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WOPR: “Would you like to play a game?”

It is the beginning of a new millennium.  The anointed champions of the two greatest empires in existence square off for what may be the decisive battle for superiority.

Rumors fly as the two champions and their massive armies prepare to take the field.  In the supersaturated environment, conjecture morphs into assumption nearly overnight, and the fans quickly divide into two camps, trading verbal volleys as the battle approaches.

Is this a presidential election? The Olympics? No, this is the war of the console video game, and it will be fought by two of the largest companies in the world: Sony and Microsoft.  Victory conditions are assumed to be simple: The most stunning graphics will win.

But a funny thing happened on the way to victory…

Anyone familiar with fantasy tropes could have predicted what happened next. Virtually unnoticed in the fanfare, a plucky challenger rises from the home of a former champion. Small. Simple. Unsophisticated. Yet this hero carries the heritage of generations gone before. And before either massive empire can claim victory on the basis of cold calculations and raw power, this upstart will win the hearts and minds of the people. Wii will win.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t so cut-and-dried, and maybe my poetic license needs to be revoked.  But the fact remains that the Wii blew away much more expensive and sophisticated consoles by focusing on gameplay and interaction instead of detail. Both Sony and Microsoft jumped into an arms race over processing power and graphics, because the assumption was that gamers wanted eye-popping visuals.  As we know now (and as Shamus Young [1] shouts from the barricades), it ain’t all about the graphics; if the game isn’t fun to play, then folks won’t play it.

Yeah, but who the hell cares about videogames?

I’m glad you asked.  In videogames, monstrously complex programs and huge amounts of processing power are required for lifelike graphics, which (obviously!) make for better gaming.  The analogue in tabletop gaming is that complex rules and number-crunching (obviously!) make for better gaming.

The Wii challenged those assumptions and won big. Not only did it get the attention of the gamer market, the Wii’s greatest feat was appealing to those who don’t consider themselves gamers. By simplifying videogames and making them fun at nearly any level, the Wii expanded the market.

Original D&D was three thin booklets, but AD&D quickly joined the pack with an incredibly complex (at the time) collection of three books totaling an unheard-of 478 pages.  AD&D 2E complicated the issue even more, often with contradictory rules. Third Edition attempted to simplify things, but I have nearly six feet of D&D 3.x bookshelf, and I’m not even a collector.  D&D 4E was launched with plenty of fanfare and 832 pages, with the promise of much, much more to come.

(I’m not here merely to trash D&D.  White Wolf has quite a penchant for verbiage and supplements, Iron Crown Enterprises had the most complex game I’ve ever run, and don’t even get me started on Hero System’s 592-page core rulebook.  D&D is merely the most popular example of the trend towards complexity in gaming.)

So, what does it all mean?  Well, all analogies fail at some point, and if you enjoy the complexity of a crunchy game, then this one fails before it leaves the gate.  I’m not about to tell you how to game, or that you’re doing it wrong.  But there is a strong element in gaming that values complexity, just as there is a strong element in videogaming that values high framerates and polished pixels.

When Nintendo thought outside the box, and focused on gameplay over graphics, they took a chance. Nobody predicted the Wii phenomenon, not the analysts, not Sony, not Microsoft, and not even Nintendo, who missed out on up to a billion dollars in revenue by not having enough production capacity. (Unlike MS or Sony, Nintendo actually made money on console sales.) Sony and MS fought tooth and nail over the hardcore gamers, of which there are only so many, while Nintendo picked up heaps of folks who hadn’t owned a console since Atari was in business. By going outside the box, Nintendo expanded the customer base.

And here’s where the analogy may or may not mean anything.  Will there be an RPG that will appeal to the broader market, and not just RPGers?  Will someone write a simple yet fun RPG that will actually require the ever-present “What’s an RPG?” page at the beginning of the book? Or will increasingly complex games continue to fight for the same small market share?

Keep it polite, but sound off!  Am I following a logic train to nowhere?  Do you think that anything might actually expand the pool of PnP RPGers?  If so, what will that thing be?

28 Comments (Open | Close)

28 Comments To "GameWars"

#1 Comment By JackSmithIV On December 1, 2008 @ 3:47 am

My god, that’s incredibly commentary.

I think that 4th Edition in fact set out to do much of what the Wii set out to do, which is to revitalize the “fun” aspect of the game and bring it to a broader audience. But while I love 4th Edition (I’ll probably never go back), it just doesn’t match up when put up alongside the Wii parallel. But in my opinion, it would require a rethinking of how we market, develop, and view roleplaying games.

Much of the Wii’s success can be attributed to it’s very outside-the-box philosophy. They DIDN’T just sell it as a game system. They sold it as an entertainment console for the family, even sometimes as exercise equipment. It has a fun, intruiging pitch, and accomplishes something that’s never been seen before. Finally, it reaches people because videogaming is an industry that, unlike PnP RPGs, has managed to escape being a strange and sometimes unsightly subculture and make it to the mainstream.

