Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Whither D&D?

Over at his new blog, Grognardia, James Maliszewski has posted his thoughts inspired by an MSNBC piece on Dungeons & Dragons and the computer games it has inspired. Mr. Maliszewski starts off by reminding us that the rise of D&D in the public consciousness was a fluke. Like other oddities of those days, such as KISS and the Rubik’s cube, events beyond the control of mere ad agencies and marketeers conspired to turn the bizarre into pop culture phenomenons.

He then goes on to explain how computer games now give “the vast majority of people who, in the past, might have turned to D&D for their fantasy escapism what they want but without the fuss of complicated rules or funny dice or even having to find some friends with whom to play the game at all.” Again, he’ll get no disagreement from me on that point. Computer games give you all the trappings of fantasy, packaged around a rather narrow focus of activity that I imagine is very inviting to a large number of people, certainly larger than the group of folks who prefer more varied and demanding hobbies.

In fact, I’m not certain I at all disagree with what Mr. Maliszewski has to say. I might just be quibbling here over a matter of emphasis. However, when he concludes by saying his “only concern is that, in their quest to regain something that can never be regained, D&D's current custodians will sell the game's soul and history for a bunch of magic beans,” he appears to be arguing that attempts to market D&D beyond it’s current circle of fans are at best pointless, and potentially harmful.

Frankly, I disagree. I do not feel that the fate of RPGs is set, and that the hobby can expect nothing better than to go the way of “model railroad building or playing bridge”. In fact, I’d counter that there are vast, untapped markets out there full of people who would love to play RPGs, only they haven’t been given the proper invitation or introduction to the hobby.

It is, of course, cliché to mention women as an untapped market for RPGs. There’s good reason for this. The hobby is still heavily, predominantly male, in spite of the fact that women seem to buy and read more escapist fantasy than men do. Even if we’re to limit ourselves to a discussion of D&D, the continued popularity of authors like Mercedes Lackey, Anne Bishop, and Jacqueline Carrey would seem to indicate that there is a market for women who enjoy their escapism with a healthy helping of high fantasy tropes.

Speaking of clichés, there are also a great number of cliché excuses offered for why more women aren’t playing RPGs. I consider most of them to be bunk and nonsense. (Seriously, if you think slapping a scantily clad, size-zero supermodel wannabe in a pose that just oozes sex on your cover dissuades women from buying your product, then you are willfully ignoring reality.) The more I look into this, the more I’m convinced that the problem isn’t the hobby, but how it’s perceived by the world. RPGs are the domain, so says the popular wisdom, of young boys and middle-aged men who refuse to grow up. There are real “permission barriers” between women and RPGs. It’s not that women look at gaming and then reject it as not for them. Rather, women don’t even consider gaming as something they would do in the first place. So long as that is the case, even a flood of games like Blue Rose won’t alter things. Nothing short of a full-scale campaign to get Hollywood to change the way it depicts RPGs and their fans is likely to work. This is why Ryan Dancey feels that the first thing we need to do to save roleplaying games is to jettison the name “roleplaying”.

Ignoring women as a potential market is a traditional failing of the hobby. That WotC might do so as they launch D&D’s fourth edition is hardly a surprise, and might even be a smart move in the short run. (However, I also have to say that Confessions of a Part-time Sorceress might be a move in the right direction.) What’s more disturbing is the apparent abandonment of the traditional golden years of D&D play: ten to fifteen-year-olds.

Now I know a lot of you are going to be confused by this. What on earth is the Trollsmyth going on about? Of course D&D is going to be aimed at the young gamers. It always is. And you can look at the art, or how they’re simplifying this rule or that system, to prove it. All of that may be true, but honestly I’m not seeing it. Or, rather, what I truly fear is that the folks making D&D 4.0 might think they’re making a game that will appeal to young teenagers, but really have no idea if they’re doing it right or not. Have they done the market research to know what that generation wants? Do they know what appeals to them? What do they think of when they talk about fantasy, or dragons, or wizards?

