Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Role-Playing Futures

There's been a conversation going on at the RPGsite forum about the possibility of adapting social mechanics from other games into D&D. This suggestion spun off from another, rambling discussion about what if anything can save D&D 4th edition from its less than stellar sales figures. Based on a Wizards market survey from 1999 that segments the tabletop RPG market, Ryan Dancey (architect of the Open Game License) thinks that the players who just want to hack and slash or play cool characters have been lost to MMOs, and games need to focus their rules on the other motivations, like story play.

Well, I have bad news for the tabletop RPG market. You can do a perfectly good story and character driven game without selling a single rulebook, die or figurine. Thousands of fans have been doing this for years now online. Their "sourcebooks" are popular anime/manga or fantasy fiction series. I hope to soon have a guest article or two about this interesting scene that may be one future of roleplaying.

Really, what we know as a role-playing game wraps an unstructured character interaction and problem-solving system around a quite structured combat and adventure game core. I'll say it again: you don't need to structure the social game with rules for it to happen. Thinking you that do, as a tabletop game publisher ... turning to the dark and clever arts of the Forge school of social mechanic design, in hope of breaching the mass market ... sorry guys, that's like being a ragtime piano roll publisher in the 1920's and thinking that you can overcome the wireless and phonograph by getting more into Stravinsky and Schoenberg.

(I mean, I handle live theory for a living, as an academic. I know the temptation to believe that by having the coolest theory you can master praxis. But it ain't necessarily so.)

I like the hybrid of improv and rules because it lets people participate on different levels. I think Zak intuits this too, in his recent must-read post about creativity in rock bands and gaming groups. I realize other people may lean more toward pure rules, or pure improv, and that's fine. Imagine if the previous generation of Fletcher Pratt naval wargame players had butted in on the D&D generation, demanding Wellsian skill-fire procedures and ballroom-sized dungeons, dammit! I don't want to be that dead hand of the past.

From the industry side, the money is obviously to be made from selling an "official" structure of rules and paraphernalia; people are not going to pay a red cent for something they can just do with their friends on line using shared canon knowledge from media they have already consumed. The real question is not market segmentation, but how you adapt a game to the new generation of users, where people spend a lot of time on-line just because it's convenient, and want their face-to-face activities to be short, well-defined and conclusive.

That's my opinion, anyway. But now I put it to you: What would you do if you were running Wizards of the Coast right now?


  1. If I was running WotC, I'd dump 4E into the shitter and get back to basics. I don't expect Hasbro to pick up the phone anytime soon, and I doubt it would help sales. But you asked what I would do.

    Now, if you were asking what I would to do maximize profits if I was running WotC, it depends. If Paizo is really eating their lunch, I'd go at them with a lawsuit or two (they must have infringed on something somewhere), fire everyone who thought 4E was a great idea, and pull back to a more 3E/4E blend that has a chance of pulling back the fan base that deserted, without losing 4E product owners.

    I'd also copy whatever Paizo did that was selling material ("adventure paths" and whatnot), in addition to continuing to push official minis and other add-on goods.

    Eventually it would all devolve into endless splatbooks, and then I'd put out another edition promising to "clean up" the mess. Rinse, repeat.

  2. At the same time look closely at what your talking about and how it is reflected in the market.

    Reading the comments of Zak's post and other posts I've made on the web advocating a more new school, relationship driven, story driven, combat-isn't-the-be-all-end-all of gaming, player's-having-a-say-in-the-narrative approach and you'll see that doesn't go over so well. Not well at all.

    I think it might catch a whole new demographic we're not getting now if we had more mainstream games like this. I think it could greatly expand the industry. Its like how Japanese manga are read by children, housewives, business people and sports fans because they actually have comics aimed at those groups. That seems to be a hard sell here in the US. Can you imagine your Mom reading a Soap Opera comic book she buys weekly or monthly? On average no.

    Steering back to the point, these ideas are too indie, too weird and not what the average player wants. What's making money and an impact on the market is the opposite. Its old school. There are like a dozen old school D&D retroclones selling out there and they're basically all the same damn game. People are selling their houserules and making some money because the creators of the game threw it in the trash. These guys fished it out, cleaned it up and are printing it.

    If they (WotC) want to make money they almost need to go backward, not forward, which is something they're very unlikely to do.

  3. If I ran WotC, I'd do a heck of a lot of market research, especially looking at those free-form players. I'd work hard on phasing out dead-tree books (4e looks to have been good for that) and pile on the utility of DDI for all sorts of RP play, even free-form. I'd get the best algorithm-designers our money could buy, with proven track-records of success (ditto for software project managers) and build a suite of online resources that were customizable for a wide range of play styles and even rules sets.

    Selling books is a bad fit for folks who want to make money on RPGs, but that's the model that's been stumbled into. An online subscription service makes a lot more sense, and expanding it to cover the broadest range of play styles makes more sense than attempting to monopolize a single niche in our niche market, even if it is the largest niche.

  4. "Imagine if the previous generation of Fletcher Pratt naval wargame players had butted in on the D&D generation, demanding Wellsian skill-fire procedures and ballroom-sized dungeons, dammit! I don't want to be that dead hand of the past."

    I'm not sure that they really were 'the past' and D&D 'the future'. Rather, I think that there were more rigid and looser sets of rules from the days of kriegspiel onwards. And this is still true today. Lots of people want a more structured, board-gamey D&D, if sales of games like Talisman and Descent are anything to go by. And at the other extreme, somebody is keeping Once Upon A Time in print.

    However, I suspect that D&D with social rules might 'fall between two stools', being not enough of a board game for board gamers and not enough of a role-playing game for role-players.

  5. @Barking

    Please don't distort what people write.

    If you want to have a conversation about "how to expand the industry" with someone you go do that. But don't distort a conversation about something completely different so that it makes people who see "players-having-a-say-in-the-narrative" in a different way than you as neophobic morons.

  6. Thanks for all your comments ... On reading them, I realize it's easier to evaluate these kinds of suggestions in the negative than in the positive. That is, Dancey's original comment struck me as founded on a partial misunderstanding, because story-based players are also finding their own ways to play these days. It also struck me that the marketing survey identified its four motives as a somewhat artifical space characterizing tabletop roleplaying game participants; it may well be that the very same "new markets" being contemplated also will bring different motives, or have been satisfying the same motives through ways other than a game. Beyond that, it's hard to pick a hole in any of these suggestions.

    Will some forum game players grow tired of their consensual verbal duels and take up a more structured game about social interaction? This seems to be a separate question from whether such a game can be marketed and sold as a set of physical artifacts or an online service. Both need to be considered by the would-be marketer, but ultimately, fads and fancies operate too chaotically to predict with any certainty. Ultimately they select themselves from an evolving space of visions and labors of love; if a marketing team seizes on a hit, it is because they have been no more lucky than an honest and self-motivated auteur wo stumbles on a hit, but with the handicap of perceived impersonalness and insincerity to overcome.