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
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