But I think you bring a great point to mind. We really DON’T have the kind of game that can bring anyone to the table easily and attractively. D&D (while being fun, accessible, and able to appeal to a broad audience) is still at it’s heart a pretty tough game. There’s still a whole slew of numbers and 700+ pages of core material. If you handed the average person a PHB, they’d still have to ask “How exactly does this work”, and in lue of someone to answer that quesiton, they’ve probably put it right back down again.

World of Darkness, at it’s core, is a much better introductory system. The presentation is very fun, the “interface” is intuitive and friendly, and horror is a MUCH more broad and accessable genre in terms of mainstream culture. Unfortunately, they have a tendancy to release material faster than you can keep up with, and their “evangelism” is non-existant. They are hugely supported by their sales to non-gaming reader fans who collect the material for the great production value. For gods sake, they released an entire game (Hunter: the Vigil) and never announced it on their website. While the game is well presented (although still suffering from giant sourcebooks), a lay-person attempting to learn more from either the gaming community or (god forbid) something as simple as the companies own website will be met with nothing but frustration.

Haha, I hope I didn’t inspire any hard feelings with those last two paragraphs. I believe both products are excellent and love each, and more lament these issues than criticize Wizards/WhiteWolf for them. But when will we see an RPG that will be TRUELY accessable to non-gamers (not just for those who can stomach hundreds of pages in the core rulebook)? And how much of the responsibility falls on the gaming community to bring PnP RPGs to the mainstream?

I’ve been fascinated by the question posed by this post, and will keep watching this thread so that I can keep offering feedback.

#2 Comment By greywulf On December 1, 2008 @ 4:13 am

Hmmm. A role-playing game built around Wii principles that’s designed to appeal to non-gamers?

I’d suggest that 4e does the opposite. It’s the xbox 360 of the role-playing world, designed to appeal directly to the console gamer/World of Warcraft crowd. I mean that in a good way though – I think that WoTC were exactly right to take lessons from WoW and create something that’s modern and of interest to computer gamers. They are, after all, the literati of the age.

But back on topic. For an RPG to be built like a Wii, it would need to be simple, inviting, easily available and very, very tactile in implementation. The Wii appeals to the inner fidget, so a Wii-style RPG should have stuff to collect, hold, bend and play with – components that are cheaply made and easily replaced. As you say, the rule-books should be slim, minimalist and the game playable without reading a single thing.

In other words, a LEGO role-playing game.

Hey, I’d buy it 😀

#3 Comment By Brent On December 1, 2008 @ 6:26 am

Yes. I believe role-playing will hit the mainstream in the next 10 to 20 years. And I believe a simpler system will accomplish it.

Not necessarily a *simple* system, but the Wii isn’t simple, either; just look at the number of control variations.

We’ll need something that goes past the typical geek focus of most RPGs, though.

#4 Comment By jcdietrich On December 1, 2008 @ 7:09 am

[2] – Everway was that system. (Ahead of its time mind you). Simple mechanics, slim rule books, pretty cards that you can collect and hold on to, and a world that easily allows tons of customization.

Amber of course was another, even simpler, though it didn’t have the pretty cards (but you might be able to count the 10 novels and the fanzines as accessories)

These games are very different from D&D and a lot of “hardcore” D&D players scoff at them in the same way that XBox and PS3 fans do the Wii. The biggest weakness of these two games are the fact that because they do not use dice, they require a more mature game master who is truly working with players.

For those DMs that want to play against their players, they should look at Descent [3] as it is a board game, for which you can buy expansions, and the one player is in control of the dungeon creatures and their goal is to crush the PCs.

#5 Comment By Tim Jensen On December 1, 2008 @ 7:24 am

In my experience, many indie RPGs are already well along the “faster, simpler, cheaper” path.

#6 Comment By Cole On December 1, 2008 @ 9:00 am

I think price had a lot to do with it. The stunning graphics mentioned were not even available unless you had an expensive TV. So it wasn’t just the price of the console anymore but the TV too. It is like buying a blu-ray player and using your old TV to view your movies.

#7 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On December 1, 2008 @ 9:58 am

It’s the law of diminishing returns. From the days of Pong the whole way up to a few generations of consoles ago, the thorn in the side of game development companies has been how craptastic the games LOOK. Yeah, gameplay, story, innovation, these things could all be improved, and have steadily been improving but the one thing that was pretty poor was the blocky simple graphics. We loved them at the time, but ask any of today’s spoiled gamer brats (by which I mean anyone who’s first system was a playstation on up) and they’ll tell you they’d LIKE to play some older games, but they can’t get past how awful they look (this is of course an unkind generalization). This was worsened by the fact that we’re visual beings and respond better to visual stimuli than any other input.
But at some point, the graphics arms race hit the point of diminishing returns, the point at which each additional unit of capital and effort put into increasing graphical capabilities returns less and less actual result. Chances are, that point was a few generations of console ago.
Nintendo was the first company to catch on to that fact and spend their resources elsewhere. By not banging their head against the law of diminishing returns, they were able to bring far more improvement for the same budget.

