On the Myopic, Narcissistic, Future of RPGs

As an adult, with a full time job, wife, child, blog, second career as a writer, I play tabletop role-playing games an average of 12 hours a week. Sometimes less, sometimes more. I have been hitting this average for the last year consistently, before that it was 6-8 hours a week.

I am not a spastic, unfocused, spineless creature that simply pushes on whatever flashing light because it's easy and meets an immediate need. And, if you're honest about it, neither are you.

We live in a golden age -- the resources that I use to run my games that I didn't write myself come from people who love gaming and play like I do. They produce works of passion. I haven't bought a new book from the owner of the D&D license since late 2007*.

"I believe that's what's really happening to tabletop roleplaying, is that it used to be a hobby of not playing the game you want to play." - Mike Mearls

This is not a stance that is going to be selling me a gaming product. 

Is this really the stance of the people in charge of the Dungeons & Dragons brand? That we didn't play? I had 8 friends over weekly for a second edition game in my house when I was 12 and we played from Saturday afternoon till they went home Sunday night!

To elaborate and be equitable, the rest of the quote: 
"And there are so many games now that you can play to fill all those hours of gaming, you can actually game now, and that what's happening is that RPGs needed that time, we, a GM or DM needed that time to create the adventure or create a campaign, a player needed that time to create a character, allocate skill ranks and come up with a background, and come up, you know, write out your three-page essay on who your character was before the campaign." - Mike Mearls
Again, I say what? I started new players going through my mega-dungeon today, and they drew pregenerated cards I made months ago with my wife when we played DM-less Dungeons & Dragons together! It took less than five minutes to get to play.

Yes. I realize I am not your average bear. That is not a sentence many men would say, much less write on a public blog post.

But I have played with hundreds (really!) of people in the last two years, and let me tell you.


My obsidian portal is filled with character bios, I have folders full of out of game e-mail communication, forums, blogs, g+ pages and groups, players and DM's alike. Thousands of hours of writing, discussion, leveling, designing, all backed up with hours and hours of play.

The dark secret

The thing is, that quote doesn't have anything to do with people who play Dungeons and Dragons. What he's talking about are consumers who consume "entertainment services". Did World of Warcraft steal Dungeons and Dragons players? The numbers say yes.

The thesis here, is that some section of consumers are going to play an app, video game, or watch a film instead of playing or preparing for Dungeons and Dragons, and that if only there were branded apps, video games, or movies about Dungeons and Dragons they would be doing that possibly instead.

They are in charge of a customer-focused business that attempts to produce a product that steals customers from a limited base to acquire a certain threshold of profit. 

Good luck with that! 

This causes me no consternation. I remember usenet and small communities and netbooks. It is true that if there are fewer players and less profit, then fewer people will jump in and produce gaming products.

But the fact is, gaming is a terrible, terrible, terrible place to make money. My mother is a writer by trade and actual published books that are not popular and do not do well sell orders of magnitude more than very popular RPG books. My mother's worst selling books had larger first publishing runs than many of the most popular role-playing books. To wit, I think her least popular book had a print run of 5,000 copies. The average is closer to a 20,000 copy print run.

The people producing the products I buy do it because they love it. They are likely to keep doing it even when the audience disappears. Anyone who is jumping in to make a quick buck is producing trash that is just clogging up the distribution channel.

The success or failure of RPG's in the view of a corporation: "CAN DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS MAKE 100$ MILLION DOLLARS A YEAR AND HAVE AN INFINITE GROWTH TRAJECTORY?" is so far removed from my actual experience of play that the question has no relevance. The fact that the corporation that owns the game has aligned the game with that question means that the game has the same relevance to me as the question.


I'm gaming online very early on Saturday in +Numenhalla. Want to join me?

*It was Expanded Psionics 3.5 and I don't regret it one bit.

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  1. Yes, I'm also perplexed at the comments of some gamers and game designers, who should know better because, well, they're gamers and game designers! Weren't they once young kids with limitless free time, and every game session could potentially turn into a marathon of adventure?? Do they think that there are no young kids with that same limitless free time anymore, and that roleplaying is solely populated by middle-aged people with limited time? I pity them for that perception, because to me it speaks of an insidious doubt about the future of roleplaying.

    I wish that more people would stop bemoaning an RPG apocalypse and start doing something to avert that supposed disaster scenario: go out and teach the game to kids, and stop whining that "oh, but we have to compete with video games on iPads and all the other tech-based distractions." You know what? SHUT THE F UP WITH YOUR EXCUSES! Human beings fundamentally need social interaction and storytelling. That won't go away despite our technological advances.

    So, I say to the doubters and the doomsayers out there: I challenge you to quit bitching and actually test your asinine theory about how no kids want to roleplay anymore. I highly doubt any of these so-called pundits and prognosticators have done even an ounce of actual work to test their hypothesis about the downfall of roleplaying.

    P.S. Courtney, I was confused by this sentence: "This causes me no consecration." Did you mean "consternation"? Just wanted to be clear on what you were trying to get across.

    1. Stupid spellcheck. Fixing now.

  2. See, I interpreted Mearl's statement (the first quote you provided) not as people weren't playing the game, but that the games they were presented didn't give them what they were looking for. In that light, as someone who learned D&D on 3.5, the early editions used in the OSR are a little vexing. While much of the game system seems lighter and easier to use on the fly, there are a few barriers (Descending AC, for example) that make entry difficult. The new editions have countered this, but introduced rules bloat, which effectively nullifies the moves they made towards making things easier for newbies without a native guide.

    But overall, I agree with the core of what you're saying. This is not a sustainable market, because a person only really needs a single system to happily play for years, and additional iterations will likely only entice people who have yet to buy one previously, or people who are interested in the mechanics at play.

