Today the editor of the Finnish Roleplayer Magazine (Roolipelaaja-lehti) Juhana Pettersson declared that the magazine will end publication, effective immediately. The cited reason was chronic unprofitability – despite the best imaginable attempts, a Finnish-language roleplaying magazine of high production values could not be sustained without incurring constant losses in the operation. Apparently the guys at Riimuahjo (the company behind the mag) consider the hobbyist base in Finland sufficient for a magazine of the kind they made, but for some reason or other not enough people were dedicated enough to subscribe to the magazine.
I think that a couple of words are certainly in order here.
Roolipelaaja started publication around the beginning of 2006, I think. The last issue was its 23rd, making it the second-longest running magazine in the history of Finnish roleplaying. Although the core production team does not discuss financial specifics, it’s widely known that the magazine could never reach an acceptable level of profit – the first publisher of Roolipelaaja, H-Town, abandoned the magazine to its production staff after the first nine issues in 2007, after which the guys continued on their own as an independent magazine.
From the beginning Roolipelaaja was created basically like a fanzine, with the majority of the content coming as contributions from various Finnish roleplaying activists. The core production staff consisted of our leading clique of southern immersionist larpers (Juhana, Mike Pohjola, Mikki Rautalahti, etc.), but the editorial policy of the magazine was always very even-handed and open-minded; there was constant effort towards not only publishing content interesting to the audience, but also to reporting about roleplaying in an ambitious manner. The strategic goal was the creation of a magazine with such a wide appeal and quality that the great masses of Finnish roleplayers would decide to take up a subscription.
What made Roolipelaaja different from other fanzines were the unprecedented production values: full color from the start, and glossy paper for most of its run. Roolipelaaja was distributed through magazine racks at the beginning, but as H-Town abandoned the magazine, it was left to depend primarily on its subscriber base. I seem to remember that the magazine had around a thousand readers at one point – don’t remember where I got the number, though. Probably Juhana told me or something.
Roolipelaaja as journalism and content
Through its run Roolipelaaja was critiqued in real time by its readership, or at least the most active 20 people. This forum-active readership was strongly slanted towards activists of roleplaying culture and old-timers with plenty of roleplaying experience, which might be why the magazine was so often compared with Magus, the grand old Finnish rpg magazine.
Even more perennial in those discussions, however, was the issue of content. My sense is that everybody was always more than satisfied with the external parameters of Roolipelaaja, but everybody always had their own, differing opinions on the content. Many issues were hashed and rehashed again and again: should computer games or boardgames be involved in the content, should actual gaming material have a more prominent place in the magazine, should the material be more friendly towards newbies and so on and so forth. I find that while the magazine ultimately failed to capture my own interest in a permanent manner, the editing staff did good in balancing the different audiences against the fact that often half of their content consisted of whatever voluntary activists cared to write for the magazine.
Looking back at the magazine I can’t say that it would have included much content of lasting import; this was often my own main feedback on the mag, that it was too focused on lifestyle journalism and not enough on roleplaying. Naturally I remember my own microgames best when it comes to the contents of the magazine, I found those appropriate and interesting content for such. The D&D 3rd edition adventure in one issue was also a high point. The comic + adventure idea series that ran in the magazine towards its end was also good stuff, I’d support a whole book of that stuff most vehemently. Aside from those, Roolipelaaja published many introductory articles on a variety of interesting subjects, such as history of D&D. Nothing that would set my own heart racing, but I could appreciate the quality.
(It’s notable that I almost forgot to mention the product reviews, which were a large part of the contents of the magazine. Although there were individual reviews that had a spark of interest in them, I never was too fond of this part of the magazine; the reviews were too superficial, ignorant and short in the main to work as serious critique, which left them mostly meaningless for me, considering that I could find plenty of superficial data about those games in the Internet.)