#8 Comment By Patrick Benson On December 1, 2008 @ 10:21 am

Products like D&D used to bring new people into the hobby. Now you can’t expect to lure in new players by selling them a $100 core set of books, additional books at $35 a pop, random miniatures at $10 a box, and an online experience (and not much of one at that so far) for $60 to $180 a year when your competition is video games. I bought 4e, and I’m already groaning over the new books coming out. They aren’t worth the money. My Wii has cost me more, but it is so much more versatile that it is definitely worth the money. Plus with GameFly and the local video rental’s game section I can try before I buy.

Pinnacle’s Savage Worlds Explorer’s Edition ($10) and a lot of indie RPGs (often available as PDFs for very little money) are taking the right approach. Those are the kinds of games that are an entry level product. The D&D Starter Set? Well, that is more of a lure to get you to buy the core books.

Personally, I don’t think that there will ever be a PnP RPG that draws in non-gamers. There are too many entertainment options available to the average person that easily overshadow RPGs. Today the way that this hobby gets new players is through existing players. Not the games.

#9 Comment By deadlytoque On December 1, 2008 @ 10:25 am

@ Tim Jensen: Ditto

TLDR; summarized at the bottom.

Anyone who says there isn’t or can’t be a “Wii of RPGs” hasn’t spent enough time browsing indiepressrevolution.com. From games based on the tropes of TV shows using really simple playing-card mechanics (Primetime Adventures) to games with really linear play mechanics using Jenga blocks (Dread), there are a lot of “user friendly” games out there. Why don’t they mirror the Wii’s success? Because the analogy isn’t quite right.

Video games have been always limited by the development and cost of the technology. There have been evolutions in gameplay and mechanics (anyone else remember the first time they were ever able to look up and down in a first-person game?), but there have also been huge evolutions in technology: graphics, controls, wireless, and motion-sensors, to name a few.

RPGs have evolved from a mechanics perspective, with each generation trying new things and balancing different desires from people, but there hasn’t been any technological development since the concept was first put forth. We are still using the same dice, the same sheets, the same pencils. WotC’s new game tools might -look- like a technological advancement on the surface, but the technology doesn’t affect the way the game is played, it just (theoretically) reduces prep time.

The core elements of “traditional” RPGs — crunchy combat, fantastical elements, beefy hero-types — have long been the domain of the “youthful male” demographic. If that’s who’s buying your product, then that’s who you target your product to, and so over the decades, the big-press RPGs have become increasingly targeted to those people, and the medium-press games tend to try and “steal” that market share, rather than do what the Wii (arguably) did and invite people from outside that core demographic to join the game (I say arguably because it’s been my experience that the Wii got the new demographic by largely abandoning its traditional market, skewing older, younger, and towards women at the expense of 15-30-year-old males).

Greywulf is right: D&D4 is the Xbox360 of RPGs, not the Wii. It’s heavy, crunchy, and appeals to gamers who like a lot of glamorous action. Mostly boys. White Wolf games, particularly Vampire, I would guess, have more female players. They also tend to have more LARPers, and LARPs are generally rules-light and de-emphasize combat and traditional “adventure” elements. Coincidence?

I’m going to make the (hopefully inaccurate) assumption that the majority of the readers of this blog are male. So are the majority of video-game purchasers and players. The key to unlocking a Wii-like success in the RPG world is to do the same thing that Wii did in the video game world: get our mums, wives, girlfriends, and female friends buying as many as the “core” demographic. Is it possible in an RPG? Hard to say.

A lot of what made the Wii successful, at least initially, was the novelty factor combined with the inoffensive and somewhat (to coin a neologism) inimmersive nature of the games. You could play WiiSports every day, sure, but were you ever invested in it? There was no “league”, no “tournaments”, no sign that you were accomplishing anything by playing, other than that little status bar. And that’s great for someone who doesn’t -want- to get in deeply with a game. Can that be accomplished with an RPG? Again, I point to Primetime Adventures (designed to run for only a few sessions per “season”) and Dread (designed to be unconnected one-shots). But for the clearest example of success in the field of “casual RPing”, I think we need go no further than the success of board games recently. Number of times I’ve successfully convinced a group of non-gamers to try an indie RPG? One. Number of times I’ve convinced a similar group to try Shadows over Camelot (a board game with — arguably — minimal RP elements)? Four.

Summary for those who skipped to the end: Overall, I would say that for a Wii of RPGs, we can’t look to the big publishers. They are too focused on providing the core demographic with the experience they already know and love with the materials that are already at hand. Small presses have a lot less at stake, and a lot more room to innovate, and are much more likely to create games that are “casual” and have a broad appeal.

