Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Death of RPGs


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.

17 comments:

greywulf said...

Amen to all that.

I've ranted before about WoTC (and the rpg industry at large, in the main) ignoring the future demographic of the game.

My Moldvay Edition D&D announces proudly on the cover "For 3 or More Adults Ages 10 and Up". As a kid, I loved that. This was a game FOR ME that treated me like an adult; it didn't patronise or look down on me. It treated me like an adult, by design.

Now, to be able to buy D&D you need $140, and preferably a credit card and 'net connection of your very own. It's not designed for 10 year olds any more.

What adult is going to buy D&D for their kids at Christmas? Not many. What kids are going to buy it themselves? None.

D&D itself is killing D&D. The RPG Starter Kit is excellent, but completely drops the ball by omitting character generation as a part of the whole D&D experience. Without it, D&D is little more than a somewhat complicated boardgame. With character generation clearly a part of the game right from the start, it's much, much more. It's a key to your imagination.

Herb said...

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.

Library programs, especially summer ones.

Which reminds me, I need to put a phone call on my calendar.

Herb said...

This was a game FOR ME that treated me like an adult; it didn't patronise or look down on me. It treated me like an adult, by design.

I wrote about this early in my blog. I am convinced one reason I still roleplay is that was the first place where adults treated me as a peer. Even as a high school student with no car a group ranging from Army guys in their 20s, programmers and salesmen in their 30s, and even married couples in their 40s treated me as another adult in the group.

So for me RPGs were never kids stuff to be left behind but adult stuff to take with me for life.

I believe that's a powerful thing we need to recapture.

trollsmyth said...

The RPG Starter Kit is excellent, but completely drops the ball by omitting character generation as a part of the whole D&D experience. Without it, D&D is little more than a somewhat complicated boardgame.

Wait, it doesn't include character creation? It's only pregens?!? Are you sure you're not getting it confused with the preview adventure? I'm not saying you're wrong, but that seems such an odd thing to do I'm having trouble fathoming it. :/

Talysman said...

I completely agree. The way I see it, the advantage of tabletop RPGs (or online freeform roleplay) over MMORPGs is that they are analog rather than digital, which means a richer, fuller experience. It's not true that newer editions of D&D eliminate the ability to improvise, but they do tend to become increasingly bogged down by details and a desire to make everything precise. Not only can computer games do that better, but that kind of detail really only appeals to a subset of all potential roleplayers.

noisms said...

In a way you can't blame WotC. They can make big money off the 30+ crowd who've been with D&D for a long time and have a lot of disposable income.

But it's depressingly short-termist.

Oddysey said...

I've been thinking about writing my own rant on the "WoW killed D&D!" line of thinking, mostly about how WoW and D&D really don't have anything to do with each other besides both featuring an occasional dragon. The people I know who play MMOs and the people I know who play RPGs -- all high school/college aged folks -- are pretty much two separate groups. There's a little crossover, but for the most part those of us who are seriously into RPGs think computer games are kind of boring. We're readers, really.

Personally, I suspect that this is an area where the old school movement could make a lot of headway. If someone could get a "For Adults Ages 10 And Up" type product, with modern production values and language, I bet you'd see a lot of kids playing Basic D&D. Especially if you put in a good dose of the old "you can do anything!" and make it clear that you can play a fairy dragon or whatnot.

taichara said...

@trollsmyth:

Wait, it doesn't include character creation? It's only pregens?!? Are you sure you're not getting it confused with the preview adventure? I'm not saying you're wrong, but that seems such an odd thing to do I'm having trouble fathoming it. :/

He's not kidding, trust me. Terrifyingly mind-boggling though, isn't it?

*clutches Red Box close*

trollsmyth said...

Taichara: He's not kidding, trust me. Terrifyingly mind-boggling though, isn't it?

Head-desk-head-desk-head-desk...

Oddysey: If someone could get a "For Adults Ages 10 And Up" type product, with modern production values and language, I bet you'd see a lot of kids playing Basic D&D. Especially if you put in a good dose of the old "you can do anything!" and make it clear that you can play a fairy dragon or whatnot.

Emphasis added because I think that's one area where some grognards would balk, to the detriment of the game. But it would be magic to the target audience.

I can't find it now, but earlier today I was reading an actual play report on a blog in which a father was running an old school game for his two daughters and his wife. The eldest girl was playing an ice elf, which I'm pretty sure was something Dad let her do that's not in the rules he's using.

Yeah, the rules would need to be simple, and still allow you to play a unicorn or a pixie or a werewolf or a swashbuckling mouse. Probably the best way to achieve that would be to ignore the mechanics of such things and let the GM worry about it.

Oddysey said...

Oof. There should be "into distribution" after the bit about "modern production values. Bit of an obvious typo.

But, yeah, generally there's a lot of talk about licensed properties, like Harry Potter's going to get kids into gaming or something. Really though there'd be a lot more appeal to something that would let you mash all the different pre-teen fiction types together, rather than being tied to one particular setting, based on my own experience as a twelve-year-old. Much like OD&D did for pulp fantasy, actually. It wouldn't have been nearly as interesting if it was just Conan: the Game; the value in it comes from being able to mix a bunch of different influences together to make your own thing.

Spike Page said...

*blushing*

Thanks for the recognition, though I really don't think of what we're doing with those kids as being anything apart from introducing them to a new hobby.

