Covers That Rock

I found out this week that Mission of Burma released an I-tunes exclusive live EP. Live material isn’t usually that exciting, but the cool thing about it is that it includes their cover of “Youth of America” by the Wipers. You may recall me talking about how much ass this kicked the last time I saw Burma, so needless to say I bought a copy. It also got me thinking of other great cover songs, so I decided to list out a few of my favorites.

The Clash, “Police on my Back”: Many people don’t realize it’s a cover but this song was originally done by a band call the Equals in the late 60s. While the Sandinista triple album has some spotty stuff on it, this song is a pitch perfect punk rock anthem.

New Bomb Turks, “Mr. Suit”: The first New Bomb Turks album is full of catchy and speedy songs, so you’d expect their cover of Wire’s “Mr. Suit” would be at least as fast as the original. But no, the Turks sucker punch your expectations and slow it down and the results are glorious.

The Avengers, “Paint It Black”: Penelope Houston’s vocal urgency makes this Stones’ tune a winner.

firehose, “Slack Motherfucker”: I like this version much better than the Superchunk original.

Penetration, “Free Money”: It took guts to cover this Patti Smith song only a couple of years after its release. Penetration easily could have embarrassed itself, but Pauline Murray has a great voice and she more than pulled it off.

Dropkick Murphys, “You’re a Rebel”: I don’t know if they ever recorded this, but when I saw them a few years ago they did a spirited cover of this Iron Cross classic.

Newtown Neurotics, “Blitzkrieg Bop”: There have been countless covers of this Ramones’ song. What I like about this one is that the Neurotics turned it into a protest song about nuclear weapons. Now that’s 80s punk rock for you.

Naked Raygun, “Suspect Device”: Naked Raygun always had a bit of Stiff Little Fingers in their sound, so this nod to them makes perfect sense. Great on record and live.

The Saints, “River Deep, Mountain High”: You wouldn’t expect an Ike and Tina Turner song to make a great punk tune, but the Saints version of it is amazing. It makes me want to jump and pogo every time I hear it.

The True Story of True20, Part 5

The summer of 2005 was a time of highs and lows. On the upside, we made deals with Alliance and Diamond that took care of our hobby and book market penetration respectively, we had excellent summer convention sales (including sell-outs of Blue Rose at both Origins and GenCon), Mutants & Masterminds 2nd edition blew the roof off GenCon, we sold over 100 of a con special POD of the original True20 PDF, and GR came home with a pile of ENnie Awards, including Best Game for WFRP and our second year in a row as Best Publisher. Blue Rose picked up three silver awards, for Best d20 Game, Best Rules, and Best Cover Art. On the downside, the owner of Osseum fled Seattle and any hopes of getting money from him receded into the distance, we were carrying a lot of debt thanks to that situation, and as we released new d20 product that summer we discovered that the market for it was even worse than we suspected.

What to do about d20 became a big topic for the summer. We still had a lot of projects underway, ranging from drafts to completed and edited manuscripts. We also had the Thieves’ World books all either done or nearing completion and the first two books debuted at GenCon. We figured the license would carry those books but our other d20 stuff didn’t have a 20-year literary tradition to fall back on. Was this simply a marketing problem that could be overcome with a clever PR campaign or was this a permanent market shift?

Naturally, we had to start thinking about D&D; 4th edition too. When it might come out, how it might impact the marketplace, and whether 3rd party companies would be able to support it. In addition to talking to my staff about such things, I also had conversations with other of the surviving d20 publishers that summer. I was talking to the owner of one such company at GenCon and I said, “You know, what’s to stop us from designing our own 4th edition? What if the remaining good d20 companies teamed up and put together a new iteration of the rules together? We could split the profits of the core books and then each of us would support the game with supplements. We’d then have a solid core to build on that was ours to control and the combination of all our fanbases would hopefully allow us to strongly establish the new game in the marketplace.” It was intriguing idea and before the end of the show several other publishers came to talk to me about it. Ultimately, the idea never moved forward for three reasons. First, division of labor and profits on the core book would be a bear, never mind what vision would lead the design. Second, for this to really be attractive, we’d need to get Monte Cook involved. Since Monte is the exception to about every rule in d20 publishing and he already has a variant game in the form of Arcana Evolved, I just didn’t see it happening. Third, we already had plans for True20 moving ahead and there was a good possibility that True20 could follow in the footsteps of Mutants & Mastermind and break out. Were that to happen, we wouldn’t want to undercut our own success by taking part in a venture to bring out yet another OGL variant.