#10 Comment By Scott Martin On December 1, 2008 @ 1:37 pm

I’ve also had good success recruiting people to Euro board games– the complete experience in one box is a big advantage.

I suspect the people pointing to indie rpgs are correct for “wii like” gameplay– there are a lot of one session and short series books with minimal rules sets. Unfortunately, none of them are even close to Nintendo like strength (#3), even versus the much weaker field of roleplaying companies.

#11 Comment By JackSmithIV On December 1, 2008 @ 2:15 pm

(TLDR: Summary at end)

@Deadlytoque: I’m afraid I sort of disagree with the idea that it’s the indie publishers that are going to bring RPGs to the mainstream. Unfortunately, the big publishers are the best we’ve got. They’re the only ones who can /afford/ to market to the non-RPG demographic.

If we’re talking about a revolutionary system that will have a Wii-like effect on bringing new demographics of the hobby, we’re talking about a colossal project. Not necessarily in the production value (although god knows this isn’t possible with PDF products, which hardly make it to the mainstream in our own hobby), but in advertising and market presence. We’re talking about a small fortune spent making a splash. And, most importantly, we need a project that has dedicated itself to this kind of advertising. The Wii didn’t just /happen/ to appeal to non-gamers. Nintendo spent tens of millions of dollars in ensuring that non-gamers heard of it, knew about it, and were attracted to it.

We might say that D&D isn’t the Wii of gaming, and I would completely agree! But out of anyone Wizards at least has made the biggest effort to evangelize to a broader demographic. Walking around New York, I’ve seen tons of window posters with logos and slogans like, “Get together. Roll some dice. Have some fun.” Sounds simple, but that kind of easy-going marketing appearance is very sexy. It’s the kind of slogan the hobby needs. Unfortunately, I don’t think they take their advertising to new markets, and they certainly don’t have the system to back up the claim.

With all of the love I have for indie RPG developers, I simple don’t think we have the resources for providing the catalyst product that will bring RPGs into the mainstream. I mean, D&D and White Wolf at least are in every Borders bookstore in America (for all the good that does). We can’t even get into every hobby shop. And if you go the next tier down, many of us can’t even get into print. And for those systems that are already designed to appeal to the bigger audience: is that what they really aimed for in making the product? And if so, have they really made a splash in the way they need to?

Summary: I believe we’re in the Xbox/PS2/Gamecube stage of RPG gaming, and late in the stage, at that. I think the time is coming when the RPG giants are finally going to say “Times are hard, and we need to get to the mainstream audience before the competitors do”. While I believe that it is a favorable possibility that the independant community can rise up and take the mainstream market by storm, I think it would be more prudent for the RPG community to make this demand on the big guys who HAVE the resources already.

We might say that they’re focused on sales to the main demographic, but you can also argue that opening up to new demographics could generate sales numbers in unexplored sectors, putting a huge bounty on the notion of an RPG for everyone.

#12 Comment By nblade On December 1, 2008 @ 2:26 pm

This is very interesting topic. On the one hand, I’d like to think gaming will become more mainstream. On the other hand, even with more “friendly” system, I find it hard to believe that will be.

Still, I think that there might be a category of games that are quasi-RPGs that could be mainstream. The would be more like one-shot RPGs than anything else I suppose.

I suspect when I go the old-age home, that I will still be playing RPGs. Maybe then, the non-RPGers will want to try and play.

#13 Comment By Ashy On December 1, 2008 @ 2:27 pm

I think that the Wandering Men are currently working on something that specifically addresses these issues. It’s code name is “Project Epic” and if you’re interested, drop by the site and check it out. We’re opening up the Beta Playtesting soon! 🙂


#14 Comment By Raf Blutaxt On December 2, 2008 @ 4:29 am

I don’t think that there is a chance of creating a Wii of rpg’s.
The problem is that rpg’s are at heart games of storytelling and acting out your fantasies. Videogames are more like board games and require far less creativity.
In assuming that rpg’s will hit the mainstream you assume there really is a much broader audience that enjoys telling stories and acting out their fantasies. However most people over a certain age don’t even like to talk about their fantasies and imaginations because they perceive them as some kind of weakness.
Any game trying to apeal to a new audience should therefore be targeted at people who enjoy the core principles of gaming. Imo this are children and maybe older people. Games like Baron Munchausen or Inspectres go in this direction because they focus almost completely on the storytelling and give the players the chance to freak out completely which is often far easier than just playing in a more conventional style. Og! is another good game in this category.

I would also like to point out the problem of competition: In most rpg’s there is no competitive element. (At least not officially) Most people however play games to win and gloat over the loosers. Descent adresses this problem but it is far too complicated to apeal to a very large audience.

Ok, enough ramblings for now, I’ll try to order my thoughts for the next one, promised!

