Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Fame and Fortune

I'm always a little bit surprised when I discover that venues outside our little bubble have taken notice of anything I've written. So it was this morning, when I found lots of hits from The Escapist, an online site dedicated primarily to video games of various sorts, though it's probably best known for the reviews of Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw.

The hits originated in an article written by Allen Varney about the decline of tabletop roleplaying as a hobby and the effects, both good and bad, the Internet has had on the medium. Varney's no stranger to the world of pen and paper gaming, even if he spends most of his time nowadays in the electronic realm. His article is short, making it more a conversation starter rather than a definitive statement on the predicament tabletop gaming currently finds itself in. It's well worth a read, if only because The Escapist is widely read and influential, shaping the opinions and perceptions of many who might otherwise have little contact with the RPG community anymore, assuming they ever had any.

9 comments:

  1. The article is pretty good. I think the internet is the direct cause of the diversity of the present hobby. That diversity will allow it to survive in the long run.

    Some things he didn't mention in his article that I think could have an impact.

    E-books. Owning a kindle is simply a better way to read. In order to be of use for RPGs we need a version capable of handling a 8.5 by 11 screen with some color or great grayscale.

    Along with the price coming down. Preferably by half. I predict that within 5 to 8 years this will start making major inroads into how we buy our books.

    Surface computing. Where your table-top is a touchscreen. I think that once this become affordable it will open up a whole new form of gaming. Like e-books the price has to come down. In addition the platform needs to be open enough to allow marginal activities (like ours) the chance to develop applications for it.

    It's main use will presentation and automation of rules. A possible application will be tagged miniatures. Think Heroclix but with a RFID chip that the surface computer can use.

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  2. While other forms of entertainment have certainly poached tabletop's audience, I still think a major contributing factor is the lack of gateway product.

    D&D, for better or for worse, is still the primary route by which new gamers enter the hobby. And the sad truth is that the route just isn't as easy as it used to be.

    It's been almost 20 years since D&D was available in an affordable, all-in-one box that was a legitimate game in its own right.

    Ever since the publication of the Rules Cyclopedia in '91, the Basic Sets have become nothing but previews for other products. And they're previews that you have to actually pay for.

    This has several major effects:

    (1) There hasn't been any legitimate version of the game packaged to look like a game to the average consumer.

    (2) Similarly, there hasn't been a legitimate version of the game packaged to be sold through mainstream toy stores and game shops right next to the other boxed games.

    (3) Once the Rules Cyclopedia went OOP, the entry cost for playing the game tripled.

    (4) The investment time in terms of reading the rulebooks also drastically increased. The BECMI Basic Set I started playing with had roughly 100 pages in it, and a significant chunk of that was actually a solo play adventure. By contrast, 4th Edition's core rulebooks are 800+ pages.

    So the game has become less available, less accessible, and more expensive. Is it really that shocking that sales declined?

    We lost our entry-level product nearly 20 years ago. And people stopped entering the hobby.

    In many ways this mirrors the rise and decline of traditional wargaming, as described by Greg Costikyan in SPI Died for Your Sins: Wargaming grognards produced ever more complex games (because that's what they wanted); the entry level products disappeared; people stopped entering the hobby.

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  3. The article is pretty good. I think the internet is the direct cause of the diversity of the present hobby. That diversity will allow it to survive in the long run.

    Definitely. I think the future is quite grim for RPGs as an industry, but thanks to the internet, the hobby should go on just fine. I think what made the article good is that he's pointing out that this is the ground floor for the survival of the hobby.

    Over the years I spent interacting with the hobby on the internet, I think the recent growth of blogs is very important. As opposed to forums, everything the poster has done is pretty easy to track and utlitze. Combining that with the fact that people can still colaborate with each other, people of like interests are talking and sharing not just ideas, but actual design in a way that can be more focused for an audience than web forums, that when most active cover a wider variety of tastes.

    It's a good time to throw dice IMO.

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  4. While other forms of entertainment have certainly poached tabletop's audience, I still think a major contributing factor is the lack of gateway product.

    Good point. If there is a limit to what's going on now, it's that it is hard to get what's going on in the internet outside of it, and I think the lack of commercial gateway products are an example.

    Online there are a good number of games that have the potential to be great starter games: Labyrinth Lord, and Basic Fantasy RPG, just being two that come to mind (and cover very similar ground too). But BFRPG is an online entity, and LL is only in distribution through a great deal of effort by the publisher and some generous people. Even then, I haven't heard of LL showing up at a Borders or B&N.

    At this point commercial distribution of RPGs starting on the internet will likely remain tough.

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  5. Thanks for the kind words on The Escapist! We're always happy to get to work with folks like Allen Varney, and happier still to plug the tabletop RPG community.

    Despite our core focus being video games, we're all very fond of tabletop RPGs. I personally read both your site and Mr. Alexander's. And the publisher (me), editor-in-chief, brand manager, and sales director of the Escapist all play in a weekly tabletop RPG together - currently ELRIC!, by Chaosium.

    Best regards,
    Alexander Macris
    Publisher, The Escapist

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  6. That was a very cool article. Perhaps amusingly, this mention by James actually led me to check out The Escapist. I just read and enjoyed a dozen or so articles, and will definitely return.

    As far as the topic of entry-level games goes, it's definitely hard or impossible for anyone to reach the level of mass distrubition that TSR managed with their Basic sets in the late 70s and early 80s. It's not a fad product anymore (you can still find Magic, Pokemon, and Yu Gi Oh cards in some drugstores and supermarkets in my part of the US), and no one has the cash to do it except possibly WotC.

    WoTC is, however, definitely trying to cater to that market. The 4th ed DMG is the first edition of the DMG to really tackle serious advice for the first-time DM about managing a game and entertaining a group of players. It's certainly the version friendliest to newbies since Mentzer's Basic D&D set. But it's still nowhere near the combination of "all in one box" and low price point that the classic Red Box Menzter set had.

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  7. Thanks for the kind words on The Escapist! We're always happy to get to work with folks like Allen Varney, and happier still to plug the tabletop RPG community.

    And thank you for stopping by! It's always great to see new people joining in our discussions here.

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  8. But it's still nowhere near the combination of "all in one box" and low price point that the classic Red Box Menzter set had.

    Agreed. I'd love to see someone attempt to tackle that project in a serious way.

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