In the fall we began getting Setting Search entries. The overall standard was pretty high, so much so we decided to do a follow-up book to feature more of the entrants. That would put the four winners in the core book and four runners-up in a book we dubbed True20 Worlds of Adventure. We also decided to add one new setting, “Razor in the Apple” by Rob Schwalb, to the book as well. Soon we were planning True20 support books for the rest of 2006. If True20 was going to establish itself, it would need several good support books to follow up the game’s release. We wanted both retailers and fans to understand this was going to be a game with legs.

In this same period we began marketing the game in earnest. True20 Adventure Roleplaying was promoted at both of the Alliance Open Houses that fall. We also made arrangements to do a preview in Alliance’s Game Trade Magazine. The best news on the marketing front came from Dragon though. When I told Dragon about the True20 Setting Search, they asked if they could reveal the winners exclusively in the magazine’s pages. While it would mean delaying our announcement by about a month, the marketing value was too high to pass up so I happily agreed. Everything was now falling into place for the game’s debut.

End, Part 5.

Less Than Astonished

I picked up the first graphic novel (“Gifted”) of the Astonishing X-men a couple of weeks back. I hadn’t read the X-men in many years, but I was curious to see how Joss Whedon was as a comic writer so I gave it a shot. “Gifted” did a lot of set-up but was pretty good overall. Whedon is clearly a huge X-men goober, which is both good and bad. There are some funny parts where he references old stories but he also seems to assume you’re fully versed in the entire X-men mythology so he doesn’t go out of his way to explain some things a neophyte wouldn’t get. Or say, someone who stopped reading the series in the early 90s. Anyway, I liked Gifted enough that I went out and bought the second graphic novel (“Dangerous”) yesterday while I was downtown. I had assumed it would pick up some of the plot threads from Gifted, but instead it veered off in a completely different direction.


So can someone explain to me why (o God why?) writers seem so drawn to fucking Holodecks? Everytime Star Trek would do a stupid holodeck episode, I groaned. “Oh no, we’re somehow trapped in the holodeck and this time we could die!” That was bad enough. Now I find the frickin’ Danger Room has turned into Holodeck 2. This is strike 1 against Dangerous. Strike 2 is the Danger Room achieving sentience. Gee, incredibly dangerous computer achieves sentience. That was fresh…in 1968. Then the Danger Room takes on humanoid form for no particular reason and tries to kill Daddy (Prof. X). Strike 3! While I do like the characters’ banter, overall I am less than astonished.

More on True20 later.

The True History of True20, Part 4

Having decided to do a True20 core rulebook, we now had to answer several more questions. When should the game come out? How big should the book be? What else should go in it? What could we do raise its profile?

Looking over the schedule, I did not think it was practical to add True20 to our planned 2005 releases. In the summer and fall we not only had the Thieves’ World line to release, but we were also launching Mutants & Masterminds 2nd edition. We didn’t have the resources to do another major launch in that same time period. If we were going to do True20, we were going to do the book right. I therefore decided to schedule the full True20 core rulebook for Q1 of 2006.

The rules as they were took up a little less than 100 pages sans art. I thought True20 would do best as a hardback and that argued for a bigger book. Certainly expanding out the rules to cover modern and scifi would take some room and of course we’d add art. We still had a good amount of potential space so I thought one or more sample settings would flesh out the game nicely. Giving people rules is great; giving them concrete examples of how to use them would be even better.

Our initial discussions revolved around existing Green Ronin settings. We had been doing Mythic Vistas, a whole line of campaign settings, for several years, so we had a lot to choose from. While adapting some of those settings would have been easy enough, I was worried that doing so might send the wrong message. I did not want gamers to think that True20 was just an excuse to rehash a bunch of stuff we had published already. Providing new settings seemed a much better idea.

