The answers to "What exactly is an ashcan?"

edited January 2008 in Story Games
So, a bit ago I posted up this question: What is an "ashcan" game?

Here are the responses I received. Paul's will be attributed to him, since he's one of the founders of the movement and because he's linking to his own text -- but with all the others I sought to remove bias, so I am posting just the answers to the questions in roughly the order I got them (roughly, because I missed a couple halfway through and one is particularly long), without the name of the poster who said and retracting any identification (like personal anecdotes). These are answers that anyone could have said, not just something a specific person did say. These are what people thing when they hear you've got an ashcan for sale.

In the effort of lack of bias, I won't post my own commentary on them right now. If it sparks discussions, sure, maybe then. But this isn't about any one person -- this is about what people think an ashcan is and the subtle & not-so-subtle value judgments some people place on them. Finally, I did not include my own answers here -- I definitely agree with some of what's said here, but it's all from the mouths of others.
Posted By: Paul CzegeHow about the text of my "invitation" from the Acts of Evil ashcan:

Here's me reaching out to the right ones in the Invitation that opens the Acts of Evil ashcan:
An Invitation

This book is an unfinished game of occult horror. You will grasp reality and bend it to a mythology of your own chthonic godhood.

I know it's playable and fun, and disturbing, because I've had fun, and I've been disturbed, playing and running it. But the game isn't quite delivering on some design goals that are important to me, and so I don't consider it fully baked yet.

You've noticed the splatter-painted cover and copy-shop aesthetic. Well, I'm a big fan of homemade indie comics, and so I've borrowed those same aesthetics as a way of clearly saying the game isn't store ready, and of getting productively out of the producer/consumer paradigm.

There was a time when the landscape of gaming was less divided into consumers and producers. And still today, playing hobby games requires you to think like a designer, make rule decisions during play, and solve design problems.

So this "ashcan" edition of Acts of Evil is inspired by my desire to connect with you, not as producer to consumer, but as designer to designer. If the idea of a game about the competitive pursuit of chthonic godhood is appealing, or if my deranged, splatter-painted iconography suggested the book could be a garage edition of an occult Bible, then consider that you're probably the game's eventual target audience, moved backward in time by my magic, so your insights and play feedback might move the game forward.

The text is written with single-minded focus toward that end. When I know from playtesting that a rule isn't delivering on my purpose for it, or needs validation or refinement, or if it's a new rule that aims to solve a design issue, I've flagged it with questions. When I'm unsure if my text is clear enough to effectively create the intended play dynamic, I've included design notes. The game is a more complex snarl of interconnected resource pools than My Life with Master, and so very much needs the feedback of general playtesting, but there's also a playtest scenario that aims to focus attention on an intended emergent property of play that has been elusive in prior playtests.

Personally, playtesting and providing feedback on games is probably my favorite thing in the whole hobby. Buying an ashcan doesn't make you a consumer, it makes roleplaying a hobby of design.

Paul Czege
June, 2007
Entry 1An Ashcan is an unfinished game, published cheaply for the purpose of garnering feedback for a later, fuller release. Ashcans are published because the designer feels the design is as of yet complete, or is problematic, and feels that only further play will help the design process.
Entry 2An unfinished game, deliberately labeled as unfinished, placed before the public in order to solicit feedback, either for free or for sale.
Entry 3The general definition I think of and use: A mostly completed game sold in abbreviated form at a low price, sometimes with the promise of a 'full' version in return for feedback and/or playtesting.
On a personal level: I feel like they can be a little deceptive if the buyer doesn't really understand what they're getting. In my extremely limited experience I also think they can be a last ditch attempt to sell a game that just wasn't ready for a Con, and so I approach them with the initial skepticism that "This is rushed / more unfinished than stated." However, it seems like a useful gimmick to gain playtesting feedback and a little bit of exposure. Considering how difficult it can be to get both things, I wouldn't hold it against anyone who made use of ashcans.
Entry 4It's that thing people invented to be able to sell their half-baked games on GenCon without being accused of selling half-baked games on GenCon. Cuz, you know, technically it's not selling games, but selling a dialog with the designer or somesuch. (At least until the next GenCon, when accusations of selling half-baked ashcans start.)
Also, it's the thing people tell me I'll have to write for my own game at some point, despite not really planning to sell it. Cuz, you know, a game is not complete these days if it didn't went through a proper ashcan stage and some other fancy stages nobody cared about back in 2001. I just hope nobody invents an additional stage just before I'm done with it.

