Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Irrelevance of D&D

1983 - When D&D Still Called the Tune
By the time I entered high school in the Fall of 1983, I'd been involved in the roleplaying hobby for more than three years. In that time, I'd played a lot of different games and met a lot of other players -- in my neighborhood, at game stores, and at local game meet-ups. These were the "fad years" of the hobby, when it was next to impossible to meet a young person who wasn't playing Dungeons & Dragons or some other tabletop RPG. It really was that prevalent a pastime, or at least so it seemed to me based on my personal experiences. Yet, when I was in high school, I only ever met one other guy who was as into roleplaying as I was. I'm sure there were other who had played RPGs at some point in the past, but, by 1983, they were either too cool to admit to it or they had ceased gaming some time before and had no interest in taking it up again, despite my failed attempts to generate interest in doing so.

But while I had little luck in finding tabletop roleplayers among my high school classmates, I had no problem in finding fans of computer games like those in the Wizardry series, which clearly -- and unashamedly -- took their cues from Dungeons & Dragons. Looking back on those days, it's fascinating to remember how often my friends would describe Wizardry and similar games as "like Dungeons & Dragons but on the computer." Many of these guys had never played D&D (or so they claimed, at any rate) and yet they regularly described computer games by making reference to it. This only makes sense, given that D&D provided not just the basic premise -- exploration and combat in a monster-filled maze -- but also the very rules terminology -- character classes, hit points, experience points -- on which their electronic imitators depended.

I've argued before that the immense popularity of D&D in the late 70s and early 80s was a fluke never to be replicated again. The more I reflect on it, the more I recognize that D&D appeared during that brief period when interest in both fantasy and interactive entertainments was on the rise but before home computers were both cheap and powerful enough to satisfy these interests. Consequently, the hobby swelled with many people who were became involved in it only because there was no viable alternative yet available. Tabletop roleplaying was the best thing on offer at the time. The advent of games like Wizardry peeled a lot of people away from the hobby and, I suspect, provided a better form of entertainment for many others who might have picked up gaming as a second best choice in a world that had not yet invented something they would have actually preferred.

Even if I'm right, D&D nevertheless retained a powerful hold on the public imagination, with "Dungeons & Dragons" and "D&D" being shorthand for a certain type of fantasy game, regardless of whether it was played on the tabletop with dice and graph paper or (increasingly) on a computer screen. Even into the 1990s, long after the RPG fad had faded and when electronic "roleplaying games" were sophisticated and creative enough that some refer to this decade as the medium's own Golden Age, I could make references to "D&D" as a stand-in for a fantastic adventure game and most people, even those who had no direct experience with the game would know what I meant by it.

That doesn't seem to be the case anymore. I don't hear vide game players talking much about "D&D" anymore, even in a context where doing so would make sense. "World of Warcraft" seems to be the new shorthand for the kind of game that "Dungeons & Dragons" once used to represent. And just as many of D&D's peculiar tropes and interpretations of mythology and legend made their way into the DNA of modern fantasy, so too have WoW's own spins on them become pervasive. Indeed, the same could be said of the vocabulary used in contemporary rules discussion, both within the video game hobby and without it. Once upon a time, D&D called the tune; now, it sits against the wall, with only a member of the chess club to keep it company.

I say all this not as a whine or lament. I genuinely don't care that Dungeons & Dragons -- and tabletop RPGs more generally -- aren't as wildly popular as they were in the days of my youth. I do get the sense, though, that many gamers do care and that they've never quite accepted the fact that, in the wider world, our hobby is largely irrelevant, used primarily as the butt of jokes by middle-aged folks who remember its near-ubiquity in the past. I suspect the name "Dungeons & Dragons" still triggers a moment of recognition for a lot of people, sort of like mentioning the name of some sitcom from the 1980s, but comprehension? I doubt it. As I said, D&D's role as a pop cultural signifier of "fantasy adventure" was long ago usurped by others and that's not going to change.

I rather suspect that many of the trials and tribulations of the D&D "brand" in recent years can be attributed to a perceived gap between how well known and influential it was in the past and how well known and influential it is now. D&D was king of the hill for so long, it's hard for many of us -- including multi-billion dollar corporation -- to square contemporary reality with what we think should be the case based on a recollection of past glories. Like it or not, D&D is no longer the standard bearer of  culture-changing hobby. It's Bridge. It's CB radio. It's slotcar racing. In short, it's irrelevant to most of the wider world -- and I don't give a damn.


  1. This is quite true. Once upon a time when I told people that I have worked as a freelance role playing game designer, and they asked what that meant, I would explain, "It's kind of like Dungeons & Dragons, only a different game--not high fantasy, more sci fi [or horror, or whatever the referred-to game fit]."

