Photo credit: MoToMo
The brains of trolls often run in odd little circles...
It started with... Well, it probably really started with my job. Spend all day up to your eyeballs in SEO (that's Search Engine Optimization for the uninitiated, the practice of raising a website's visibility to search engines like Google) and these sorts of things bubble up from time to time. But that's just the background. The catalyst was an article on the escapist by fellow Austinite Allen Varney entitled “Internet Killed the Tabletop Star”. I think he's a bit off the mark, though. His thesis appears to be that table-top RPGers should embrace the 'net, even though all these MMOGs have killed pen-and-paper RPGing. He then points out all the cool pen-and-paper RPG happenings on the 'net, like the old school renaissance and online tabletops.
Which is all well and good, except MMOGs are a distraction to the problems in the pen-and-paper RPG world. The folks who left our games to play MMOGs mostly prefer what MMOGs have to offer, and only really played pen-and-paper games because MMOGs hadn't been invented yet. These are the folks who played primarily for the DING! of level advancement, who eagerly waded into 10' x 10' rooms where orcs guarded pies and never needed anything else. They're happier playing MMOGs than they could ever be rolling dice and enduring the budding romance between the character of the player to their left and an NPC. And, at the risk of sounding like sour grapes, my games at least are better off without them.
So where are the new young roleplayers? They're not in the MMOGs, ladies and gents. They're enjoying free-form roleplay in chatrooms and bulletin boards. They're running through the halls of Hogwarts or creeping through the mists of Mirkwood. They're doing everything we're doing, and doing it so much that Mom is having to limit their computer time, only they're not rolling dice or filling out character sheets. And they have no damned use for a 300 page, $35 book full of rules.
No damned use at all.
And that, right there, ladies and gents, orcs and trolls, is the elephant in the living room. The truth nobody wants to look at.
MMOGs didn't steal an entire generation of gamers, young people who were raised on Harry Potter and the Lords of the Rings movies and collecting Pokemon, a generation better primed than almost any before it to enjoy RPGs. Nope. It was the pen-and-paper RPG industry that drove them away.
Justin Alexander, in a comment on Grognardia's post about Mr. Varney's article, said it best:
While other forms of entertainment have certainly poached tabletop's audience, I still think a major contributing factor is the lack of gateway product...
...The investment time in terms of reading the rulebooks also drastically increased. The BECMI Basic Set I started playing with had roughly 100 pages in it, and a significant chunk of that was actually a solo play adventure. By contrast, 4th Edition's core rulebooks are 800+ pages.
D&D is still the game synonymous with RPGs and to start you need to shell out $140 and read 800+ pages. I have no idea what kids make mowing lawns these days, but I do know that $140 will get you in to see one movie a month for an entire year. It's over twice the cost of a new video game. And before we even talk about price and the daunting size of the rules, D&D has got to overcome the hurdle of being that game Dad played way back in the Mesozoic era, when he wasn't running away from veloceraptors barefoot through the snow uphill on his way to school.
(Ok, that's not entirely true. There's a $17 Starter Set that's a sort of cut-down version of the game that will take you up to 3rd level. Is this the first you're hearing of it? Me to. I stumbled across it when doing research for this rant, er I mean, blog post.)
D&D has abandoned that target audience of young, budding gamers. And D&D is supposed to be our gateway game. Maybe, if we're lucky, a few might stumble into the game via Magic: the Gathering, but isn't the steam draining out of that engine as well? I wouldn't know, so if you know otherwise, tell me.
I'd dare say that Spike is probably doing more today to introduce kids and teens to RPGing than WotC.
And to me, this looks like an opportunity. The prime RPGing years are roughly 9 to 16, when you're reading and making your own choices about friends and entertainment, but don't yet have your own car. The next best chance to get someone interested is in college, when you have more time than money and lots of people your own age around, but transportation is mostly limited by how far you can get on foot. After that, it gets harder and harder to interest someone in a hobby that's as time-consuming and imagination-demanding as RPGs.
You can maybe make the case that 4e is a good fit for the college crowd, but 10 year olds? I don't think so. WotC has abandoned them, and they are ripe for anyone with the right marketing strategy.
Speaking of, here's something else interesting. When I Google “roleplaying game”, D&D doesn't even show up on the front page. Wikipedia is my first two results, followed by a hosting site for free online MMOGs. What's 4th? RPGnet followed by RPG Gateway then RPG Sheets, RPGNews, and 1km1kt. You have to go to the second page before D&D shows up under their preferred spelling of “roleplaying game”.
The field is abandoned. The audience is out there. They're web-savvy, eager to use their imaginations, and steeped in the lore from movies and computer games. They want something more, and since they've not been given it, they're making it on their own. And the industry has nobody but themselves to blame.
UPDATE: The Alexandrian agrees, with a tale of a young player getting into RPGs only after persevering in the face of not quite getting it the first few times.