Also, it's some other things. If you say it's an ashcan I'll believe you and call it an ashcan. Nobody said words can't mean multiple things.


  • Continued...
    Entry 5For me, ashcans are fairly cheaply produced physical book copies of games that are playable but not completely polished/finished.
    Entry 6I was talking about ashcans at [retracted] so I went looking to see if there was an 'official' definition. I don't recall finding one...although I have the (possibly mistaken) belief that the origin of the term comes from something Paul Tevis wrote.
    For myself, I think of ashcans simply as 'games in development', which probably doesn't capture the nuances but there ya go...
    Entry 7For me, an Ashcan of an RPG is a draft of the text which is playable and complete - or at least is believed to be by the author. It may have gaps or inadequacies that are not obvious and will require playtesting by groups that do not contain the author in order to reveal them. By selling the Ashcan, the author intends to limit the audience to those who are interested/invested in playing the game
    Entry 8An ashcan game is one which is available for sale in a preview edition, which is not yet wholly done, is perhaps still in development, or which is simply awaiting final publication.
    Entry 9An ashcan is a game that is 90% baked but needs feedback to become fully cooked. Providing that feedback makes you a part of the game's creation and ultimate success, and that is either worth paying cash money for or it isn't. I think it is an interesting experiment but the jury is still out on whether it is an effective model.
    Entry 10To me, an ashcan is like a "beta test" of any software. Sometimes those beta tests are beautiful, polished games with nary a glitch; and sometimes they crash whenever you tear into them. Sometimes, you play all the way through; sometimes there's no ending, no credits, no finality.
    Entry 11An Ashcan is a game that is sold to punters but is not yet finished.
    The idea is to get feedback, solicit playtests and build hype rather than turn a profit.
    Entry 12Someting sold at the "Ashcan Booth" at some convention. - Almost finished games probably.
    Entry 13As far as I've been led to believe, an 'ashcan' is an unfinished, still-in-playtest document that is published in "indie" format, i.e. without any of the price-bloating that artwork and getting a hardcover, etc., that the final document might eventually have.
    Entry 14I haven't seen a definition of an Ashcan. My guess is it would be the equivalent of a Software that was in RC (Release Candidate) Form, where you know there will be changes, but the product should be close to final...
    Entry 15An ashcan is a work-in-progress that is functional, but incomplete and/or unpolished, and needs more development that the designer cannot easily provide. It is made publically available in some form to solicit and acquire the feedback and development it needs to be either finished or shelved indefinately.
    Entry 16I cant say I am in favour of ashcans as concept but to me they should have been extensively playtested by the designer and ready for public playtest. There should be little fancy design and art, the bare bones is all we are looking for. Fancy books come later.
    Entry 17It's an early version of a game, 90% complete, 90% chance of working really well in play, but it has rough edges to smooth out or isn't quite delivering on all the design goals yet.
    Entry 18An ashcan is a method used by game designers to get people to pay for the privilege of playtesting a game in an unfinished form.
    Entry 19An ashcan game is a game that's delivering the designer's desires repeatably. The designer now needs to see if it does it without him/her in the room. It's simultaneously a test of the rules and the technical writing.
    Entry 20An ashcan is a pre-release version of something (traditionally pulp stories, comics and the like) that accomplishes the following:

    -- it gets the idea out there first. proof of publication of an idea/concept/etc., This could be for legal reasons or more just to establish it as "out there" in the community.
    -- it invites feedback. If the subject of the ashcan is to be made into a final version, this material can be very useful
    -- it produces something economically that can always be revisited in a more polished format in the future.
  • Continued...
    Entry 21, a.k.a The Long AnswerAn Ashcan game is:

    A game which is mostly done and has been playtested. It's in a state which lesser designers would perhaps call "done" or "first edition". The idea is that the game is mostly done, but that the designer is not 100% confident that this version of the game is fully awesome.