At this point my thoughts turned to the other publishers that asked about licensing True20. We had been running a program for Mutants & Masterminds called M&M; Superlink for several years. This allowed third parties to publish material compatible with M&M.; While the program had been and continues to be quite successful, it also sucks up a fair amount of GR staff time with approvals. If we did a similar program for True20, we’d be looking at potentially doubling the number of approvals and that was not attractive. On the other hand, having other publishers supporting the game would be a plus, so I didn’t want to forget the idea entirely.

It was this train of thought that led me to conceive of the True20 Setting Search. The idea was pretty simple. We’d put out a call to other publishers, asking them to submit 15,000 word True20 campaign settings. The winners would get their settings in the core book and a free license to do their own support material for that setting. This would give us new settings for the game and a small group of quality publishers to help us support it. The Setting Search was also a great marketing tool that would help keep True20 in people’s minds as we worked towards getting the core book out.

To make this work, we could, of course, need to make the True20 rules available to other publishers in some form. This contributed to our decision to release a no frills PDF of the True20 rules in June, 2005. This would be just the rules from Blue Rose with a new modern appendix. No art, no fancy layout. The bonus of this plan was that it’d get the True20 rules out there in some form in the short term. We figured people would greet the news that the full book wouldn’t come out until 2006 a lot more positively if we announced the interim PDF at the same time.

This then was the plan conceived in May, 2005. We would create a no frills PDF for release the following month. We would debut it on the same day we announced plans for the full core book and the Setting Search. The rulebook itself would be a 224-page hardback with a targeted release window of Q1, 2006. It would feature the best entries from the Setting Search. Publishers would be encouraged to come up with entries that would show off “the elegance and flexibility of the True20 system.” June 16, 2005 the core rulebook and Setting Search were announced and the interim PDF was released. True20 was officially on.

In Case You Were Wondering

If you’ve been wondering what the hell this True20 thing that I’ve been talking about is, some downloads went live today that can help you out. If you go to, you can download free Quick Start Rules for the game and an adventure to go with them. These two files are enough to let you try the game out and the scenario includes pre-generated characters. The adventure is Death in Freeport, something I wrote just about six years ago that has had a much longer life than I could have imagined at the time.

The True20 History of True20 will continue in a day or two. I’ve been quite busy banging away at Warhammer 40,000 Roleplay and for obvious reasons that has to take precedence over noodling on my blog.

The True History of True20, Part 3

In the same way that voters want to feel that the government listens to their concerns, gamers want publishers to pay attention to their feedback. Companies that don’t, or at least give the impression that they don’t, can earn a negative reputation that can dog them for years. You’ll still see D&D; fans, for example, criticize the TSR of the 2nd edition era for not listening to what they really wanted. Since game companies are in the business of selling product, this fan reaction is fair enough. Of course publishers want to make products that fans want to buy. That’s how they stay in business.

The trick, of course, is actually figuring out what they want. Gamers are a disparate lot and in any given conversation you’ll see a dozen contrary opinions expressed. Learning to tune out the noise so you can hear what’s really going on is a skill you can develop after some time in the game business. The internet has made this easier in some ways but more difficult in others. On the upside, message boards and e-mail make it simple for fans to give companies direct feedback, sometimes within hours of a product being released. The downsides are all the typical internet problems. People that can hide behind a screen name will say things to you online they’d never say to your face, small groups of vocal critics can pretend they represent a majority when really they are just isolated cranks with big mouths, misinformation that gets out there early can continue to be repeated long after it’s been disproved (TSR trademark the term Nazi is a classic here), etc.

So how do you know what to listen to and what to ignore? For starters give special attention to fans you meet at conventions. I find it’s always better to talk to people face to face rather than via the internet. It’s just hard to beat a real conversation and people will tell you things in person they might not bother to write about. Second, look for trends in e-mail and snail mail sent to your company. I find this feedback tends to be more honest than what you see on message boards. Oftentimes people on message boards just want to draw attention to themselves or grind their personal axes. People who take the time to write privately—be it positive or negative—tend to be more interested in communicating than grandstanding. Third, pay attention to how people are actually using your products. This may not be immediately obvious, but it’s important. RPGs are designed to be played so if you can see what is making it into people’s home games you can better plan to make future products even more useful. Lastly, watch what fans do because it’s sometimes different than what they say. For example, over the years umpteen gamers have said they are sick of settings like the Forgotten Realms and they want to see something different. And yet, even at the height of d20, settings that really were different rarely sold well. The very same people who clamored for something new would dismiss such settings as too niche or weird.

