The Futures of RPGs

Lately over on anyway. Vincent Baker has been musing about RPGs and how to make them more accessible. It’s one of those perennial bugbears of gaming, and way too many people are way too ready to just throw their hands up and conclude that as a commercial venture RPGs are just doomed. I don’t know whether we can ever change the direction things are going, but on the other hand I think a lot of the kinds of things that come up in these discussions are things that can benefit existing gamers, so long as they’re open-minded enough to take advantage of them.

One thing Vincent’s been talking about a lot is the social footprint of gaming, and there’s no denying that it’s the place where RPGs unequivocally lose out to basically every other form of entertainment ever. To play a game of D&D as it’s been for the past decade or more to its fullest you need to get 4-6 people to spend an hour or more making characters, and get together for 4-6 hours at a time, preferably once a week for several months to a few years to get the full effect. This isn’t an invalid way to play for those that can manage it–a long-term campaign has distinct payoffs–but even people who dearly love the game often find themselves forced have to admit that it doesn’t fit well into an adult lifestyle.

That’s where board games tend to have a tremendous edge over RPGs. There are some super-hardcore board games that require an elaborate setup and whose full appeal comes out in campaign play, but by and large those are the exception to the rule. An average board game gives you a discrete unit of play with minimal setup and no need to maintain a set group of people. There are some games like Fiasco that deliver that kind of formatting to an RPG, but the D&D model is still very much the norm. If you’re pitching the RPG experience to someone who doesn’t already play, it seems like it should be easier to sell if you can get them into the meat of play faster (like without having lengthy character creation) and the basic unit of play is something they can reasonably expect to fit into their lives. And really, that’s something that can benefit gamers too. Even if you have a regular D&D game going, less involved RPGs can be a nice fallback when someone can’t make it at the last minute, or someone new stops by and you don’t want to limit them to spectating.

The question of what RPGs can learn video games is tougher, because the medium has certain different capabilities and expectations. Although there is such a thing as a “solo RPG” experience (in Fighting Fantasy and its ilk), a video game’s capacity for solo play on your own terms isn’t really something a tabletop RPG can hope to reproduce. On the other hand, video games can be very good at putting players into the action and teaching them as they go. That’s what some in the RPG world have started to call “fluency play.” Rather than dumping the whole game onto players’ heads at once, you ease them into it in digestible chunks, with very little distinction between teaching and playing. Very few tabletop games have even tried this, so I’m very curious to see how well it will work when more designers try it.

There’s also the concept of the “party” to contend with, the idea that the players’ characters will generally be a group that sticks together constantly. It’s largely an artifact of D&D’s influence, and doesn’t really line up well with any other kind of fiction apart from those D&D itself has affected. These days the U.S. is in the middle of something of a golden age of TV drama, while fantasy is more of a niche genre. TV dramas typically have a strong central cast, but it’s entirely natural when an episode focuses on some and lets others fade into the background. Thus the ensemble cast type approach is both more pragmatic for gamers who have lives and more in line with the stories that more people enjoy. Even My Little Pony seldom involves more than 2 or 3 of its six main characters in any given episode. Apocalypse World doesn’t explicitly call for this approach, but I think it potentially supports it. AW characters are more likely to have their own distinct agendas, and thus a group of AW characters is less likely to be unable to function coherently if one or two are missing.

Where discussions of these kinds of things tend to crash and burn is when you get to the question of how to reach people. Cel*Style members’ experiences selling RPGs to anime fans have been encouraging overall, but rather mixed. Vincent’s attempt at selling games at a horror con pretty much bombed, and his commentary makes it clear that there are some very tough issues to face, among the biggest being how to communicate the experience and appeal of role-playing. If getting to a few dozen people who are already at a convention is a challenge, what hope is there for reaching millions, even if you do have the perfect game? The other day Robert Bohl pointed out something on Google+ that in hindsight is pretty blindingly obvious: you don’t have to aspire to change the whole world and get millions of people playing. His approach is simply to make games that he can play with lots of people, and that in turn means games that non-gamers can get into. That’s the kind of goal that an independent designer/publisher can get into and realistically achieve. It would be nice to get thousands and thousands of new people into the hobby, but having fun with lots of friends, including ones who don’t normally game, is I think a worthwhile goal too.

On a business level, the indie/Forge thing was about setting and achieving realistic goals. Don’t take out a second mortgage to print 20,000 copies of your game when you can print and definitely sell 200. In that respect I feel like there’s a definite parallel between RPGs and comics. In comics you have people doing webcomics and mini-comics and independent graphic novels and Kickstarters and everything, while Marvel and DC are seemingly not even trying to reach outside of hardcore superhero comics fans. (“DC Comics: Bad At Math“) In the tabletop RPG world the two biggest properties are D&D and a clone of D&D, whose introductory not-ginormous-hardcover-books boxed sets came out in 2010 and 2011, in each case 2 years after the original version. They’re both media where there’s these really amazing things going on at a grassroots level while in the mainstream the serpent is eating its own tail. The thing that superhero comics have on their side is getting made into quality cartoons and movies, like Young Justice and the recent Marvel movies. D&D’s forays into other media have been kind of lackluster. I’ve heard good things about the comics and board games, but those aren’t really reaching out to new audiences.