#15 Comment By Fang Langford On December 2, 2008 @ 9:22 am

Okay guys, enough whining.

Wizards of the Coast has already published the Wii of role-playing games: Magic the Gathering. It was as innovative as the Wii by comparison; it brought tonnes of people to the hobby, many of which never touched FRPG products before (a lot coming from the trading card hobby).

So-called ‘indie’ games targeting the ‘mainstream’ are doing it all wrong. As said above, they cannot be the nintendo of RPGs; they don’t have the power influence and well, branding. If you want to make an ‘indie’ game that cracks the mainstream, be the Brain Age or Cooking Guide of ‘indie’ games. Small press is pretty much the DS cartridges in this market.

If you want to step behind the hobby and see how little it has innovated, read through [5] by James Wallis. He’ll give you the history of the industry like you’ve never seen before (a non-American view at that), but he’ll show you what true innovation might look like.

Fang Langford
Now recruiting playtesters for the [6]

#16 Comment By LesInk On December 2, 2008 @ 1:41 pm

I’ve always felt that the “Murder Mystery Dinner” was a closer ‘out of the box’ attempt at role playing than anything else we’ve seen. Why? It gets people to come to a table, pretend to be a character, and work on a related problem together. More active groups come in costume. And, it tends to appeal to both genders evenly.

I’ve pretty much thrown a murder mystery dinner once a year for the past several years and people always love it.

The down side is that much of the game is prescripted and there isn’t alot of room for exploration.

However, could you imagine taking your favorite role playing game night and putting it in a bunch of little books (one per character) and letting another group act it out? Throw in a few dice rolls and it could get interesting ….

Just thinking out loud.

#17 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On December 2, 2008 @ 2:34 pm

Thanks for the compliments; this took more polishing than anything I’ve written for GS. And thanks for the complaints and corrections, although it got across what I initially intended.

Quick story: I went to a martial arts seminar in another town, and saw a huge school with dozens of thai pads and other gear. I asked about it, and found out that the owner teaches a ‘fitness class’ that is a simple muay Thai workout with lots of reps and a lot of energy. The vast majority of his ‘fitness’ classes are female (unusual in a martial arts school), and they account for 80% of his students. By stepping away from the fierce competition for the 5% of the population that wants to be a martial artist, and pursuing the 95% of the population that simply wants to have fun getting into shape, the owner made tons of money. He blew away his competition, and has enough disposable income to have better seminars and competitions, buy better gear for his ‘hardcore’ students, take his students to bigger events, etc.

RPG publishers are doing the exact same thing: They’re fighting over RPGers, who are less than 5% of their potential market. Who is going to appeal to the other 95% of the market? I really do wish I had an answer to that question, but I don’t see anything right now that will do that.

The state of the hobby right now seems to be at a bit of a dead end. 4E is a bit innovative, but it’s not revolutionary in any sense of the word. The indie games movement may well be the birthplace of the next generation of RPGs, but most of what I’ve seen is far too genre-specific to have any broad-based appeal (and don’t even get me started on the postmodern attitude that seems to follow the movement). Magic the Gathering was/is an innovative game, but frankly it’s just another card game; poker has more roleplay. The ‘murder mystery dinner’ approach may hold something, although it may just descend into a LARP.

I hate to be a cynic, but I do occasionally worry about the future of the hobby.

#18 Comment By jcdietrich On December 2, 2008 @ 2:47 pm

“The ‘murder mystery dinner’ approach may hold something, although it may just descend into a LARP.”

@Kurt You do realize that RP in LARP are the same thing as RP in RPG don’t you?

As a matter of fact LARPs share the same type of difference that sets Wii apart from the and “traditional” video game systems: gets you off your butt, moving around, and it has a more “natural” interface (wanna swing a bat, swing the wiimote – want your character to cross the room and talk to so and so, do it!) They both have some elements similar to their more traditional ancestors (the settings, the story telling, the role playing, action resolution) They both get scoffed at by the “hardcore” fans.

#19 Comment By Fang Langford On December 2, 2008 @ 3:30 pm

@Kurt – M:tG wasn’t “just another card game” when it came out. It was a whole new genre! I definitely agree, it can hardly be called an RPG. However, it spawned a huge increase in RPG ‘fans’. I watched as Gen Con went from TSR’s home convention to a CCG trader’s paradice.

And then that “just another card game” bought TSR.

There were enough overlaps that M:tG greatly expanded the people RPGs reach and that’s what we’re discussing right? Let’s put personal tastes aside, okay?

@JCDietrich – And yeah, LARP might qualify for that too. More like the Jakks Pacific Plug‘n Play games. Vampire: the Masquerade LARP did bring more players to the hobby, but no where near as many as M:tG

What we really need is a Harry Potter for RPGs.

