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Mainstream: a revision

Started by Ron Edwards, November 12, 2002, 05:17:24 PM

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Ron Edwards


I'd like to address the issue of mainstream vs. alternative content in role-playing games.

My views are essentially the same as those expressed by the proprietors of Page 45, a comics store in Nottingham, England. A few years ago, one of them sent an amazing letter to Dave Sim, author of the comic Cerebus, which was promptly published for readers. I will have to comb my back issues to find the issue number reference, which in post-move chaos might be a while. If anyone can provide it quick & easy, I'd appreciate it. Anyway, this letter hit me right between the eyes and I have been repeating its content to anyone who'd listen ever since.

In Comics
According to the Page 45 folks, comics hobby culture has reversed the two terms, boosting its very local, in-hobby-popular format/topic into the "mainstream"category - which is to say, since "all of us here" are into superheroes, then superheroes must be mainstream comics.

At Page 45, they consider this to be all backwards. Looking at books, movies, or any other medium, they observe that mainstream content includes these features: science fiction, fantasy/surrealism, sex, biography, humor, horror, and drama (or soap opera, if you will). Therefore, it's the superheroes which are "alternative," which is to say, local and specific to a few fans who interact (about their hobby) mainly to one another, and buy their stuff at specialty shops frequented only by members who like that one topic.

The Page 45 store was one of a few pioneers that put this idea into practice. Yes, they sell superhero comics, but mainly  in "pull" format - you have to register for your titles and they're put in a folder for you. This accounts for a fair piece o'change, especially since it removes the cost of maintaining the huge "browse" shelves of X-books and so forth, few of whose sales ever cover this cost. However, no promotional space is utilized for superhero stuff. Instead, the "floor" is dominated by Vertigo titles and softcovers, evergreen collections like Usagi Yojimbo, Will Eisner material, Cerebus phonebooks, and similar. Rather than bins of back issues, they focus on softcover collections. Promotional space is granted to titles that correspond to humor, sex, biography, SF, fantasy/surrealism, biography, and drama. The floor is tended by knowledgeable people who like the hobby, and titles are promoted on an openly biased basis - just like real salesmen do. Rather than try to get insider-hobbyists to buy new versions of the stuff they already like (e.g. more superhero stuff), they try to interest fringe-hobbyists (e.g. girlfriends) in titles that they might like (e.g. Strangers in Paradise, Sandman). They also include a section for really out-there stuff, e.g. undergrounds, zines, and so forth.

The basic idea is what everyone says they want: trying to increase the number of people involved in the hobby, to increase the number of sales through most of society, and to increase the patronage and appreciation of comics throughout more of society. At Page 45, they consider superheroes to be nearly worthless for this purpose - the more we put blowups of Wolverine or whoever in the store, the more standups and foil covers and toy, t-shirt, and action figure crossovers ... the less the desirable goal happens.

[I'd like to paraphrase Dave Sim, author of Cerebus, a bit to make a related point: that movies and TV deserve special note in this regard. The argument here claims that comics can provide meat/content for movies and TV shows, but that doing so has no appreciable positive impact on the comic itself beyond people who are already buying it or similar comics. In other words, an X-Men movie brings comics fans into the theaters, but it doesn't bring theater-goers into the comics store. My observations corroborate this claim.]

The last few years of Chicago comics commerce bears out the Page 45 philosophy in full. Five full-size comics stores exist in plum locations (downtown Evanston, near north Chicago, the Loop, etc) - all of them practice the Page 45 policy to a large degree. This is serious retail space, people; if you can't cut it every month, you're outta there, and so far, all the stores are doing very well. By contrast, three comics stores exist along Western Ave, a much less-strictly zoned and taxed area; all of them practice the late-80s "glut" approach to superhero titles, as well as the bag-and-box approach to back issues. All of them are under-staffed, increasingly grubby (although they did not start that way), disorganized, stuffed to the gills with unsold toys and standups, and inundated by promotional material that's backlogged by two to five years. All of them are struggling and, in one case to my certain knowledge, subsidized by parental funds.