And you're absolutely right about the real target audience of future RPGers playing in freeform stories on Harry Potter and LoTR fan forums. I used to administer one such forum, and had I known then what I know now, I could have delivered you scores of new players. Those kids want to play, but they just need to be shown that it can be done with more structure and yet STILL be fun.

Allen Varney said...

As I wrote in my Escapist article, "every tabletop fan correctly (if reflexively) says multiplayer online games can't capture the whole roleplaying experience. But these gamers overlook the wider ecosystem of online fiction, forum and wiki games, worldbuilding and mapmaking sites that, in aggregate, scratch the roleplaying itch." I think the lack of a good introductory tabletop version of D&D is a factor only to the extent tabletop, the form itself, can compete with the entire range of sort-of-RPG experiences available online. The point of my article is that tabletop can't really match the combined attractions of all these forms, but that by adapting them, the shrinking tabletop audience is having more fun than they used to.

You're in Austin? I need to pull you into our irregular Austin Game Writers lunches....

taichara said...

Just to weigh in a little more properly this time (*grins*), I can say this much:

I play video game rpgs (though not MMORPGs), I run tabletop rpgs (though I haven't managed to play in ages), and I freeform roleplay online. And for me at least, these are all radically different experiences.

Even when playing freeform in a venue where there are moderators -- essentially "Dunegon Masters" who occasionally run overarching plotlines and make sure everyone is being fair and not arses to each other -- it just isn't the same as tabletop. But it is just as involved, and just as immersive.

If there's anything that the freeform arena is offering that tabletop isn't -- or at least tabletop D&D isn't -- it's something already addressed above. The only thing limiting what you can roleplay as a character in a freeform game is what that game chooses to include/exclude.

If D&D could work out a way to incorporate that, even just a little bit, without bogging down in the details it would make a hell of a lot of difference.

As for the not wanting to read 800 pages ... well, I could believe some of the younger crew I've roleplayed with online would balk at it when it was presented as something as formidable as that *grins* But they aren't afraid of the work and the worldbuilding, let me assure you ...

trollsmyth said...

Allen Varney:
The point of my article is that tabletop can't really match the combined attractions of all these forms, but that by adapting them, the shrinking tabletop audience is having more fun than they used to.


I'd certainly agree with that second point, and you'll get very little "that darn intranets" ranting around here. As for the first, I'm not sure I agree with pen-and-paper's inability to compete. However, since my current game is played online via OpenRPG, we may just be arguing about where to draw the margins.

And pull away, sir, pull away. :) With my current schedule I'd actually be able to attend. This is the first I'd heard of such, though it doesn't surprise me at all that they happen.

Taichara: As for the not wanting to read 800 pages ... well, I could believe some of the younger crew I've roleplayed with online would balk at it when it was presented as something as formidable as that *grins* But they aren't afraid of the work and the worldbuilding, let me assure you ...

I certainly didn't mean to imply they would be afraid of a little work. They did, after all, get through Ms. Rowling's massive tomes. That said, Tom Sawyer's point about whitewashing fences applies. Or, to put it in terms of my own choices, I could learn 4e and take the time to hack it into what I want so I could start playing in a month or two, or I can play Labyrinth Lord today. Opportunity costs matter.

Jonathan said...

100% Agree. People have moved on, and the RPG industry has not kept pace. This is one of the reasons why I believe the RPG blogging community is taking off. I mean, whether you are in the RPGN network or not, there's an estimated 400 - 500 new blog posts every week in our community. over 20,000 new, free RPG articles per year. I believe the RPG gaming community is going back to its roots -- small press, grassroots projects. Homebrew, house rule, mixed genre, genre bending, make it up as you go along gaming. We've got 30+ years of RPG development, theory, and content to base it all on too -- this goes beyond companies and trademarks. There's something brewing here and on other blogs that should be seen as an indicator, a litmus test turned pink. The writing is on the wall. Case in point: when I "came out" at work that I was a die-hard D&D player, by the end of the week I had more than a dozen people clamouring to get in on a game -- and most of them had never played in their life. They wanted something other than a video game to play. They wanted something social. Personal. Analog.

thanks for the post! made my brain wake up.

Donny said...

an excellent post!

A good point too. Video games aren't the enemy, and they never were. At least, no more than fantasy books and comics are.

IMO it is the corporate business model that will be the death of the "traditional" RPG. The statement regarding the short-sightedness of catering only to an aging remnant of the folks they scooped up 30 years ago is spot on.

In my personal experience, it's storytelling games tile WoD that are very popular with the "younger" set. The rules are more flexible, and chargen is a snap. While still a massive improvement over 3E, the 4E Chargen process is still a pain in the ass.

So you tell me, When a friend invites you over to play a game, and making your peep is a pain in the ass. followed by reading the core books for 6 hours to get a feel for the game, THEN learn about the errata that makes big changes to your now obsolete character...would you be thinking about playing video games now?

The staff at every major games publisher should be strapped to a chair with their eyelids cut out and forced to read this post...it's truthiness cannot be questioned!

Anonymous said...

I started by buying the AD&D hardbacks and reading them, then playing. And I had video games, too. Intro/basic set type games are overrated, I think. The complexity of (A)D&D is part of the allure for any kid who's ready and willing to be a full-time RPG hobbyist.