    Example things which the designer might feel make the game an "Ashcan"rather than "done" include:

    * There might be concerns that some parts of the rules might not be as clearly explained as they might be. So in this case the designer has read things over and obviously it all makes sense to him, and some other peiople have read it over and it makes sense to them, but maybe when another 50 people read it, 10 of them find it confusing, or think it means one thing when it actually means another or whatever.

    * Some games might have emergent behaviours which the designer has not seen. Emergent behaviours are great and all, but if there turns out to be an optimal strategy which deeply breaks a game then design changes need to be made. Spotting this stuff isn't easy, and games can be around for a while before the optimal strategies become apparent.

    * There might just be a part of the game which is not quite delivering something the designer wants. As in, it's there, and functional, but not really quite bringing Teh Awesome in the way the designer hoped.

    To qualify as an Ashcan, the game must:

    * Be fully playable. It isn't going to be a polished game, but it's going to be something that the purchaser can read and then run without needing to talk to the author. It has examples and whatever else is required to instruct the purchaser how to play.

    * Be complete. Everything needs to be there. "Complete" and "Finished" aren't the same thing here. "Complete" means that all the parts are present. "Finished" means all the parts work perfectly to bring Teh Awesome. For example, if the game requires rules for character advancement, then these rules need to be there. It's ok if they are somewhat rough and haven't been extensively playtested, but they need to be present and clearly explained.

    * Be fun to play. Again, not 100% Awesome all the time, but consistently more fun than staring at a wall or hammering nails into your testicles. If the game isn't fun to play yet, then it's a playtest version and not an Ashcan. It's perfectly fine for a playtest version to be as fun as hammering nails into your organs, but not an Ashcan.

    Ashcan authors/designers should consider including:

    * A really easy way to contact the designer for feedback or to discuss the game.

    * Notes on which parts of the game require extra attention and consideration.

    * An explanation of what (if any) rewards there are to play testers/purchasers for their feedback. §

    Anyway, that's pretty much how I see the "Ashcan" thing.

    § I'm kind of of the opinion that people who playtest your game and provide feedback need to be properly rewarded. At the very least, they should not have to pay for the privilege of testing your game for you.
    A huge thank you to everyone who participated. Hopefully this will go some way to understanding where this new model fits in our little community.
  • Thanks for posting these, Ryan.

    I see quite a few variations on the Ashcan Front's version of the definition - some with interesting commentary from the poster - those are the ones I expected to see. Some of them however, (4 & 18) cause me some concern in that they have negatively varying views from the Front's stated purpose. I'm curious if their authors played or bought some games in Ashcan form, or whether these are simply gut feelings.
  • edited January 2008
    It looks, to me, as though everyone pretty much agrees on what an Ashcan is. Remarkably little variation. I'd be quite happy with that, if I was Paul or Matt.

  • Posted By: Graham WIt looks, to me, as though everyone pretty much agrees on what an Ashcan is. Remarkably little variation. I'd be quite happy with that, if I was Paul or Matt.

    Graham, I wouldn't treat this as a representative sample, since this is only based on people who (a) visit this forum, (b) were opinionated or interested enough to answer, and (c) did the work of typing it up. So, it can be treated as valid responses an ashcan seller will have to deal with, but not a representative sample of the population of potential indie ashcan consumers.

    When I get back from Dreamation, I may unpack the subtle differences in the answers.
  • edited January 2008
    Seriously, man, please don't. It won't add anything. It was interesting reading the various takes on ashcans, but the world doesn't need another discussion on "Are ashcans misunderstood?" or "Are they a force for good in the world"?

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