In Role-playing
I consider "D&D fantasy" to be a thing-in-itself with no direct parallel in fiction that's not gaming-derived. In other words, D&D fantasy is not high fantasy, epic fantasy, Tolkien-inspired, or anything else besides D&D fantasy. I do not restrict D&D fantasy, as an activity, to TSR games, but use it as a term for a type of play and game design that has been repeated by many companies.

I also suggest that "D&D fantasy" plays exactly the same role regarding mainstream/alternative in gaming as superheroes do in comics. Therefore, if we take a leaf from the Page 45 books, the terms switch: for gaming, mainstream content includes science fiction, fantasy/surrealism, sex, biography, humor, horror, and drama (or soap opera, if you will), whereas alternative content is D&D fantasy.

I will also go one step further along the comics model, to say: attempting to increase the hobby's presence in current non-gamers by attempting to attract them via D&D fantasy is doomed to fail. New editions of D&D won't do it; you'll get all those aging grognards to buy stuff again, and you might get the gamer-inclined teens to take an extra peek, but you won't "promote the hobby" in the sense of increasing the patronage and appreciation of comics throughout more of society. No, that will occur by one means only: by presenting games with the real mainstream content, and promoting them through knowledgeable and socially-effective play. This point is related to a whole 'nother essay in development about the Social Contract of play.

And oh yes: making a D&D movie is pissing into the wind; if the movie sucks, the hobby-image suffers, and if it rocks, the movie benefits without much impact on the hobby in terms of a wider distribution or appreciation. Such a tactic is a no-win situation, as Hasbro found out last year. You do realize, of course, that D&D is a big stinking albatross to Hasbro right now, and they're almost certainly been looking to shitcan it since last Christmas, don't you? Sigh ... that's another essay, too.

The final point
My goals for the Forge, as well as for the success of Adept Press, are based on the Page 45 model from a hobbyist's and publisher's point of view. My target audience is twofold: (a) the people who are, or have been, involved in role-playing already but are dissatisfied with D&D gaming (and frankly, also with the only real alternative to have come along, Vampire gaming, which I haven't discussed in this essay); (b) the people who are not involved in gaming now, but could very well be if they were to see the real mainstream version.

At this point, my main audience is (a), which is exemplified by the Forge. I have every intention of developing our shared understanding of Social Contract here over the next year of discussion, which ultimately is aimed toward (b) as well. But I have nothing but contempt for the current most widespread tries at (b), which are in my opinion based on a very faulty and demonstrably unsuccessful policy, itself based on a reversed understanding of "mainstream" and "alternative."

Very bluntly, I consider Sorcerer and Trollbabe to be ideal for both audiences, in terms of both content and system (Elfs is for [a] alone). No, they won't appeal hardly at all to people who consider D&D fantasy (or Vampire gaming) to be "mainstream." They appeal very strongly to those who are already significantly dissatisfied, as well as to those who were never interested in so-call "mainstream" content at all (which includes many fans of literary fantasy and horror). Sorcerer sells like a banshee in stores which tend toward a Page 45 model; it does poorly in stores which follow a "what's hot to gamers" model.

Therefore, I strongly suggest that people consider reversing their use of mainstream/alternative terminology to reflect the reality of people's interests and tastes, rather than cling to what amounts to sympathetic magic on gamers' parts to "legitimize" their fringe interest - given that this interest manages to be both arcane and shallow, I don't consider it any great loss. I also strongly suggest that the potential audiences of (a) and (b) are quite large, (a) in proportion to already-existing role-players and (b) in proportion to the wider society. It's not their fault, or short-sightedness, or intolerance, that has not distributed role-playing more widely to these folks; it's ours, for not making this specific shift in our thinking and our actions before this point.


Emily Care

Quote from: Ron EdwardsTherefore, I strongly suggest that people consider reversing their use of mainstream/alternative terminology to reflect the reality of people's interests and tastes, rather than cling to what amounts to sympathetic magic on gamers' parts to "legitimize" their fringe interest - given that this interest manages to be both arcane and shallow, I don't consider it any great loss.