Fang Langford
Now recruiting playtesters for the [6]

#20 Comment By JackSmithIV On December 2, 2008 @ 6:46 pm

@Raf: I completely disagree. The idea that RPGs aren’t accessible to almost all audiences is simply absurd. I grew up in an inner-city kind of school, and my game table looks NOTHING like what you’d expect. I’ve also included my mother and one of her friends in on a WoD Mortals game with excellent success (I think it’s easily the most accessible gate-way RPG, just due to the more mainstream genre and more basic execution of rules mechanics). I never start a campaign without one of the people at the table being someone new to roleplaying entirely. I’ve never had any tell me in my entire life, “No, I don’t think I could ever get into this”. Why? I wholeheartedly believe I can get more people in on it, and I commit. And I consider myself a damn good salesman.

@Fang: I think you’re missing the point a bit. Magic: the Gathering is NOT an RPG. It may be the greatest TCG ever created, it may have spawned an industry, and it may have changed the face of gaming forever, but it is not an RPG, it does very little direct good to the RPG business, and the core demographic is in no way the same people. It is entirely separate. It has nothing to do with preference. I like the game quite a lot! But you can make a better case for J.R.R. Tolkein’s books being the Wii of the RPG industry. And that wouldn’t make any sense either.

@Kurt: I agree with you on all points, except for one: you discredit 4th Edition too quickly. While no where near the goal of what we’d need to save the hobby, they have taken HUGE steps towards making the industry ready for that kind of transition. The new system of community interaction and support paired with the simply IMMENSE amount of content they release IS revolutionary. I’m not trying to harp on with fanboyism, but in the RPG industry, this level of constant development and content has never been seen before. They’re completely overhauled their system, with a sexy new rules system, new online tools (no matter how slowly they seem to be coming), and what seems like a solid game plan for the next few years.

And like I said earlier, even though they don’t have the product or the marketing momentum, they at least are getting closer to the right idea. It’s like that slogan… “Get together. Roll some dice. Have some fun.” My god, if we could put in some magazines or on some billboards, wouldn’t there at least be some new attention?

I don’t think D&D is the product. But it has the most powerful brand equity of any RPG on the market. Everyone has heard of it, but no one is really sure of what it is if you aren’t familiar with the hobby. If the average person sees my Player’s Handbook, they’ll ask me what it is. Even in an inner city school, or Central Park, or a knitting store, or the gym… I always have people walking away going, “Wow, jeez… that sounds kinda cool. I’ll have to check that out!” It’s visibility! The most important thing we can achieve!

I think the biggest problem with our hobby is that we don’t have a plan. And too much goes on behind closed doors. No one knows who we are, and we’re in the perfect position to let people know. And never think that we can’t go mainstream.

Raf: you say that you don’t think imagination runs rampant enough through the broader culture these days. Look at how to host a murder games. Look at fantasy football for gods sakes. Imagination is everywhere. Adults these days especially are looking for all sorts of new ways to recreate. Or think of it this way: how many people love deckbuilding and tactical card games? Is that more common among the development in your average person than playing pretend?

We can do this. And damnit, shouldn’t we?

#21 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On December 3, 2008 @ 12:08 am

[7] – While the mechanics of LARPing are sound, my experiences with them have not been very positive. Apologies if my experience is not the norm; you’re definitely not the first to mention that.

[8] – I’ll second JackSmithIV’s comments re: MtG. Magic did a lot for GenCon and for gaming in general, and even allowed WotC to buy the financial basket-case that was TSR. (And by doing so, kept D&D alive; kudos for that alone.) But I don’t see many TCGers turned into RPGers; I suspect that the net effect is the opposite. Regardless, the same could be said for Everquest or World of Warcraft: They’ve brought a lot of people into a hobby that shares its roots with tabletop RPGs. (Eww, did I just say that?)

[9] – I’m definitely giving 4E credit for innovation and making the game simultaneously easier and more fun (IMHO). But I don’t see it as being the “simple but fun” thunderbolt that was the Wii.

Again, thanks for the opinions, even when I don’t share them. 😉 I’m not even sure if there is an answer here, or if (in a long tradition of geek philosophy) I’ve found an analogy that falls apart well before it can be applied to the real world.

#22 Comment By zerfinity On December 3, 2008 @ 2:00 am

I really think that RPGs are just a different animal than video games. D&D 4e may attempt to make RPGs similar video games (MMORPGs) but that says more about the near infinite complexity of RPGs than it does about video games.

I don’t think that a unified-field-theory of RPGs exists. There is one core difference between RPGs and video games that makes this so in my mind, the creativity. RPGs, through the GM and players, are a cooperative creative endeavor. While most GMs cut their teeth on modules, every adult GM that I know eventually begins adding some creative elements to the module:

“I didn’t like his dialogue there, so I rewrote it.”
“That plot line didn’t fit for your characters so I tweaked it.”
“I didn’t like that feat progression, so I dipped into a PrC instead”

Most RPGs and modules have sidebars or box text to encourage or aid this creativity. And since all players groups are unique, so are the needs of that group. Since the delivery of the session ultimately comes through the GM, players expect some adaptability.