The art is one of the reasons I ask this. Wayne Reynolds is, as I’ve already stated, an accomplished artist. If I was marketing a game to appeal to people who already play D&D, Mr. Reynolds would be at the top of my list. But that’s exactly where I see a potential problem. Does he have the same sort of appeal to ten-year-olds? I think the cover he’s done for the 4th edition DMG looks great. I love the subtle nod to the Otus cover of Cook’s Expert D&D. But will third and fourth graders or junior high kids feel the same way about it? They won’t get the visual link to a game published back in ’81. Does that cover look like adventure and imagination to them? Again, I have no idea. But if those covers had been vetted by proper marketing research, I would have expected something a bit more revolutionary in design, rather than the more predictable, evolutionary choice of Reynolds.

And then there are the books and rules themselves. According to Amazon, the PHB clocks in at 320 pages. Add in the DMG and MM, with 224 and 288 pages respectively, and you’re talking about a serious load of reading somebody needs to do before you can play the game. Now, I’ll be the first to admit, there’s nothing to stop an interested 3rd grader from reading books that large. I tackled The Hobbit sometime around that age, and the kids who grew up reading Harry Potter are no strangers to hefty books. But that’s a lot of dull, dry text to get through to play a game. Maybe it makes sense to require that level of commitment to the game right off the bat. Maybe it creates a certain sense of buy-in for the reader. Perhaps part of the fun is feeling that you’ve mastered these thick tomes and their arcane material. But I’m one of those who got started with Moldvay Basic, and at a mere 64 pages of rules, spells, monsters, and magic items, it was plenty complex for me. The game was a snap to learn, and it wasn’t hard to get somebody who knew nothing about the game through creating their first character and right into tackling their first dungeon. As an adult, my brain screams in agony at the thought of trying to walk an utter neophyte through the lists of skills and feats necessary to create a 3rd edition character. I know it can be done. I know people who have done it. But that’s a much higher hurdle to clear than what I went through helping my younger brother and our neighbors roll up our very first characters. So are we really seeing a game that’s been crafted to pull in a whole new generation of gamers? Or are we merely seeing evolutionary tweaks designed to appeal to a certain segment of the current gamer population?

I worry about this because I think RPGs may already have missed their best shot at a Renaissance in popularity. Was any generation better primed to love D&D than the one that grew up reading Harry Potter, made Eragon and The Golden Compass best sellers, and who packed the movie theaters to watch Jackson’s LotR flicks? If that’s true, then what happened to them? Even if we assume all but a handful hundred of the girls would ignore D&D, even if we assume the vast majority of the boys would find their fantasy needs satisfied by computer games, where are the rest of them? They should be sweeping through the hobby like a rising tide, their interests and influences having a profound effect on the games being produced, the art being chosen, and the topics discussed on the message boards. Where are they? Am I just blind that I don’t see them all over, or ENWorld, or the Paizo boards? They could all be hiding at WotC’s boards, maybe. I don’t go there very often. It could be unconscious selectivity on my part that only sees twenty-and-thirty-somethings on the boards, talking about games, and making games. And maybe I’m just looking too hard, and Exalted and Pathfinder are exactly what this new generation of gamers wants. I’m willing to be corrected on this score. But all I see is a bulge of middle-aged gamers passing through the hobby, with a tail on either end. And if that, in fact, is the reality of RPGs, that’s troublesome.

EDIT: Welcome readers of the Silver Key! You might also be interested in why I won't be playing 4th edition, and why you might want to.


James Maliszewski said...

