James Wallis levels with you

Nerdcon, authorship, and the problem with games

So at Nerdcon, a convention about telling stories in early October, there was a game of The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen. It was a programme item. It was played on a stage in front of a big audience, with big-name SF authors including Mary Robinette Kowal and Patrick Rothfuss—Nerdcon’s organiser—playing it. Nerdcon has just put the first Youtube video of the session live, and it’s a blast.

Here’s the odd thing, which you’ll notice if you watch the video. At no point does Patrick Rothfuss or anyone else mention that Munchausen is a published game, designed and written by a person, in print and for sale. He just talks about it as an activity, he gives it no cultural or commercial context at all. And that isn’t just on the Youtube video. The convention website doesn’t mention the game-as-created-object at all, even in the page for the programme item. Nor the con’s Twitter feed, nor its Facebook page, nor its Tumblr, nor the description text on the Youtube page. Nobody created The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, say these authors. It’s just a thing to do, to show off our creative brilliance.

This is at Nerdcon, a convention that’s all about stories, the act of creating them, and how much we should respect them.

But Munchausen is a game about interactive narrative, not passive storytelling, and it’s a game that also produces an output, a collection of stories. (Caillois said that a game should not produce anything so Munchausen is Caillois-incomplete.) Narrative games occupy an interesting space, culturally and consciously. When we tell a story in a Munchausen session we want to think it’s all down to our personal genius, we don’t like to be reminded that someone created the metastructure that allowed the narrative to come together the way it does. And at the same time people who write fiction have always looked down on people who write games as a lesser form of creation: less important, less culturally interesting (coughbiggerthanhollywoodcough), and I suspect there’s some of that going on too.

Rothfuss and his companions don’t treat other non-book forms the same way. Nerdcon invited authors, podcasters, storytellers, improvisers, comedians, singers and puppeteers as guests, but no game-narrative people. Nobody from video games, nobody from RPGs, nobody from story-games. This is an event in downtown Minneapolis, a few minutes from the headquarters of two companies that have been championing good storytelling in games for decades, Fantasy Flight Games and Atlas Games. But there were no games guests at Nerdcon.

I emailed Patrick Rothfuss a month before Nerdcon to offer help with the Munchausen event, and I heard nothing back. And then Rothfuss completely mangles the name of the game as he introduces the event. But it’s okay, it’s just a game, right?

Put it this way, if I organised a public reading from The Name Of The Wind at a big games event, and at no point before, during or after the reading mentioned that it was a book by Patrick Rothfuss published by DAW, and in introducing the event I called it ‘A Name of a Windbag’, firstly that would be bizarre, and secondly I’m certain a bunch of people would call me out on it. Why is the converse fine? It’s weird.

It’s all a bit weird. I really don’t know what to think about it.

Categorised as: event | fiction | munchausen | narrative | story games | writing


  1. Ken Burnside says:

    Preach on, brother. Preach on.

    I was at WorldCon, and talked to a lot of fiction writers.

    For most midlist writers, and short fiction writers, their gig pays less well than my gig as a game designer. Seriously. The belief that all writers are temporarily inconvenienced millionnaires is quite strong – they all want to have the next Big Media Property.

    And at WorldCon, the gaming dorks and dweebs are shoved into a back room that’s hard to find.

    I was a panelist on game design, game marketing and the ties between games and novels (“should you use your D&D campaign for your novel.”)

    With the exception of the Always Amazing Jenn Brozek, and another editor who’d graduated from editing Mike Stackpole’s Battletech novels to editing for Random House, nobody there had direct experience in game publishing.

    My description of storytelling techniques and how they differ between RPGs and other media got sidelined because in each panel, there was a damned IP attorney wanting to talk about copyright, games, and The Risk of Getting Sued.

    I still had fun at those panels, talked to many audience members in the hallway outside after the session was done…

    What’s ironic is that unlike most of the small publishers selling fiction, the con broke even for me. Because the same people who’d bitch about paying $4.99 for a 30,000 word novella in paperback would have no hesitation about plunking down $3 for an RPG printed on four pages….and I wish I’d brought more than 300 copies. I was completely out by the time Saturday evening closed.

