[fighting for the hobby on the ashcan front]

What was The Ashcan Front?
For Gen Con 2007 and 2008, Paul Czege and Matt Snyder organized a booth focused entirely on selling ashcans.

What's an ashcan?
They were printed RPG rulebooks with the following characteristics:

  • Game rules that had been playtested and were 90% solid in the designer's opinion, but still weren't quite delivering on certain design goals and so the creators didn't consider them fully baked yet.
  • Game texts 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.
  • Texts that included overt language about the game's design goals, and directly called out mechanics that needed validation and/or refinement.
  • Texts that invited the purchaser into conversation with the designer.
  • Book objects with a hand assembled or copy shop aesthetic, or somehow otherwise clearly not "store ready".

What was 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."

What was the rationale for the "hand assembled or copy shop aesthetic"?
It was a borrowing of aesthetics from 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 don't think cheap looking. Designers put love into the crafting of the books, like indie comics creators do with their homemade comics, because that's how they could most powerfully communicate to prospective buyers how much they loved their game and wouldn't flake out if people chose to enter into the design process with them.

Here's Paul's write-up (with images) about the indie comics aesthetic.

How much did one cost?
Between $8.00 and $15.00. Most were $10.00. It was pricing that asked for a commitment of interest from the buyer, more than just curiosity.

Selling an ashcan wasn't publishing. It was design process. A designer doesn't want to sell a hundred ashcans. He or she wants to sell twelve, to exactly the right people. You might have to sell sixty to get the right twelve, but if you sold your sixty for two or three dollars each you made it too easy for those twelve to let life distract them from your game. You satisfied their curiosity without securing their interest. That was the thinking.

What were the games?
In 2007 we had 11 participating ashcan games at the booth:

  • 44, by Matt Snyder
  • A Penny for My Thoughts, by Paul Tevis
  • Acts of Evil, by Paul Czege
  • Galactic, by Matt Wilson
  • Giants, by Jeff Lower
  • Kingdom of Nothing, by Jeff Himmelman
  • Know Thyself, by Ryan Macklin
  • The Path of Journeys, by Ram Hull
  • Psi Run, by Chris Moore and Michael Lingner
  • Sweet Agatha, by Kevin Allen Jr.
  • You Brought This On Yourself, by Jason Walters

In 2008 we had 12:

  • Beowulf, by Joshua A.C. Newman
  • Black Cadillacs, by Darcy Burgess
  • Blood Red Sands, by Ralph Mazza
  • Bullseye, by Justin D. Jacobson
  • Darkpages, by Jared Sorensen
  • The Fisherman's Wife, by Julia Ellingboe
  • Kagematsu, by Danielle Lewon
  • Messiah, by Chris Perrin
  • Misspent Youth, by Rob Bohl
  • The Rustbelt, by Marshall Burns
  • Secrets and Lies, by Grant Davis
  • Silence Keeps Me a Victim, by Clyde L. Rhoer

Did it work?
Hmm. No. More than a few designers finished and published their games, but everyone lost money doing the ashcans and no one really made connections through having done one that helped them finish. The creators who finished and published their games got the feedback and playtesting they needed in other ways.

So, ashcans are a bad idea?
Hell if I know. Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel did a preview edition of Dungeon World for Gen Con 2011, and also didn't see it provoke feedback. They got the feedback and playtesting they needed in other ways. Maybe look to how Ron Edwards Kickstarted and finished Circle of Hands. The game was mechanically unfinished at the time of the Kickstarter. Backers gave him the feedback and playtesting he needed to bring it home.

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