One clarification I'd like to offer on my post: I think the mass popularity of D&D was, overall, a bad thing for the kind of D&D I like to play. As D&D became more popular, the looser, do-it-yourself, pulp fantasy-inspired styles of play were first de-emphasized and finally fell away almost entirely, replaced by tighter, pre-packaged, high fantasy of the type exemplified by Dragonlance (a thousand curses upon it). Nowadays, the emphasis is different but the intent remains the same: to support styles of play I find personally uninteresting and that, to me anyway, run counter to the clear intentions of Gygax and Arneson when they created the game.

So, it's not so much that I think tabletop RPGs can never again be mainstream (though I do think it highly unlikely). Rather, it's that I think the quest for mainstream acceptance generally warps the game into both something that is contrary to the spirit of the originals and that poorly apes forms of entertainment better served by other media. D&D's past success wasn't based on a market survey of what consumers wanted and tailoring the game accordingly. Instead, it was what it was and appeared at just the right time for what it was to become the flavor of the day. Ever since then, D&D's caretakers have been trying to catch lightning in a bottle a second time and failing, to the game's ultimate detriment in my opinion.

trollsmyth said...

I certainly don't wish to be seen as saying that D&D can be as popular again as WoW, forget reality TV. Like you, James, I don't think most people are built to enjoy D&D, for whatever reasons.

I'm also not certain that D&D's problems over the years have been caused by trying to recapture the popularity of its early years. Like others, I really thought D&D 3.0 was what I wanted. It had everything I'd been asking for over the years: an integrated skill system, no level or racial limits, alterations to make fighters more interesting. And, as it turns out, many of those things appear to have snuffed the magic right out of the game. Definitely one of those live-and-learn things. Which of course doesn't mean that they weren't chasing mass popularity, either. It's just that every iteration of the game I've seen has been more interested in what the vocal majority of current players seem to want, and that's clearly the highly scripted, pre-packaged high fantasy you're not interested in.

Finally, somebody ought to be appealing to a new generation of gamers. That role has traditionally fallen to D&D as the standard-bearer of the hobby. I don't see that effort being made with 4.0, though, as I've said before, that could say more about my ignorance than WotC's actual efforts. If new players aren't being invited to join in the fun, that's bad for the hobby as a whole.

As for my gaming, the industry jumped the shark for me somewhere around Unearthed Arcana. I loved cantrips, and some of the magical items, but we never played with the new character classes like cavaliers or acrobats. It took nearly a decade of trying to beat D&D into a shape that could play Le Morte d'Arthur before I realized how much system matters. I find your thoughts running parallel to many of mine. So long as we can all keep tinkering with our own games, what the industry does has little influence on how I play, except as a source for neat ideas and inspiration. But I also recognize that I'm very lucky, being married to the best gamer I've ever known. ;)

Wart said...

Was any generation better primed to love D&D than the one that grew up reading Harry Potter, made Eragon and The Golden Compass best sellers, and who packed the movie theaters to watch Jackson’s LotR flicks?

Yes and no.

There's certainly an opportunity to sell fantasy storytelling and roleplaying to the Harry Potter generation. And the fact is many of them are roleplaying perfectly happily. They just aren't using RPGs to do it: they're going on RP servers on WoW or Neverwinter Nights, or they are contributing to numerous systemless roleplay forums and communities on livejournal. And they are ticking along perfectly happily like that.

Selling the concept of "RPGs" to kids is easy. You just have to be liberal about what you define as an RPG. What these kids are doing on livejournal may not resemble our favoured games, but they are undeniably roleplaying; I would submit, in fact, that it isn't roleplaying per se that's gone out of fashion so much as it's dice-rolling and character sheets that have fallen out of favour.

D&D is a venerable brand. It's also quite old, and that inevitably means that it isn't automatically going to be attractive to kids ("what, that game my dad played in school? But my dad's a dork!"). It might get a revival in the younger demographics, but designing a rules-light version of D&D and marketing it to kids won't necessarily do the trick. (A decent D&D movie could have re-energised the line, but that's unlikely.)