    (Admittedly, part of the sales boom came from doing the “Games into Novels” seminar, describing relationship mapping as a GMing and storytelling technique, explaining it’s used in Hollywood writer’s rooms…and getting cut off by You Can Get Sued Guy riiiight after I said I had copies for sale.)

    • Scott Hedrick says:

      At least twelve years ago, I bought the National Writer’s Union guide for freelancers. In it was the statement that the average earnings from writing by the NWU membership was just under $3000 a year. Their membership included Stephen King, Tom Clancy and John Grisham. I’d love to see what the average would have been without the earnings of those three- I suspect it might be triple digits. It doesn’t get any easier when there is public use of your work where not only do you not get paid, you don’t even get acknowledged.

  2. Thanks for this post, James. It’s unfortunate that this kind of snobbery continues in creative fields—definitely one of the primary reasons my life focus has shifted away from writing and fully towards gaming and design. The former is too much of an exclusive group that is mostly interested in self-aggrandizement. The latter is a highly inclusive group that is mostly interested in community interaction and cross-pollination. I appreciate your insight on this.

  3. James, I just found your site about an hour ago through a blog post on Ms. Mary Robinette Kowal’s site. I agree with you that the video is a blast. The game looks fun. I have added your book to my Amazon wishlist. Hopefully someone in my family will get it for me for the holiday season. If not I’ll probably pick it up in January for myself.

    I arrived at your site specifically from a link added as a comment to Ms. Kowal’s post. After reading your post I was happy to notice that Ms. Kowal updated her post to link to the book’s Amazon page. I read the other comments on her post and it looks like she enjoyed the game so much she has picked up a copy of the game not long after she found out about it.

    I hope that it is simple human error that resulted in Mr. Rothfuss forgetting to mention the existence of your book in the video. But it is reassuring to see people like Ms. Kowal make an effort to mention your book after they have been made aware of it. It looks like the NerdCon video has even been updated to include a link to your book’s Amazon page in the description.

  4. Leah A. says:

    I’m also here through Mary Robinette Kowal’s blog. From what I know of Patrick Rothfuss, Hank and John Green, Mary Robinette Kowal, and the spirit of NerdCon itself, I’d bet that no offense or harm was intended by their omission of your name or Rothfuss not responding to your email. Emails are overlooked all the time, and it seems likely that they’re among those who thought the game was a basic party game that had been around for forever, like Charades. (Kowal herself was in that boat.) I’m not saying that’s okay — you definitely deserve credit for designing an awesome game! I just wouldn’t attribute it to purposeful snobbery just yet. I’m hoping it’s just a big misunderstanding that’ll be rectified soon enough. Simple human error, as Shane said in the above comment.

    I work with folks from Atlas Games and was just saying that Atlas Games should have a presence at NerdCon next year! I saw multiple groups of people playing Gloom at the convention (myself included). When NerdCon sent out a survey after the con, in my response I suggested adding more storytelling games like Gloom and Once Upon a Time — played onstage by panelists and/or run as fun events for attendees. It’d be fantastic if attendees could see how great these games are, then go straight to the vendor room and purchase them directly from the companies or creators.

    Oh, and there was a game creator at NerdCon, actually. Darin Ross helped run the onstage game of Superfight that gave rise to the Guacanati. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be included. If it was a matter of simple human error, and you’re still interested in participating in NerdCon next year, please pursue it! I’d love to see you there, to get proper recognition and because it’s wonderful seeing creators interact with their own games.

    I shared the NerdCon Munchausen video when Kowal posted it, and I’ll share this post to help spread the word. It’s no good when creators don’t get credit for their creations, and you have every right to feel weird about it. Here’s to a happy resolution for everyone. :)

    • James Wallis says:

      Leah, Pathrick Rothfuss and I had a Skype call a couple of days ago, during which he confirmed that he knew Munchausen as a published game, and had bought more than one copy of it in the past. So there’s that. He said he will be writing a blogpost on the subject, and we discussed some Munchausen involvement in a future Worldbuilders auction.

      I’m glad to hear there was at least one games person at Nerdcon. Patrick did invite me to next year’s event, but I don’t do America these days. Which is a shame, because Munchausen 3rd Edition should be fresh out (assuming we hit the Gen Con release we’re aiming for).

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