of them. Every single one of those designers disadvantaged themselves with the two or three dollar price, because I can't possibly commit to providing meaningful feedback and/or playtesting to seven games, and each designer sold to me for less than what the ashcans are worth in time and materials. I bought them out of curiousity, at a price that didn't ask for my commitment of interest.

The selling of ashcans isn't publishing. It's a design process. You don't want to sell a hundred ashcans. You want to sell twelve, to exactly the right people. You might have to sell sixty to get the right twelve, but if you sell your sixty for two or three dollars each you're making it easy for those twelve to let life distract them from your game. You've satisfied their curiosity without securing their interest. You want a price that triggers self identification of an engaged feedback community.

How many copies of my ashcan should I make?
Bring 50 copies to Gen Con, but expect you won't sell all of them. In 2007 we had 11 participating ashcan games at the booth. One of them sold 41 copies. One sold 5 copies. The average was 24. The average sold by first time designers was 19.

Won't I lose money? Why should I do this?
Yes, unless you have illicit access to printing or photocopying at your workplace it's going to cost you more per unit in time and materials to make ashcans than it would to use a POD printer to print books. And judging from last year's numbers you have to consider that revenue from sales won't cover your expenses.

But this isn't the profit taking stage of indie publishing. This is the development stage. In effect, the expenses here beyond your sales revenue are an investment in getting what you need to carry through on your design goals and deliver on your game's potential.

We think that if you're working on a roleplaying game, and you've playtested and refined it and yet you're still not satisfied it's reliably delivering on your goals, that expenses incurred doing an ashcan that returns input from engaged hobbyists are well worth it.

And as an added bonus you also get a face-to-face understanding of exactly who your game appeals to that can inform your writing of the final game text, your art direction, layout, marketing, etc.

But yes, an ashcan isn't right for every game.

Okay, I want to be a part of the booth. How do I buy in?
Take a few days and think about it. Think about the game you're developing. Is it mostly working but just not quite firing on all cylinders in your playtests? Can you see how you'd write a non-traditional style of game text that reveals your design goals to prospective playtesters and focuses their attention and efforts on the mechanics that aren't working as envisioned?

An ashcan is a tool for solving the last thorniest issues in a game. Is that what you need? If so, then post your interest as a response to this thread at The Forge. Describe your game and your unrealized design goals for it.

We'll open things up for actual buy-ins near the end of April. We're looking at a $120 buy-in cost, plus the $65 cost of your exhibitor badge.

(You'll want to be financially tied to the ashcan endeavor this early because trust us, you're going to need all the time you can muster from now until GenCon to write, arrange for artwork, and layout the text, figure out how you want the physical ashcan to look, and actually make the ashcans.)

We're hoping for a ~40% population of designers who've previously self-published games, with the remainder being designers for whom the end result of this ashcan stage will be their first published game.

How will the booth work?
We'll have half of a 20 x 10 endcap booth, which certainly can't support a constant population of more than a dozen game designers. So we'll have a rotation schedule. Expect to spend a couple hours each day representing your own ashcan and those of other participants, as well as taking part in setting up the booth on Wednesday, morning conversations each day before the exhibit hall opens (focusing our efforts as a group, addressing concerns, negotiating our daily schedules), and cash out and clean-up activities at the end of each day.

I actually have more than one game in development. Can I have ashcans of more than one game at the booth?
The limit for the booth is one game per designer.

Can I take part in other booths, too?
Yes, but participation in The Ashcan Front project requires you commit a portion of your time to The Ashcan Front booth.

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