Your supermarket may still make the option available but for a few years now that oft-repeated question has no longer been uttered at my local market. Instead, the prevalent decision was made for us in that, unless you specifically wanted paper, you’re getting plastic. Move on with the times! (Besides, you should be bringing your own reusable canvas bags, just sayin’…) In our RPGs there are a few anachronistic trappings that have been left back in the annals of time—although a few make their occasional return in boutique products. You have to specifically state that you want your paper.

So what trends did we see in 2013 and what might 2014 hold out for us?


Becoming more and more prevalent, PDFs are a boon for a variety of reasons, rarely due to cost, however. They provide ready access to a back catalog for a number of publishers, a way to push out product quickly prior to their printed counterparts, serve as a testbed to spot errors, provide an easy way to update with errata, and a host of more benefits. Factor in “microRPGs” (I may have just made that up), and anyone with a word processor and a semblance of time can be their own publisher. Providing you’re willing to sort the wheat from the chaff undoubtedly there are gems to be found.

All is not wonderful, as the quality is wildly across the board, some PDFs are merely digital versions of print products, making no strategic advantage of the medium and killing your ink cartridges with reckless glee, and pricing tends to be a topic of some consternation. Personally, if you’re asking $30 for a PDF I’m just going to get the book.

Print on demand (POD) is a nice middle ground here as well.

Thankfully, the age of onerous DRM is behind us; even watermarking has become less of an issue.

Random Chargen

Back when cassette tapes roamed the earth so did random chargen. Hell, it felt like everything was random. You rolled the dice and you liked it, because the dice knew better! The concept of player choice wouldn’t really take hold until the next generation of RPGs when it was thrust squarely into our hands. But it’s making a comeback, this time with less of a mandate and more of a subtle “if you’d like to use it” framing. That’s wise, because after so many decades of firm player control, taking it away again isn’t likely to go over well.

Besides, it’s time for a few people to die in chargen again! Just sayin’!

(I’m torn between FASA Star Trek, Traveller, and the Aliens RPG for best/worst random chargens. They all receive honorable mentions.)

Odd Sized/Custom Dice

These have really taken off the past several years and just need to die in a fire. Well, at least the stupid d5s and d24s and such that are partly fueled by OSR. Hell, I barely have an excuse to use my d4s and d12s as it is!

It used to be you could show up to your game with a dice bag and pencil and you could play. Not so much, anymore. Now you need special sized dice, your game-specific custom dice, or the dice that take several minutes to understand what the hell you just rolled and how/why it dramatically affects the story.

It’s interesting that we’ve slowly migrated from binary pass/fail mechanics to degrees of success to the dice narrating the game. At some point I expect a game where the dice make the people obsolete.

Some of these I feel are really about “doing something different” (Fudge, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying), others feel more like anti-piracy/revenue-generating ploys (Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, Dungeon Crawl Classics). (I’m also tossing Edge of the Empire in here because of their pointless Specialization Decks.)


I half expected this one to die last year but it keeps plodding along, like a zombie too stubborn to collapse. I can’t begrudge the “old school renaissance,” hell, I gamed through it, but that’s partly why I can’t see what the fuss is about. The thought of playing Basic D&D again makes my skin crawl; I mean I played it once—and all the crap that followed—why would I want to play it again? Sure, those are great times but the funny thing about fond memories is that they rarely stand up to scrutiny. What was cool as a nerd in the 5th grade…notsomuch anymore. (Jill Childress, call me!)

That said, I know I’m in the minority here and I’d never begrudge someone from having their fun. Presumably 2014 will see OSR continue to go on. I expect it’ll take D&D Next to stall this juggernaut.

Plus the artwork sucks. There, I said it. Get off my lawn, you pesky kids! :p

Licensed Games

The trend seems to be heading down. There are still a few out there but the economics of the RPG landscape make sustaining a triple-A license tricky at best. The guarantees are large and approvals can clog your workflow. Plus, the GM- and player-base is more creative than ever and willing to skunk work their own licensed RPG at zero cost.

As a writer and designer who’s worked on his fair share of licensed RPGs—and enjoy running them—that’s a bit of a shame. It’s a good vehicle for bringing in new players and often serves as a launching-point for many GMs.

I think the Marvel Heroic collapse may be partly to blame here.


I’m quite fond of Savage Worlds—so are many of the Gnomes—but the flurry of activity where every game and its uncle seemed to be getting—or rumored to be receiving—the “savaged” treatment has been pretty amazing. I think the game will continue along just fine but many of those products won’t see the light of day (offhand I can think of three that have already been cancelled).

This was less fueled by demand and more as a perceived opportunity by publishers.

Online Gaming

There have been a few Kickstarters out there and existing, free-to-use mechanisms like Google Hangouts, where people can game online, unfeathered by geography. Sadly, I haven’t had an opportunity to try any myself, but this can only be a trend that will continue to grow in size and popularity as 2014 (and beyond) rolls on. The pervasiveness of broadband and video cameras continues to make this easier and easier.