I bring all this up because this is the sort of analysis we were doing in the months after Blue Rose’s release. We had heard from people almost immediately who were interested in seeing a separate True20 rulebook. The question we had to answer was whether or not there was enough real demand for this to put it on our schedule and devote resources to making it happen. There were people who seemed to expect that we’d drop everything we were doing, abandon Blue Rose, and immediately implement this plan. Well, it’s really easy to spend other people’s money but it’s a whole different experience when your decisions affect the livelihoods of a half-dozen people. I had always tried to plan Green Ronin’s schedule and direction carefully and this was doubly true in light of the Osseum situation I discussed in the previous installment.

So the Green Ronin staff spent several months discussing the matter internally as we watched and listened as Blue Rose continued to sell and provoke discussion (and some amount of controversy). In that time we discovered that people were running a variety of different campaigns using the rules, particularly Star Wars games. We got a lot of private e-mail praising Blue Rose and many also expressed a desire to see a True20 core rulebook. We also got a bunch of inquiries from smaller publishers who really liked the rules and wanted to know if they could do compatible material. These were all positive signs. Of course, nothing can be done fast enough to please angry gamers with a sense of entitlement, particularly those with a hate-on for the Blue Rose setting that was beyond irrational (seriously, it was like they feared that the Blue Rose book would slip beneath their Princess Leia sheets to emasculate them in the dark of night). So we also had to listen to increasingly shrill and abusive demands from a small group of “fans” who seemed to believe that insulting us, belittling various staff members, and attacking Blue Rose fans was the best way to get what they wanted. While there was a certain comedy to these antics, their efficacy was nil. We simply don’t make important business decisions based on the screeching of a few internet trolls.

Now our own discussions started with the Black Thorn project and we spent some time kicking that idea around. We soon decided that doing another fantasy setting would be too limited in scope though. By May (that’s three months after Blue Rose’s release, for those keeping track) we had decided that there was indeed enough actual demand to do a proper True20 core rulebook. We spent that month coming up with a new plan and deciding on how we would execute on it. The important point here is that we listened to the people that mattered, the critical mass of real fans. Just as important was the analysis that this would be a good business move for the company, since at that point in time there was no room for missteps. Divining what gamers really want is more art than science, but as summer approached we felt confident that doing a True20 core rulebook was the right decision and we were making it for the right reasons.

In the next installment I’ll talk about the plan we developed for the release of True20 Adventure Roleplaying and some of the considerations that went into it.

End, Part 3.

The True History of True20, Part 2

To fully understand the history of Blue Rose and the True20 System, you have to understand what else was going on at Green Ronin during late 2004 and early 2005. For the previous three years we had worked with a company called Osseum Entertainment. Osseum was what is known as a fulfillment house, a sort of distributor for distributors. They warehoused our stock and handled our sales and some of our marketing in return for a cut of the money. They had wooed us with promise of access to the book trade, something they had made good on and which was of great benefit to us. Indeed, for over three years we had an excellent relationship with them and they paid us in full and on time every month. The last quarter of 2004, however, things began to go wrong. They began paying late and not in full. The excuses were totally believable if you’ve been around the industry for any amount of time: many distributors were late in paying or hadn’t paid at all. This created big headaches for us, as it’s hard to keep forward momentum without much money coming in.

So moving into 2004, when we should have been marketing the hell out of Blue Rose, they money just wasn’t there. Worse still, Osseum dropped the ball on the “out of the box” marketing they were supposed to do for Blue Rose as their business spun out of control. We had also planned to do some advertising outside of traditional game industry channels in the hopes of attracting Romantic Fantasy fans to roleplaying but we could not justify the expense with the Osseum situation so unstable. This was disappointing but not disastrous. After all, there were plenty of Romantic Fantasy fans who where already gamers and there had never been an RPG designed to emulate the genre before. We had been distributing color fliers and promotional post cards at conventions for over a year at that point, Blue Rose had a dedicated website with many previews and free a downloadable quick-start that included an adventure and pre-generated characters, the game had been properly solicited to all the distributors, and we were able to talk it up to retailers directly at distributor open houses and other industry trade shows. We were thus pretty sanguine about Blue Rose’s prospects as the book went to print, particularly in light of the PDF’s success.