For my money, the game that's most likely to bring kids into the hobby in 2008 is the new Dr Who RPG from Cubicle 7, which they intend to distribute to big-name high street book shops and other places where Dr Who merchandise gets sold. In the UK, at any rate, the new Dr Who is massive with kids.

trollsmyth said...


Ha! I knew the kids would be hanging out where I wouldn't see them. That's very interesting news, and I'd love to see numbers on that sort of thing. I knew there was some sort of freeform gaming, in nebulous orbit around the fanfic community. Just how large is this? Is there anything like a central hub that I could visit to get some sort of sense of the size of this?

That D&D is now brushed off as that lame old game Dad used to play is disturbing, but not horribly surprising. It also bodes ill for 4th edition.

Wart said...

I don't participate in fanficcy freeform roleplaying, so I can't give you a hub for it. While has some content relating to traditional tabletops, most of the posts there seem to relate to freeform livejournal play of the sort I describe.

I hesitate to call these things "games", because there doesn't seem to be much of a "game" element - it's all about the characterisation and storytelling. Hence why I think the people interested in it probably wouldn't be much interested in traditional RPGs - they get what they want out of their medium, and adding dice rolls and a structured ruled system would just hamper their creativity, from their POV. Some of them seem to have some experience with White Wolf games - after all, the Storyteller system is supposed to be aiming for the same sort of territory - but the whole phenomenon just proves to me that modelling RPGs as "story games" is a doomed endeavour: people who want to tell stories, I mean really, really want to tell stories, are perfectly happy just telling stories, and don't need rules telling them how to do it - or at least, not rules on how to quantify precisely how good a character is with a sword, or what dice to throw when someone casts a spell.

trollsmyth said...

Thanks for the link, Wart!

The entry here just made my jaw drop:

So they're RPing by, near as I can tell, just passing a notebook around between them, and scribbling in the notebook with pens and pencils. It's not just, "We don't need your miniatures and battlemats to have a fun time." Oh no. These folks are saying, "And we don't need your stinkin' expensive coffee-table rulebooks or dice, either!"

If that's the general attitude, RPGs as a business are doomed.

That said, and while I agree with what you said about these not really being "games" in the strictest definition, I really think they could benefit from some of the work being done by the Forge and its satellite designers. A rules-light framework that prevented overpowered characters and helped referee spotlight time would clear up a lot of the issues they seem to have with bad roleplay. Though I'd imagine they might be rather resistant to the idea if they're committed to the "purity" of freeform.

trollsmyth said...

If the above link doesn't work, try this one:

Wart said...

I'm not convinced that the Forge's techniques would help them, for several reasons:

- Overpowered characters aren't necessarily a problem for these guys. Especially if they're RPing in an existing fandom; after all, computer game designers and TV writers don't need to make sure that the various characters are balanced, and someone has to play Sephiroth...

- The way the medium works, spotlight time is purely a matter of how often you choose to post, and how much you choose to post when you do. Which does, of course, lead to the risk of people with the most time and energy dominating the game, but I believe some of them have rules about waiting your turn before posting.

- The people best placed to come up with rules for these games aren't the Forge, who to a man are coming from a "traditional RPG" perspective. It's the people who play and moderate these games themselves, and they seem to do an adequate job of it (we can't make a judgement call on their entire hobby on the basis of the posts on bad_rpers_suck, after all...). Most rules for these things I've seen, googling around, seem to revolve around respecting people's spotlight time and the integrity of their character. I don't see what more is needed, and I don't see that the sort of personality clash reported on bad_rpers_suck is really going to be resolved by a system. OOC methods for OOC problems, folks...

Wart said...

Oh, and one further reason:

- These people have essentially rejected every trapping of the traditional RPG hobby, whereas every Forge game I have seen has retained at least a few conventions of the traditional model. It's effectively a different hobby, sufficiently alien to our own that it'd be difficult to translate techniques from one format to the other, and arguably a mistake to do so.

Yalborap said...
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