  3. Far from being an escape from reality, this post shows how the gaming scene can illuminate the difference between false consciousness and revolutionary consciousness.

    When someone wakes up and says "My interests are not the same as those of this ruling class" that is a profound insight.

    I am just wondering if the idea of "community" being sold from on high is one form of false consciousness. To get you to identify with the brand, in a way more appropriate to the consumer of a CCG or computer game, who is more dependent on the equipment and tournament play sold by the company. Certainly I've seen many bloggers worrying about "how can we expand the playerbase" as if they actually held shares in the company.

  4. I hadn't purchased an RPG anything since 2006 either. With the high quality content available from bloggers and forums, why would I need to? Even a lot of OSR is available in pdf form for free.

    OTOH I don't get to play, per se much at all. Even so, it's a very entertaining hobby with a lot of smart, entertaining people with which to talk shop.

  5. So, after listening to the full out of the panel, I've concluded:
    1. MMOs have "taken/lured/whatever" players from the tabletop RPGs.
    2. But old RPGs and newer, 3rd party, RPGs on Kickstarter are doing well.
    3. Sort of, no RPG stays at the top of the list for long.
    4. Mike Mearls hardly ever got to play Car Wars as a kid and translated this to explain why 4e didn't do well enough and why WoW ate into the RPG market.(?)
    5. Ryan Dancey, the guy who saved D&D, is now working on an MMO for Pathfinder, but he's not working for Paizo.(?)
    6. Mearls and Dancey didn't get into a fight. :(
    7. Nobody really knows what's going on in the industry because companies aren't releasing their sales numbers. But 5e is still coming out.

    Maybe the industry will crash. Maybe it won't. I don't know, I just want to continue to have players for my games, so I'll do what I can to make these games fun at tabletop for all involved. Maybe I'm just being myopic because I'm not paying attention to the industry, but I'd rather play than try to figure out what's happening in the industry.

    1. My feelings exactly. Who cares if the biz crashes and burns? There will always be people who play tabletop RPGs and a bunch of them will want to GM and make it as fun as possible for the rest. Win all around.

      Although fisticuffs between Mearls and Dancey would probably have been much more entertaining than the panel! ;-)

  6. I think what you're stating about the hobby and what Mike Mearls is trying to get at is actually more closely aligned than you realize. The point Mike was trying to make (or so I got out of it) was that there was a time when we spent lots of downtime between games messing around with those games, and that this doesn't happen so much anymore. People still play, and Mike is effectively saying that if you give them a game they can grab and play then yes, they will play it: but if you give them a game that says "You need to spend eight hours in prep before you can play" then the odds of a game drop significantly. This sort of argument makes more sense to people who've been neck-deep in the post 3rd edition era of D&D, where prep time for the game reach astronomically painful levels. The shifting thought on this Mearls is enunciating isn't something he came up with...he's just observing the larger trend, which is evident in the OSR's popularity as people realize you can have more fun with fewer obstructive mechanics, or with newer games like 13th Age that offer up new wave play styles coaches in a "keep it simple stupid" methodology.

    Now, pure WotC/Mearls is the underlying notion that they need to take D&D and make apps, books, video games and other multimedia tie-ins to saturate the market. That's a WotC thing, and obviously driven by a need to monetize the brand. I personally don't care what they do with it so long as they produce a decent set of rulebooks that live up to my expectations and let my gaming group have a good time. I refuse to cast judgement on that until August or thereabouts when the books are finally out.

    1. See, that's my takeaway too. As much as I love DMing, I hate it when my gaming requires homework. That's why I won't touch 3e and only seldom touch 4e. If he can make a D&D with prep time as quick as TSR-D&D or quicker, he's got my attention.

  7. Hear, hear.

    WotC keeps throwing around the words "multi-platform experience" like anyone gives a shit. The only platforms I care to play D&D on are my table and hangouts. And I use the same rules either way.

    D&D video games are necessarily nothing like the TTRPG. iPhone apps are not like D&D. Turning D&D into a "brand" so that you can be experiencing the same like story across multiple forms of media just feels weird to me. Like, D&D has stopped being a set of rules and turned into some stupid fantasy "plotline" so that there can be something to sell. No thank you.

    I do like the D&D 5e rules so far. Sort of. I thought the penultimate playtest package was a million times better than the final one. Point is I'm interested. But all this other stuff... nahh.

  8. I looks to me like Mearls thinks the tabletop RPG market is fading away (and I can't really argue with him) and that WotC needs to expand the D&D "brand" away from TTRPGs into as many revenue streams as possible. It doesn't matter if a D&D video game isn't like real D&D. All that matters is the revenue. The actual RPG has gone from being the primary product to a device used to protect the IP.

    1. Much like comics for Marvel and DC, really.

  9. As an adult, with a full time job, wife, child, blog, second career as a writer, I play tabletop role-playing games an average of 12 hours a week. Sometimes less, sometimes more. I have been hitting this average for the last year consistently, before that it was 6-8 hours a week.

    Thank you for posting this. One of the annoying things among gamers, for me, is the complaint "well, I'm an adult with a job, kids, house, etc. etc. etc. so I don't have time for gaming."

    Gary was married and had a ton of kids. Dave got married and had kids. People who built the RPG hobby out of wargaming and the people who built wargaming before them were often people (mostly men) with jobs and family commitments.

    Yet they found time to game. Even the "grab and go" vs. prep idea pointed out above only has some validity. Did Dave grab and go? Did Gary? Did Greg Stafford? No, they all spent time prepping their games.

    What is so different in 2014 versus 1974 that adults (who generally are less likely to be married and have fewer children today) had more time then than now?


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