Our relationship with Osseum ended in March, 2005. We had tried to give them the benefit of the doubt because they had been our key business partner for so many years, but after GAMA Trade Show it was clear the company was imploding. We had to take control of our own sales, rescue our backstock, and find new representation to the book trade. The last books Osseum had shipped for us were Blue Rose, the Advanced Player’s Manual, and the final reprint of Mutants & Masterminds, 1st edition. It had required quite a bit of juggling to get that batch of books printed and the money they were to generate was key to us recovering from the position Osseum had put us in.

It is probably a good thing I didn’t know how it would turn out at that moment in time. If I had, I likely would have gone to jail after beating Osseum’s founder to death with his own scotch bottle. The horrible truth was that we would never see a dime for those books, nor for a bunch of other books released in previous months. Let me tell you, it is quite hard to keep your company going and pay your staff and freelancers when books are simply disappearing into the ether. This was the situation when Blue Rose was released into stores in March, 2005.

End, Part 2.

The True History of True20, Part 1

True20 Adventure Roleplaying, Green Ronin’s latest RPG, is hitting stores this week. The game has an unusual history, so I can understand why there is some confusion over its origin and development. This seems like an opportune moment then to set the record straight. I had hoped to do this in one big post but it’s a long story so I’m going to have to get all Dickens on you and serialize it over the next few days. A caveat before I begin:

I’m going to talk about some of the strategic issues Green Ronin dealt with over the past few years. Some of these involve WotC and D&D;, which only makes sense considering GR’s long history with d20 and the OGL. I want to be clear, however, that these details are not the main thrust of this essay and I’m not interested in sparking or participating in more debate on them. I bring them up because they relate to GR’s publishing strategies and I want people to understand some of the contributing factors to our decisions. Here endeth the caveat.

Our story begins over three years ago. We had begun developing what would become the Blue Rose RPG. The initial proposal came from a freelancer, John Snead, and he had assembled a team to put the game together. John’s pitch had been that there was a sub-genre of fantasy fiction, Romantic Fantasy, which had never had an RPG. The industry had seen endless games inspired by Tolkien, Howard, and Leiber, but none by Lackey, Pierce, and Duane. While Romantic Fantasy was not a personal favorite of mine, I thought John’s argument made sense and a game pitched at readers of this kind of fiction might bring some new blood into the industry. I greenlit the project and John and his team went off to work.

During this initial phase, two important things happened. First, WotC released D&D; 3.5, which (intentionally or not) adversely affected sales of 3.0 era books. Second, Mutants & Masterminds turned into a monstrous hit. One of the key’s to its long term success was that I had decided that M&M; should be a stand-alone game and not a d20 sourcebook. This was originally done to make the game complete on its own and thus make it a more attractive purchase. A fortuitous side effect of this decision, however, was that M&M; proved immune to the effects of 3.5. Since M&M; was its own game, what WotC did with D&D; did not affect it.

Now Blue Rose I had always envisioned as a stand-alone game. I did not want to tell Romantic Fantasy fans to go spend $90 on what they didn’t want (D&D;) so they could then give us $30 for what they did want. Never mind the fact that the current D&D; rules were way more complicated than I thought appropriate for Blue Rose. The 3.5/M&M; double whammy only reinforced my feelings on the matter. Blue Rose needed to stand alone and it needed to be a lot simpler and easier to learn than core D&D.;

When the initial drafts of Blue Rose came in though, they were problematic. What I was given was essentially a d20 System campaign setting, not a complete RPG. I tried bringing in a freelance developer to flesh it out into a full game, but that did not go in the direction I wanted either. In 2004 two key people joined the project. First there was Jeremy Crawford, a freelance editor we had begun working with who came on to flesh out and edit Blue Rose. Second there was Steve Kenson, the designer of Mutants & Masterminds, who joined the Green Ronin staff that Spring. I had hired Steve to run the M&M; line, but I also asked him to shepherd Blue Rose to completion. He was the first Green Ronin staff person other than me to be involved in the Blue Rose project.