Roolipelaaja as a channel of communication
The greatest single success of Roolipelaaja was that it allowed us to talk to each other. In this the attendant forums were as important as the magazine itself, I find – no other Finnish roleplaying media has had such a comprehensive number of the Finnish roleplaying activists represented at one time (except perhaps the sfnet roleplaying newsgroup in its heyday), from so many different schools of thought. The glory of the new magazine attracted even folks who are not very prone to forum participation, such as myself, and the diverse quality of the forums combined with a good spirit made us stay. I can remember a couple of times when I was attacked pretty savagely on those forums for my opinions, but I never considered this a failing of the forum community in whole. In a word, the forthcoming closing of these forums will have considerable effect on our discourse from now on.
Roolipelaaja and I
Ultimately my relationship to Roolipelaaja magazine developed into something of a two-fold thing. On the one hand I could appreciate the approach of the magazine, hoping that it would prosper, but on the other hand I couldn’t stand reading it myself. There was simply too little interesting content from my viewpoint, opening the magazine was always a personal disappointment. I recognize that this is mostly due to my own preferences and position in the hobby field: if I’m already an expert on most of the topics covered by the tabletop articles, skip over the larp stuff and just get my blood pressure high by reading the ignorant reviews section, then it’s pretty obvious that I’m not getting a lot out of the magazine. The staff of the magazine apparently lost my subscription towards the end of the run (I never got the last couple of issues), which I didn’t even care about myself – at that point I’d been subscribing to the magazine as a form of support, mostly.
Roolipelaaja was also a good medium for the publication of certain sorts of things. I never had a major motivation myself for utilizing it for all its worth, which I’m sort of sorry about: I considered writing more game material of different varieties for the magazine, but never got around to doing that.
Why Roolipelaaja failed?
This might come off pompous, so let’s remember that it’s always easier to be smart in hindsight. I can’t criticize Roolipelaaja too harshly anyway, considering that I planned for a similar publication myself early in the decade; it was just in 2005 when we toured the country with Ben Lehman that I garnered enough of a sense for the Finnish rpg scene to abandon my then-current vision of how a rpg magazine should work.
Regardless, the way I see it, Roolipelaaja had these problems:
- As it turned out, the audience of Roolipelaaja did not come to include curious occasional dapplers in roleplaying; insofar as I know, the majority of its audience consisted of committed hardcore roleplayers. Consequently the production quality and lifestyle focus of the magazine were wasted on us, the reading audience – we would have bought the magazine in black and white just as well.
- The journalistic lifestyle content did nothing to provoke buying interest among the core audience. We talked about this often on the forums; there’s no way of knowing, but my own current sensibilities would indicate that a more content-focused magazine would have not only retained higher levels of interest among the playing population, but also improved the long tail marketability of back issues. “More like Magus”, in other words.
Of course those can be summed up much more succintly: the magazine started from the proposition that there is in fact an unitary, committed audience of roleplayers with money to spare on a lifestyle magazine. The experiences of Roolipelaaja, my own Arkenstone Publishing and other recent Finnish rpg publishers flout that presumption in hindsight, of course. Finland has something like 200 committed hardcore rpg enthusiasts who’ll buy stuff for its perceived cultural value and are in the Internet looking for it, and 2000 other folks who buy things they actually want and like when and if they stumble upon it. The rest of the rpg-related markets seem incidental to me – there are things that sell well, but they’re random exceptions from the baseline, often directly explained by a non-hobbyist buying audience.
(For those who don’t know: numerology is a favourite pastime of Finnish roleplaying activists, we’re always calculating and guesstimating the rpg demographics of our country in different ways. The above numbers are based on looking at available sales data, stripping away titles that have sold outside the subculture and roughly averaging the rest. I do not comment here on the “black matter” issue, this being the popular theory of explaining the seeming discrepancy between estimated large number of Finnish roleplayers and their low visibility with secret roleplayers who hide from our divination attempts; those folks aren’t going to be buying anything based on internet hype anyway, so they’re besides the point here, whether they exist or not.)
I remember well how the scene reacted when Magus ended its publication in the early parts of the decade. I suspect that while we won’t see similar outcry here, one fact remains: while our national roleplaying scene is annoyingly small, it’s just large enough to want and require some sort of mediums of communication. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw more effort poured at fanzines now that Roolipelaaja is out of the way. It could be that the time of magazines proper is past, considering how nothing stops us from communicating in the Internet, instead. We will see.