The main gain from this, as I see it, is in re-orienting our own thinking. A useful goal. (I personally have been using the term "traditional" and "mainstream" rpg a lot lately, what to switch to? Marginal-tradition just doesn't have that ring...)

Quote from: Ron EdwardsI also strongly suggest that the potential audiences of (a) and (b) are quite large, (a) in proportion to already-existing role-players and (b) in proportion to the wider society. It's not their fault, or short-sightedness, or intolerance, that has not distributed role-playing more widely to these folks; it's ours, for not making this specific shift in our thinking and our actions before this point.

Good extrapolation, Ron.  Why fight for the lion's share of what is an extremely limited and fairly economically marginalized community.  Games and comics can move from being strictly fan-based to having general interest, if the content reflects the interests of more than those few that it's already aimed at.  The Japanese manga market (which sells to a huge cross-section of the public, and has many, many genres from Miyazaki level fantasy to tentacle-porn to mah jong comics) is instructive to look at.

Here's a link to a site that talks about this aspect of Manga.

Edited in:
Here's a quote from that site that speaks to this issue, in fact:

QuoteIt is not so much that adults have been drawn to existing comic books, but that the industry finds ways to keep adults interested. These efforts have prompted the evolution of the manga, making it a unique and lasting form of expression.

--Emily Care
Koti ei ole koti ilman saunaa.

Black & Green Games

Jonathan Walton

I know you're preaching to the crowd (a) here, but I thought I'd add an "Amen."

Comicdom, thank heavens, is finally beginning to see that superheroes are not the be-all and end-all of its existence.  Strangely, it began with the indie publishers and then the realization spread to the Big Two (Marvel and DC), which now, thanks to Vertigo and a slew of more recent Marvel titles, are doing similar things.  However, the tide has not yet turned.  Superheroes still dominate and probably will for a while.

Similarly, TSR and White Wolf are beginning to see the light, but they aren't anywhere close to where Marvel and DC are now (and the Big Two of comics aren't that far along themselves).  I think, as with comics, the pressure has to come from indie games that DO WELL by bringing in an audience that wouldn't normally be interested in gaming.

Another good parallel is the American movie industry.  Does anyone remember the year that the indies completely swamped the Oscars?  (When was that, '98?  I don't remember specifically).  The year after, Hollywood was much more willing to try interesting and non-traditional ideas (Fight Club, American Beauty, Sliding Doors, etc.), mimicking the independent films that had done so well the year before.  Would a film like "Momento" have gotten made 5 years ago?  Maybe not.

That said, it's a uphill battle for mainstreamdom, but boy is it going to be FUN!  Nothing excites me more than the thought of where comics and roleplaying will be 50 years from now.  It's a great time to be alive!


Ron Edwards

Hi there,

One quick nuance to clarify ...

On reflection, I should point out that I'm a superhero baby. I inherited a stack of 60s Marvel Comics from my big brother and read them to pieces from age 5 to age 15, as well as buying and devouring tons of my own. Just some examples, out of far too many to admit ... I can still describe (e.g.) the events of the original Ghost Rider series from memory; I am indignant when people confound Peter Parker as written by Lee with the pseudo-character established by Gerry Conway; I'll happily describe the variants in Wolverine's costume from his first appearance in an issue of The Incredible Hulk; I will carry forth at length regarding the transformations of the character of Batman from the 40s to the present; and I will really carry on about how The Watchmen is not a superhero story but how Marshal Law is. Yes, I'm one of those.

However, I admit it - despite the seminal/germinal brilliance of many superheroes, and despite occasional resurrections of that brilliance, the topic as a whole is arcane and shallow, at this point in history. What was good about it has already been incorporated into mainstream concerns (e.g. action movies have "eaten" much of the flair of superhero comics as well as James Bond; TV has "eaten" the mix of action and soap opera that used to be unique to comics). As soon as movies and video games started to "do" superhero comics (that is to say, to incorporate their best attributes, not necessarily adapting titles), the hobby medium went flaccid.

So please don't read my description of superhero comics as utterly contemptuous. I speak from a strange mix of observation and grief, as well as hope.

