Monday, August 11, 2008

Where the Kids Are

Waaaaaay back in April, when I was eye-ball deep in D&D 4e marketing, I questioned the assumption that D&D and traditional RPGs were incapable of appealing to the nine-to-twelve-year-olds of today. As many others have pointed out, the endless grind and railroad plots of computer RPGs are not real competition for the sort of experience that a real, living GM can give you. The dynamic possibilities traditional pen-and-paper play offers simply cannot be reproduced by a computer, which is optimized for repetitive, one-size-fits-all sorts of games.

In the comments, however, the mysterious Wart pointed out that the real competition wasn't MMOGs like WoW, but rather ad hoc, user-created, text-based online play spaces of free-form RPGing:

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.

I haven't really explored that world, as it seems to be primarily based on popular IPs like Harry Potter or Middle Earth, and this combined with the unorganized sandbox style of play leads to an assumed conservation of the setting that prevents the sort of world-shaking storylines I prefer to play. (Or maybe I'm just a control freak who has to oversee the entire world and make sure my preferred themes remain prominent. Nah, it couldn't be that...) Anyway, this "hidden world" of free-form RPG hasn't gone unnoticed, and Sandy Antunes, whose Skotos network of games skirts alongside this movement with games like Castle Marach, has posted about the phenomenon over at

For those kids into roleplaying, it's online and book-free. My niece in middle school hangs out on roleplaying servers. Basically chatrooms, sometimes with MUD elements, where they have in-character names, roles, guilds and clans, hierarchies, politics. She spends hours on them, fantastically creative and literate-- but online, not tabletop, and rule-free. One is Harry Potter themed, one is LotR, and the third is generic fantasy.

It's what she and her middle school friends do, a mix of girls and boys (maybe 60/40, 70/30?). It's entirely dice-free. She does it so much her mom took away the computer in her room. It's like interactive fanfic.

For those wondering if there really is an "old school" movement rising in RPGs, the answer seems to be, "at this rate, it'll soon be the only game in town." Mr. Antunes suggests that the big theme needed to sell to these folks is "explicit network building" which seems to echo one of the themes Ryan Dancey was exploring in the final days of his blog.

There are other things folks playing these games might find useful. What about tailor-built online locations with services specifically built to support their play? Or new settings to play in? Would they appreciate graphics, something like a 3D Hogwarts complete with robes and brooms and hidden rooms?

Unfortunately, I'm not seeing any room here for D&D. Maybe Dragonlance or Forgotten Realms, perhaps. But not D&D as we know it, with AC and hit points and the six stats and all of that. The implied setting of D&D, with its generic dwarves and elves and orcs might work. But the core of the game itself is completely extraneous to these people. They need core mechanics and monster statblocks the way a fish needs a bicycle.


JimLotFP said...

I had a girlfriend in the mid-90s that played a Pern "game" (they didn't call it a game) this way on the AOL boards or something like that.

That might be the key thing here... they're not playing a "game," so they don't need resolution mechanics of any kind. It's not the same hobby.

James Maliszewski said...

It's not the same hobby.

No, it's not, and that's been one of my hobby horses for a while now. Since the 90s at least, lots of stuff gets lumped into "roleplaying" that really isn't. It'd be as if D&D had still been called "wargaming" today, even though, in some sense its creators thought of it as simply being such, at least at first.

Anyway, I don't think there's actually much of a future for the kind of RPGs spawned by the success of D&D. What we'll see over the next 20 years is the slow death of that hobby, as most current players simply stop playing and the kid who would have picked it up in previous generations gravitate toward other similar but not identical hobbies. There will remain pockets of "old style" RPing, but they'll be small and more tightly knit than today. But the days of mass market RPGs are dead and never will come back.

Sounds wonderful to me.

Anonymous said...

So in this rules free, dice free, online roleplaying you describe, lets say I'm involved in a LOTR game. What happens when my elf stabs someone else's dwarf with his sword? The dwarf either decides if it misses or hits? Seems like a recipe for the old "I Hit you!", "no you didn't", "yes I did!" "NO YOU DIDN'T" impasses of cops and robbers or cowboys and indians from our youth.