Where the Wii innovated by tapping into broad appeal, RPGs compete by doing the opposite, they tap into progressively more narrow appeal. That even happens with D&D, though its survivability is in self-renewing waves of conformity with new editions. But with each campaign expansion, 3rd party publisher add-on, supplement, & option rules change, D&D tears down its edifice once again, ever anticipating the new edition if it hopes to maintain a bulk of market share.

So, in my opinion, the real revolution in RPGs has already occurred via internet chat groups, gaming networking sites like this one, blogs, and more. That is, by connecting GMs with each other, we keep each other fresh and supported. We renew our creativity. We remind each other of the basics. We have an infinite vault of ideas and limitless 24-hour “tech support” for the games we run.


#23 Comment By Raf Blutaxt On December 3, 2008 @ 3:42 am

@Jack: You must be one lucky GM!
At least where I live, the problems I mentioned are real and I experienced them quite often. But this might really be caused by different mentalities in different countries.

#24 Comment By JackSmithIV On December 3, 2008 @ 5:09 pm

@Kurt: I completely agree that it is not the same kind of thunderbolt as Wii. I think we’ve got the same ideas about that. But don’t give up on your analogy. Although the industries are much different, your original article stands strong. In fact, this is an issue I’ve been struggling with a while now, and I thank you for not only bringing it to light in your article, but granting me with a great analogy to work with so that I can use it in further exploration of a solution.

@Raf: That might be true, and I do consider myself lucky, but really, it’s all about the pitch. You gotta recognize what there is in RPGs for everyone to like. Elements of the hobby exist everywhere, because everyone wants to be creative. Look how many amateur novelists exist out there. Could these people not be convinced that certain roleplaying games are an excellent exercise in creativity and collaborative storytelling? The exact same goes for fan-fiction writers and forum roleplayers.

My main technique in getting people into the game is realizing what appeals to them, and what they’re comfortable with. My inner-city experience comes from asking people “Isn’t the best, most interesting part of Grand Theft Auto playing through the whole story mode?” This conversation ultimately leads to talking about urban-set, modern geared PnP RPs, and once they get it, they’re hooked.

We can come up with tons of theoretical reasons as to why RPGs don’t appeal to the main stream, but there’s a problem to address long before we ever get to that subject, and that’s that people simply don’t even know who we are! They don’t know anything about tabletop RPGs. My experiences explaining D&D mostly lead to the inevitable conclusion of “Really? Wow, I’d didn’t know that anything like that exists.”

People don’t know anything about PnP RPGs. We have no presence in the mainstream. Look at /any/ article in a major news source (like the few that popped up at 4th Edition’s release). They all include a paragraph describing what an RPG is. You’ll notice that video games don’t have this problem. We might blame this on mainstream appeal, but let’s point to the obvious, like the fact that Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo all have _commercials_, and _billboards_, and _magazine advertisements_.

The mainstream marketing issue is that no one is taking any initiative. Look at D&D basic starter set, and where they advertise it. Enworld, RPG blogs, and their own site, places which are populated solely by people who most likely already have a comfortable familiarity with D&D 4th Edition, if not owners of PHBs.

Maybe I’m just caught in a rant here, so to sum it up…

How can we know what mainstream appeal we might have if there’s absolutely no mainstream presence. Maybe we need to make a bit of a splash first before deciding “Maybe people just don’t like RPGs”.

#25 Comment By Starvosk On December 4, 2008 @ 10:32 am

Yeah, frankly, RPGS are not a big enough industry to hit or serve the mainstream. The biggest publisher, WOTC, is by any standards probably teetering back and forth between bankruptcy at any particular time. None of the companies in the industry are publicly traded, WOTC tangentally so via Hasbro.

WOTC hasn’t even penetrated an international market. Here’s one thing- RPGs are incredibly difficult, if not impossible to translate. There’s definitely a required English fluency requirement to play.

Think about it, there isn’t a version of D&D in any other language than English, whereas even the lamest of video games usually gets SOME kind of international documentation.

Think about it- if Video games were ONLY accessible via an English Speaking audience, where would they be? Fully 2/3rds of WOW’s online population is Chinese or Korean.

Let’s face it-PnP RPGs are vastly a niche market. PNP will more than likely be subsumed by video games within the next 20-30 years or so. Yeah, that’s what they said in the 70’s, but you know what? It’s true.

MMORPGS ARE the Wii version of PnP, a fairly low cost, easily accessible alternative everyone and their mother has played.

The fundamental factor missing is robust content authoring tools, and while they are no means anywhere near the level they need to be, games like NWN and SecondLife have shown significant progress in that direction.