I am also writing this post because I do have to cop to real contempt for D&D fantasy. Once it's isolated from appreciation for its source material (and most D&D gamers have not read that source material!), I see no merit in it whatsoever that is not provided by an average shoot'em-up video game. But this is a personal failing on my part - I fully admit to the possibility that others' appreciation for it is a 100% parallel to my appreciation for superhero comics.

So with any luck, the topic whether D&D fantasy is a bad thing can be avoided in this thread. The real topic is, I think, its demonstrable failure to qualify for real mainstream interest.


Le Joueur

Here, here!  [Applauds loudly, whistles.]

My feelings (however nebulous they were) exactly!

Fang Langford

p. s. This has been the orientation of Scattershot all along; to aim for the (other) mainstream.  I'll be damned if I can figure out the market penetration point(s), though.
Fang Langford is the creator of Scattershot presents: Universe 6 - The World of the Modern Fantastic.  Please stop by and help!

Jonathan Walton

Quote from: Ron EdwardsSo please don't read my description of superhero comics as utterly contemptuous. I speak from a strange mix of observation and grief, as well as hope.

Again, you're preaching to the choir, Ron.  I'm from a completely different generation of comic book fan (my first issue was X-Force #18, just to give you a frame of reference), but I agree with everything you've said.  I'd love to write an a-typical superhero comic one of these days, but I also grieve that the hobby hasn't taken full advantage of the medium.  Still, every once in a while, some high quality stuff does come out.  I have a copy of "Origin" on my shelf that I bought yesterday.

Also, while I've never played D&D and don't particularly want to, I grew up playing Rifts, so I don't think I can be a game snob either.  I believe in the medium itself, not particular styles of it.  Sorry if all of that didn't come across in my post.



Ron Edwards writes:

QuoteSo with any luck, the topic whether D&D fantasy is a bad thing can be avoided in this thread. The real topic is, I think, its demonstrable failure to qualify for real mainstream interest.

As one of the biggest fans ever of Dungeons & Dragons it is only with clenched determination and a nervous twitch that I adhere to Ron's wishes and avoid the inevitablely out-of-control spiral of defending the Goodness of D&D. :-)

I agree, D&D is not mainstream, nor will it ever become mainstream.

And when I bought D&D in 1997 I realized this and was quite comfortable with that realization. Many people who have worked on D&D over the years have NOT been comfortable with this. There have been those who wished it was mainstream, those who tried to change it to make it more mainstream, or those who wanted to advertise it to the mainstream by claiming it as something other than what it was.

When we decided to publish a 3rd Edition of D&D there was a strong contingent of people in TSR who were of the belief that D&D had to become more "modern", more "story oriented", more "roleplaying instead of rollplaying" (usually adding extra emphasis to the "roll", as if I hadn't seen this wordplay at least 1000 times already). I said "no." Those ideals are *great* for other roleplaying games and that's perhaps where the rest of the hobby should go. But our goal with 3E was NOT to do all that. I was never under the illusion that D&D could somehow become a mainstream product if only we just designed the rules easy enough, had a great movie (btw, we had no editorial control whatsoever over the D&D movie, just so you know!), had the right "bridge product", and perhaps made the art less edgy, etc, etc, etc.

Blech!  Yuck!  Disgusting!  Not on my watch. (Now? Who knows!)

D&D is D&D. And 3rd Edition D&D is more D&D than 2nd Edition was, perhaps even more D&D than Advanced D&D was (but that's too close to call). D&D is about rules. It's about killing monsters, collecting treasure, and going up levels. Oh yeah, and story too, if you're so inclined...

Doesn't sound very mainstream to me.

Peter Adkison
Owner & CEO, Gen Con LLC
"The best four days in gaming!"
I just got married!  See our pictures on, under pictures/melissa's wedding.
Peter Adkison
Owner/CEO, Gen Con LLC
The best four days in gaming!

MK Snyder

I agree completely.

It's a case of the medium being confused with a genre. And, many a visual medium--from cave painting to photography, film, video tape, and digital image media--had their biggest driver in one genre at the time of invention.