Unknown said...

" Seems like a recipe for the old "I Hit you!", "no you didn't", "yes I did!" "NO YOU DIDN'T" impasses of cops and robbers or cowboys and indians from our youth."

When I first learned about these collective fiction roleplays in the late 90s, I learned there is a lot of quasi-written rules and consensus building going around as to what can happen when you write about other characters. Most of it was done in out-of-character forum chats. Some places even had explicit rules as to what can be written for certain situations.

In the past I recall there being more structure to the process than Trollsmyth is writing about. I can't really comment about today unfortunately.

Robert said...

Seems like a recipe for the old ‘I Hit you!’, ‘no you didn’t’, ‘yes I did!’ ‘NO YOU DIDN’T’ impasses of cops and robbers or cowboys and indians from our youth.

Seems like that would be a problem, doesn’t it. Yet it isn’t.

It’s similar to the way that we’re told we can’t possibly have fun with older RPG systems. ^_^

It works because the people involved want it to work, and that’s all you really need. Oh, from what I’m told, you occasionally have the odd trouble maker, but that’s true in any group endeavor. sigh

I think these “free-form RPGs” and old-school D&D actually have a lot in common. Although, at first blush, I can see people from both sides being turned off by the other.

The thing I’ve seen among the most staunch new-school advocates is a level of mistrust of their fellow gamers that makes me wonder why they play at all. “Free-form RPGs” and classic D&D work because the gamers trust, forgive, and enjoy one another.

alexandro said...

"The thing I’ve seen among the most staunch new-school advocates is a level of mistrust of their fellow gamers that makes me wonder why they play at all. “Free-form RPGs” and classic D&D work because the gamers trust, forgive, and enjoy one another."
Of course you could say the same thing about oWoD, Sorcerer, DitV, PTA...heck any of the "new-school" games save for a few odd men out.

Robert said...

...heck any of the ‘new-school’ games save for a few odd men out.

And, I suspect, most gamers in general.

(Although, “new school” wasn’t the best choice of words on my part. But I was trying to choose a polite adjective for this school. ^_^)

But we seem to have a tendency to be pessimistic about ourselves.

Another example: Run a game sometime where you let the players choose the ability scores for their PCs. No rolling. No point buy. Just choose. There’s a good chance they end up choosing scores lower than what they typically roll. It sounds crazy at first, yet it often works out fine.

(And even if someone does choose straight 18s, they’ll only serve as an example that ability scores aren’t really that important. ^_^)

Donny_the_DM said...

I did MUDs and text RP's way back in the early 90's as well. It was lame, but it was the only game in town. (small town pop.600)

I don't think it is the dice and character sheets scaring kids off these days, it's committment.

Joining a gaming group is fairly similar to being recruited as a BFF. You are promising to spend a LOT of your precious free time in close proximity to these folks for the forseeable future.

The biggest hurdle of all when I recruit new players, is the whole "appointed place at appointed time" thing. Kids are spontaneous creatures that (usually) dislike making heavy time committments.

Of course, this may just be my little microcosm, but it has been a recurring problem for years.

I've always thought a focused advertising campaign aimed specifically at schools (clubs and afterschool programs). These kids are the future of the game, but they're not being reached.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, true old school games have lots of flexibilty but the bottom line on how to resolve a conflict is:

The GM's word is law.

That would seem to be the opposite of what is being described here.

GMless play is definitely a "new school" thing as far as I can tell and would be anathema to most OD&D afficianados.

Secular Transhumanist said...

There is something at least approximating what you're talkin about active on AOL; a thriving Gorean role-playing community. There are combat rules (AOL has a built-in dice-rolling utility), classes (castes), and even monsters (kurii, sleen, etc.). Of course, being what it is, many of the sessions are a bit more, er, adult in nature than you might otherwise see in a D&D game, and the players are not 9 year olds (I hope!). But there is something with a bit more structure out there in text-rpg land.

Not that I play it, of course. :-)