Once you can use the computer to generate custom graphical user content as easily as say, someone can do with paper and pencil, I would say that the era of PnP RPGs is dead.

Mind you this isn’t anytime soon. Software and in particular content generation software doesn’t progress nearly at the speed of our computer hardware. But I think by the time your great great (Great?) grandkids are running around pen and paper RPGs will have gone the way of the silent movie.

#26 Comment By greywulf On December 4, 2008 @ 10:48 am


> Think about it, there isn’t a version of D&D in any other language than English, whereas even the lamest of video games usually gets SOME kind of international documentation.

Umm….. that’s far from true. D&D is and has for each edition been available in many different languages. The sad news is that [12], apparently due to poor sales for 4e.

Interesting how you say RPGs aren’t mainstream, then cite mmoRPGs as being far more popular. MMORPGs are RPGs, tailored for a mainstream audience, by definition.

#27 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On December 4, 2008 @ 12:42 pm

I think we’re approaching this is kind of the wrong way. Why argue about what the Wii of RPGs is or if RPGs can have a Wii or if they’ll be dead?

Let’s start by listing the reasons that the Wii is the Wii of Video games:
1- Reduced Barrier to entry
2- Made fun important
3- Gimmicy
4- Appeal to a younger/broader demographic

Now, how did the Wii achieve each of these?
1- Reduced cost of console, made games simpler (notice the Wii has the least buttons?)
2- Focused on Fun during production, kept things simple, exciting, colorful, etc…
3- Used Gimmics, several of which were “Holy shit, What?” gimmics to get attention and convince people to give it a try
4- Kept things thematically appropriate and exciting for younger demographics.

Now how do RPGs do the same thing?
1- It has to be cheap, fast, and easy. You need to be able to buy a copy for $20, you need to be able to play on a moment’s notice with 0 prep. Ideally, you should be able to have a satisfying solo experience as well.
2- Ditto. Every aspect of game design, the question should be: “Is this as fun as possible? For everyone?”
3- No idea. but it has to have something that makes people sit up and say “What the crap is this thing?” Preferably several of them, in different ways and different areas to hit different audiences.
4- Ditto. Keep things both thematicly appropriate for and appealing to, younger audiences.

Now, are there any RPGs in existance that fit all those criteria? If there are, I don’t know of them (and hence, they fail the “Gimmicy” criteria right off the bat, for those keeping score at home).

But can there be? Sure. Why not?

Let’s hear some ideas people! The Wii of RPGs starts today!

#28 Comment By Fang Langford On December 4, 2008 @ 1:53 pm

@Matthew: I completely agree with you. But right now, I can think of at least four publishers who are working like this, to relatively little success.

The difference with the Wii, I believe, was the ‘breakout technology’ it introduced to the medium. Everyone else was refining their technology, better graphics, faster controllers; Nintendo skipped chasing that goal and subverted the whole thing. Back in the day, all the pundits said it was a big mistake and that Nintendo was going to lose big in the ‘arms race’ of consoles.

Personally, I think the time for refining these four qualities has past. I believe that TSR-WotC-Hasbro has the money and the branding to keep refining (like Playstation and Xbox). I think we need a break-out product.

I realize that nay-sayers here don’t agree that Magic: the Gathering was such a breakout product. I guess they don’t see how it’s producer completely usurped the industry. I guess they don’t agree how many consumers made the switch from CCGs to RPGs. I’m willing agree to disagree; this isn’t my central point.

My point is we need something new. Radical kinda new. Not something anyone in the industry would be willing to call an RPG. Mebbe a ‘toy’ ala Will Wright; who knows? A few years back, I demonstrated my inability to produce under deadline when my wife made note of a new author who she thought would supplant the Goosebumps teen-fiction marketing bulldozer.

Imagine the Harry Potter Game. Assured sales, it gets racked with the rest of the franchise and bought by all the collectors. Sigh. That ship has sailed.

So far, in terms of licensed products, I’ve yet to see something contemporary turned into something other than just another D&D clone. (I mean, Star Wars? That’s thirty-two years old!)

I personally don’t have a clue.

But I toil away. I watch other sources of role-playing that most of the ‘insiders’ poo-poo as not ‘real’ RPGing. Things like Civil War reenactors, model railroaders who write bills of lading and use ‘fast clocks’, the SCA, paintballers, ren festies, (up here in the mid-northwest) Rendezvous and of course the ‘How to Host’ games. (I’m also looking for more.) Who knows what the break-through vector is. Not me.

What I do know is that ET the Extraterrestrial was the breakthrough moment for D&D and Reese’s Pieces. Which one made it?

Now accepting playtesters for the [13]

p.s. Oh how I wish I could figure out that brainstorm.

p.p.s. Remember when Hero-Clix broke out? Everyone thought that would be it. It brought in a large number of comic book collectors, but it didn’t ‘stick’ and has been sold off.