They sure'n'heck would not have expanded to what they are today if their inventors had insisted on trying to convert the potential audience to appreciating pornography as a genre as well as accepting the new medium.

We don't have to give up our love for Fantasy to sell RPG's, but we do have to recognize that there are a lot of people out there who will never love Fantasy and would enjoy a *shudder* Fantasy Football RPG.

Ron Edwards

Hi Maryanne,

Don't shudder too, too much at the Fantasy Football idea. We do have Kayfabe, including the Errant Knight Games forum ... and I consider it one of the highest-potential breakout games of the whole shootin' bunch.



I have to give Peter (was great to see the pics of you and Melissa, btw) and his crew credit on 3rdEd. I think they stuck to the appropriate guns and delivered as promised, unlike TSR did in the Lorraine years.  Well, except for Buck Rodgers of course ;-)

My pragmatic view of this Ron is from the POV of a salesman, go figure. The *best* stores take that approach.  Most stores don't. 95% of the  RPG (focusing on them) game retailers are afraid to take their attention from the top 3 of 4 lines to get enough education to rack the alternatives intelligently.  There is no developement without availability.

Now, nice thing is that the *best* stores are doing well, and can continue.  Another nice thing is that for many of them, there wasn't the need for availability until they created it.  Why? Because if you don't know that "Og: the RPG" is out there, you can't miss it.

The bad thing is trying to stay in business with apethetic retailers.  And now you know why I try to insulate you from them! ;-)

ttfn - woody
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Ron Edwards


Boink!! Talk about missing my cue!

Peter, your description about what you (as head dude) made sure to avoid regarding D&D3E, sounds very, very similar to some of my complaints as a consumer regarding Everway.* Holy shit ... are you comfortable discussing the design and publishing issues surrounding Everway, relative to this thread? And I'm sure (eyes narrowed) that everyone realizes that we would be talking about decisions that were made 10-12 years ago.


* Bearing in mind that I admire the game very much and have played it a lot, with minor rules-Drifting.

Ron Edwards

Hi Woody,

I do appreciate the insulation, believe me. As a long-term goal, I think my responsibility as a publisher (with you and whoever else is interested) is to find the retailers who do understand the points I'm making and to strengthen as many personal and professional ties with them as possible. It's a tough task, and I foresee much storm and destruction (paralleling the comics destructo-rama that hit the stores ~6 years ago) before the air is clear enough for "the good ones" (publishers and retailers both) to see and recognize one another.



Ron, I've been saying this for years. When GMS first posted his "gamers suck" essay on Gaming Outpost, decrying the fact that most gamers don't go for stuff that doesn't have fantasy (read: D&D fantasy, in your mode of thought) mixed into it, I said instead of bitching, he should be aiming at a different -- more mainstream, currently non-gamer -- market. I started several threads on the Outpost on the subject.

(Of course, he ignored me until I insulted him and I never got to engage with him on the subject, but that's a bitter tale for another day, if ever.)

So, yeah, you're preaching to the choir. What we need is a game store like the comic shop you mention. One that concentrates on non-D&D (and non-d20) stuff, but is prompt about ordering it if you want it -- and has a catalog available so the hardcore gamer can "browse".

Problem is, as I see it, we're way behind even the comics industry in this, too. My LGS can't be trusted to order things for me -- if I don't come and get something the day it happens to come in, it ends up on the shelf, and I rarely get everything I order. My old LGS in North Carolina was excellent about ordering stuff (because the owner started out in mail-order-only), but bad in nearly every other way -- the owner, while a nice guy, was literally a fat, smelly gamer stereotype. There were bugs in his store. I came in, picked up my order, and left.

The point of my anecdote is too many gaming stores are run as an outgrowth of the hobby and not as a real business. Until we can get the funamentals right, we can't even HOPE to do something like you're talking about, Ron.