When I gave Steve the job, I must admit I underestimated the task before him. I was thinking of it terms of a development job. By summertime though, after talking to both Steve and Jeremy, it became clear the mechanics side of Blue Rose was going to have to be started again. At this same time we acquired the Thieves’ World license. Since the new Blue Rose rules were just getting started at that point and Thieves’ World seemed a great match for d20 anyway, we opted to make the Thieves’ World line d20. Rob Schwalb became the developer of the Thieves’ World line and he and his team worked on that project at the same time Steve and Jeremy were working on Blue Rose. Both Thieves’ World and Blue Rose were conceived and promoted as limited lines. Thieves’ World would be four books (Thieves’ World Player’s Manual, Murder at the Vulgar Unicorn, Shadowspawn’s Guide to Sanctuary, and the Thieves’ World Gazetteer) and Blue Rose would be three (Blue Rose, Blue Rose Companion, World of Aldea).

Steve and Jeremy worked hard the rest of 2004 to finish the Blue Rose core rulebook. Late in the year Hal Mangold took the text and turned it into a gorgeous finished product. In February, 2005 we released the PDF of Blue Rose on RPGNow. It sold very well indeed and provoked a lot of chatter. It didn’t take long for us to start hearing that people really liked the rules system. Some loved the Blue Rose setting and some hated it. No surprise there.

Before the game had even gone to print though, people were asking if we were going to make the rules part of Blue Rose available separately. That was not part of the original plan. We had talked about using the Blue Rose rules to do other limited arc games. Rob Schwalb wanted to do a game called Black Thorn the following year, for example, which would mirror Blue Rose’s three book format and use the same system. Before the release of Blue Rose though, that was speculative enough that it hadn’t made it onto our 2006 schedule yet. In the wake of the PDF’s success, however, we decided that something like Black Thorn was a whole lot more likely. It thus seemed a good idea to name the rules, since “the Blue Rose System” was not exactly catchy.

We revised the Blue Rose files before the game went to print later in February, fixing all the errata that had been discovered. Those who bought the first PDF got a free update (something we always do with our PDFs). The credits also had a new addition. In bold text at the bottom of the page the following text appeared for the first time: Powered by the True20 System.

End, Part 1.

Still Not Dead

It seems I have mostly recovered from whatever the hell it was I had. I do feel more fatigued than usual and I am still having the occasional coughing fit, but I’m at least at a functional level. Naturally, when I finally did go see the doctor last week, he told me there was nothing he could do and I’d just have to tough it out. Very helpful. I did at least get a checkup and some blood tests done and he suspects that I have sleep apnea. I find this entirely plausible.

Much of the last three days were taken up with various festivities surrounding the great Tynes-Scott wedding of ’06. Saturday was an afternoon out at the Six Arms with various guests, Sunday was the wedding itself, and last night we got a last minute invite to a Buca di Beppo outing with Jenny’s family. If one defines richness by the quality of one’s friends and family, John and Jenny are wealthy indeed. I had a chance to catch up with a lot of folks I do not see very often and meet a bunch of other attendees at the various events. This was all to the good.
The wedding itself was lovely. It took place in an old Seattle mansion, which while a bit small for the number of people had charm to spare. The food was excellent (big ups for the like “buttah” roast beef and the cheese course) and the band was a million times better than your typical wedding group. I was flagging towards the end, but that was no reflection on the event.

Last night at Buca I found myself sitting next to Johnny, the boyfriend of Holly, one of Jenny’s many sisters (seriously, that girl has a lot of sisters). I had seen him over the past couple of days, noted the anarchy tattoo on his hand, but hadn’t had a chance to talk to him. Turns out he and Holly live in Boston (my hometown) and he’s an old punk like me. We then spent about an hour having an in-depth discussion about punk rock so arcane that I think it left most of the table bewildered. Several people then commented, “I knew you two should talk.” Funny.

Hopefully, this week will see an end to the lingering effects of the GTS plague. Next time I get laid low in Vegas, I better have a lot more fun doing it.