The focus now seems to be on replicating that tabletop experience of moving miniatures and having access to monster stats. Important for a few games, granted, but focused on that one key demographic: D&D. The vast majority of games don’t need that functionality or that “experience.”

As soon as someone has replicated Martin passing gas over the computer then I’ll consider the “experience” complete. Fortunately, my whining about die rolls remains unfettered online. :)


What other trends—good or bad—do you see prevailing in 2014? Anything that you don’t want to see make a return? Sound off below with your thoughts!

About  Don Mappin

For nearly 30 years RPGs have been a staple of Don’s life — so that means he’s pretty old. Author of a dozen RPG books, Don has worked with companies such as ICE, Last Unicorn Games, Decipher, and AEG. He now spends his time working in IT management, enjoying his family and two children, or gaming.

8 Responses to Paper or Plastic?

  1. I wanted to comment on the “Online Gaming”:

    I have been having a lot of fun with combined with Obisidian Portal. It’s so easy to create a big online campaign with those two tools to my disposal. But in my group, we do like to switch it up with actual tabletop play. Nothing really beats the experience of actually sitting at a real table with your friends.

  2. Well Don, we will disagree on one thing here . . . I don’t look for D&D 5th Edition (err, “Next”) to “stall” anything, not any more than D&D 4th Edition did.

    3.5 is as far “forward” as I — any many that I know — have “come,” or intend to “come.”

    I prefer 2nd Edition and play D&D — not having played any of the OSR specific games as of yet.

    But the “newer” Editions of D&D interest me not at all.

  3. I gotta agree with Mystic Scolar. As an old player and card-carrying member of the OSR (not to mention an artist who has and still do contribute to it) I don’t have any misconceptions about the “good ol’ days” of playing older games – they’re just fun to play, that’s all. I just don’t use any of the “crap” as you put it. Of course, one man’s crap is another’s gold…

    ..and as for the art, well, I’m wise enough to know not to get into an argument about what’s “good art” (although I partially agree with you on that point).

  4. OSR just keeps going and going and going… Fortunately, most of it has been reworked for better play. Check you Old School Hack and Basic Fantasy.

  5. I too do not see what the fuss about OSR is. I do like some of the major OSR re-issues like DCC, but essentially they are a different game, like Pathfinder to 3.5.
    I think Savage Worlds will continue to grow, more so in the off market like Kickstarter where the option to include a SW version is useful, and it is such an easy conversion.
    Online gaming is the future, I’m 56 and that means my gaming peers are start to die off, literally. Finding new players is actually dangerous when you are an old man. Online services solve that problem, but they need to be priced correctly (several are way to expensive and seem to be living in some sort of Apple Economy bubble), and they need – MUST BE – easy to use.
    PDFS and POD are also the future.
    Kickstarter et al will/is playing a huge part in games as well.

  6. I love Gnome Stew, and I appreciate opinions and an interested in analysis of the hobby I love and trends and all of that, but this has to be one of the most needlessly negative articles I’ve ever seen at the Stew.

    I guess I’m just not that used to a Gnome Stew article telling my I’m having the wrong kind of fun.

  7. @Patrigan, yes those are great sites. In fact I believe we have a review of OP on tap for some point in the future…

    @Mystic-Scholar, I think you’re underestimating the power of having an active, supported version of D&D in the wild. It exerts market forces that pull groups towards it. It will achieve momentum and in an industry with a constrained player-base that means pulling away from other games, particularly within its genre. Hence, D&D Next (5th) will impact the various previous iterations and their OSR knock-offs.

    @SmokestackJones, well, part of the charm of OSR games is replicating some of the art of the age. It’s certainly better than anything I could do with a crayon. :)

    @Kevin Flynn, salute, brother! Sorry to hear about the difficulties in finding gamers. Kudos for keeping the flame alive.

    @KnightErrantJR, it’s unfortunate you missed the tongue-in-cheek satire of the article. GS is a blog, hence all pieces are opinion pieces. The only person I’d expect to agree 100% with my writing would be my clone-twin who roams the wild, carving polyhedrons out of elk bone. As for badwrongfun, I’m very adamant that there’s no right way to enjoy gaming; in fact I said as much in the article. Looks like you missed that, too.

    Thanks for posting!

  8. My big beef with PDFs is how poorly tablets support them. iPads and the Google tablets are so darn slow when you put a big corebook on them. AND all that I have tried do not support bookmarks.

    My laptop remains the best place to access PDFs. So many are wonderfully bookmarked by the publishers and that helps me find stuff fast. (13th Age, Numenera…)

    As far as licensed properties, in my local gaming community Star Wars: Edge of the Empire is quite popular.

    And as far as being old and finding gamers, I’m 58 and use Meetup. But I live in Bend, OR, so where you live probably plays into that. I do meet people for coffee before telling them where my house is, but that’s mostly to sniff out the stinky gamers (we’ve all met them).

    Numenera’s really hot here. I let six people into my game and have a waiting list of five more wanting to get in. I keep telling people to GM and they’ll have a ready made group, but some people just want to play. We’ll see how that plays out.

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