I say put up an essay on this and wait. Unless you intend to run a store like this yourself, it's the best you can do. But don't let the idea just sit the forum -- it should be accessible to, ah, the mainstream.
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I have a question regarding how this "Page 45" approach evolves in practice.  I'm not a huge comic book reader and until about a year or so ago I wan't a comic book reader at all.  In fact, I pretty much looked down on those who were comic book readers.  Although, I did enjoy comic book based film and television.  

However, I'm a curious person.  So, when I would come across a comic book fan I would ask them, "So, what's the deal?"  And they'd tell me about this title or that title and so on and so forth.  Eventually, a few particular titles came up often enough that I finally caved and went and picked up the first of the paperback collections of The Sandman, the title that had cropped up most frequently.  And... hey... what do you know, this kicks ass!

So, now I've been collection the Sandman volumes.  I also enjoy some of the darker grittery more pulp-detective-than-superhero reditions of Batman and I just got through the first volume of The Legue of Extraordinary Gentlemen.  In the end, I'm still not a big superhero fan but now I don't ignore something just because it's in comic book format.  Oh, and I DO vastly prefer the paper back compilations over the issue-by-issue format.

My point to all of this is that my transformation from comic book snubber to comic book reader had everything to do with my pet peeve about understanding things.  If I don't understand something I will bang my head against it and question people who seemly do understand it until I understand it too, even if in the end I still end up not enjoying it.  I hold a special chamber of loathing in my heart for people who do not put in a similar effort about things.  Anyway, no amount of comic shop rearrangement would have effected this process, since I never would have gone into a comic book shop in the first place until I knew exactly what I was looking for and I could ask for it by name.

Obviously, the system works because you've sited stores that are thriving off of it, but how exactly does that transformation take place?  Where do the new people come from?  If someone doesn't like comic books because they think comic books and super heroes are synonimous and they don't like super heroes, then how do they end up in these new "Page 45" style shops to see the variety, in the first place?

Just wondering.


Ron Edwards

Hi Jesse,

They thrive on people like you - but more importantly, through the actions of people like your friends. Did they act defensive when you asked? Did they apologize and act submissive? I'm betting not - I'm betting they simply accepted your prejudice against comics and continued, politely, to stand by their judgment that the medium had a lot to offer. Something of this sort must have occurred so that you did go into that store.

In your case, your contribution was the "desire to know." In someone else's case, it might be the desire to placate or put up with a partner's hobby. In yet someone else's case, it might be a desire to prove someone wrong. And in yet another person's case, it might be a response to a cool cover they saw on a comic a friend was reading. The point is that regardless of the "outsider's" prompting behavior, the "knowledgeable person" was able to act in such a fashion about his or her hobby that the other person would - perhaps eventually - go take look for himself/herself.

Now we're in the store - and here's where the Page 45 deal kicks in. Are there are all these grotesque and adolescent dudes in spandex pictured everywhere? (And c'mon, if you're not used to them, they do look fetishist, I admit it.) Are there fraying cardboard boxes full of plastic-wrapped comics? (Comics people never understand that this puts "civilian's" minds straight into perceiving pornography.) Is the proprietor still wearing his Iron Maiden Concert Tour t-shirt from 1982? Is there some picture of some weird unrealistic chick with yard-long thighs doing her Madonna/Whore violent stare?

No. It's a neat shop with cool surrealistic stuff. The posters and gear look semi-occult, semi-hip, and classy. The comics look like books (softcovers), not disposable mags. Some of them have painted covers, and when you open them, you see people talking or wild hallucinogenic trippy stuff, not bulging-muscle fight scenes. The guy or gal who comes up to talk with you starts by asking understandable questions, and asks you things, rather than rattling off stupid insider tag-lines.

This is a big deal. Even just the presence of such a storefront can bring people inside, if the urban white-collar employee sees it every day on their lunch hour, and if they see people "like themselves" coming in and out. And once they're in, if they like the feel of the place, then they'll drop back by ... or maybe pick up a copy of something that the nice staff member (who asked questions about their likes and dislikes) recommended, just on a lark.

The key, though, is twofold: the store's identity and style, and the knowledgeable friend's attitude and confidence. I'll be posting about that latter thing later this week.