My own projects are all over the place when it comes to this kind of stuff. Slime Quest is going to deliberately be unambitious in terms of reaching out to non-gamers, because it’s an attempt to refine an existing style of play. On the other hand Raspberry Heaven (for which I really need to get more work done) is a super-casual RPG that aims to push the limits of the medium and be at its best for a decidedly atypical RPG audience. Marketing it is going to be a pretty interesting task to be sure. My first playtest of the Raspberry Heaven Practice Test went pretty well, and gave us a satisfying little RP experience in about an hour. I can’t help but think that something like that would be pretty alien to a lot of traditional RPGs, but then next week we’ll most likely get back to our Spirit of the Century game.

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3 thoughts on “The Futures of RPGs

  1. Here’s how I see it.

    RPGs are collaborative storytelling. That requires people who have at least a certain degree of storytelling blood in their veins. They may not be GOOD storytellers, but the impulse is still there. It’s the same with writing — that’s why you have a lot of bad but enthusiastically-written material out there. (This isn’t to imply that prolific writers are automatically poor ones; I wouldn’t think highly of Georges Simenon, for instance, if that were the case.)

    That, I think, is one of the biggest discriminators right there. Most people have either a poor grasp of storytelling or a wholly distorted idea of it, and so they either don’t have any interest in RPGs as such or have a poor concept of what it amounts to. It takes some personal exposure to the way gaming works to really make it click. That might explain why some people I know who never had any interest in RPGs before were turned on to it not through TT gaming, but rather LARPs. (They came for the setting and stayed for the rest.)

    “Fluency play” sounds like a way to take the material that is usually dumped on the player’s head in the Player’s Handbook for whatever game they’re in, and turn it into part of the game mechanic. Back when I played Traveller, there seemed to be some hint of this in the character-generation process, but I later found out it was more an artifact of my particular GM’s style for that game then something made formal in the rules. I was disappointed: I liked the idea of c-gen being part of your in-game walkthrough, so to speak.

    Faced with that, here’s an idea: Create a game that has a few incarnations – a “casual” version for the uninitiated, and a more sophisticated RPG/TT edition for people who want to go to the next level. Feasible?

    1. Getting people exposed to how RPGs flow and work is another one of the major hurdles. Japanese tabletop RPGs are so niche they don’t have as much of the benefit of mentorship as in the U.S., so they’ve taken to using “replays,” full transcripts of game sessions, as teaching tools. One of D&D’s best moves in recent years has been putting up podcasts of the Penny Arcade guys playing the game. Both take a lot of work to do well, but both seem highly beneficial. Jason Morningstar’s Fiasco has a replay in it, and it apparently has helped a lot of people grok the game who might not have otherwise.

      The idea of having a simpler entry point and then a more sophisticated version of an RPG is actually a pretty old one. D&D used to be split into Advanced and “basic” D&D, and the basic D&D red box got an awful lot of people into the hobby on account of being sold at department stores alongside mainstream board games. OTOH the current beginner boxed sets for D&D and Pathfinder (1) came out 2 years after the original games as something of an afterthought, and (2) present such a stripped-down form of play that if you end up playing the real game, the boxed set feels like kind of a waste of money.

      A little after I wrote up this post, I found out about Jessica Hammer’s post called Making Horror, Selling Dread, which looks like a really sharp analysis of the things that create barriers to entry even for a game as simple as Dread. Expecting people to buy funny dice is already pushing it, but Dread calls for a Jenga set, and selling a book that’s useless without one is another barrier. She also brings up the “90-9-1 Principle,” which I think points at something really important. There’s a large portion of the potential audience that you can’t expect to actively create, so the less of that a game requries the better, especially if it allows it for those who want to create.

      A lot of that stuff fits into why I wanted to make Raspberry Heaven a game where the only thing you need to play is a smartphone app, and there’s no need for dice, paper, pencils, cards, or anything else.

  2. Back in the day when I got a new bunch of people willing to play a game was go system free, I’d give them a pencil and a piece of paper and say write down your name, yep your actual name. Okay you’ve been on a night out with work/school (as we were generally all working at the same place or went to school together), now I’d tend to have two directions here either a fantasy intro or a superhero intro, both would tend to end up with them stuck in a cell or something similar. They’d then have to get out and depending on what they did I’d have an idea how they’d evolve, then there would be an armory where the players pick up weapons going further to define a class (in the case of fantasy) or a sequence of challenges that would bring out their “superpowers”. The whole thing would take a couple of hours from walking home from work to being sunk into a world of possibilities with no need to worry about things like stats and thac0. If everyone was game, then next time we hooked up for a bit of gaming I’d have put a few numbers around their characters.

    Then once they’re hooked start reffing one off sessions with other games to see what they like.

    Biggest problem is creating new GMs,I find players easier to get though after 6 years with my current lot one of them is finally reffing a game (rules free skyrim oh so much fun.)

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