    Now, when I say that I often get, "I've never played Dungeons & Dragons," and I have to go on to, "You know World of Warcraft? Okay, it's like that, only played on a tabletop with dice, pencils and imagination instead of a computer."

  2. Something that is further speeding "D&D" into being merely just a brand is the shift in the D&D game itself. 4E is a major deviation from what D&D has always been. Add to that the fact that clones today, which aren't called "D&D" (for legal reasons), are nevertheless the modern-day representatives what D&D has always been.

    D&D, which used to stand for so much, now stands for so little - a mere brand name, rather than an entire genre.

  3. D&D din't have to give up its brand to World of Warcraft. As recently as 2003 - 20005, computer games using the brand Dungeons and Dragons from Bioware had a powerful impact on computer players, some of whom had never played the tabletop game.

    But sadly Bioware moved on to create their own fantasy IP and so the long trail of D&D computer games that kept the brand in the public imagining has faded.

  4. Side-point: does anyone know why pink and light blue were so common on old computer monitors? Were they default colors on the Apple or something?

  5. I actually do kind of care, mainly because rejection of paper-and-pencil RPGs in favor of the digital delights of the Moron Station 360 is symptomatic of a larger, terminal disease that will eventually kill our nation: America's proud anti-intellectual tradition.

    Who needs to think or imagine when you can have a CPU do it for you? Why, those wimpy, pencil-necked geeks--who will never get laid, by the way--who waste their time with all that godless, egg-head BS, when they can be watching football or hanging out at the bar, or watching the latest fad reality TV show like all Great Americans do!

  6. @anarchist - It has to do with the colors available to the hardware at the time. CGA graphics could only produce 16 total different colors. As computers produce colors by combining Red, Green, and Blue light, the colors Cyan (light blue, produced by combining pure green and blue light) and Magenta (light pink, produced by combining pure red and blue light) are often the first variants to appear in color palettes.

  7. Thanks for the post. Even back then I think being "king of the hill" was limited to a rather small hill often thought to be occupied by the socially inept or bookish nerds. However, it did carry enough cultural and conversational freight to lend its name to things that would previously have been called fantasy. WoW now lends its name to many of the same things. WoW’s decline from genre branding will probably be swifter than that experienced by D &D because there is simply too much competition for our already overloaded attention spans.
    This new group of players is the first group that has girls playing on a regular basis and there are more of them than the guys. I suspect if I had the time, I would have a few more groups of potential male and female players. My main springboard for Dragonquest is the LoTR movies. I think they have done more to spark interest in fantasy than anything else in a number of years. You can watch the movie, or you can play in it. WoW and other MMORPG’s are fun and provide a wonderful way to destroy sleeping habits and induce muscle atrophy, but once you play with your friends at a table it’s difficult to want to sit in front of a screen again. (I played COH for the better part of 5 years and still think fondly of some of my characters.) The main lure of a video game for me is ease and convenience.
    I can’t say that I am too upset about the irrelevancy of the D &D branding spree. Its dwindling influence in popular culture isn’t distressing since it has only yielded to more trendy brandings of fantasy and adventure.

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  9. @ anarchist: I tried to answer your question but someone beat me to the punch as I was typing.

    Man, that image really brings back the old days, playing games on my Apple IIe. That machine, running an office suite called AppleWorks, got me through college.

  10. While it may not be as 'relevent' as it used to be, there's definitely still recognition out there. I was on a plane just a few days ago sat next (well, with a space between) an older mid-level eecutive type Irish guy in his 50s. During the flight I was going over my printed copy of Joe Bloch's Game Masters Toolkit with a red pen and he asked what I was doing. When I explained that it was for a game "like D&D" he immediately understood and I ended up regaling him with stories of our most recent adventures. Turns out the guy wishes he could find groups that still played.

    This actually makes me smile. We're still alive, but I think I'm siding with your last statement in that ultimately I don't care whether people at large understand or not. The people who play what I play still understand, and I'll keep on running my own little world until paper goes out of production. :)

  11. @School Master: I agree, although I don't know that it's a new phenomenon. Even 20 years ago I had people who were amazed ("You must be really good at math!") when I handed over, say, $6.12 for a $5.87 purchase so I could get a straight quarter back in change.

    The worst thing about the WoW influence is when I play Pathfinder with my younger gaming group. They ask questions of me like "Which NPC is the quest-giver?" and think I'm somehow cheating them when I say they have to actually carouse and interrogate people instead of making a Gather Information roll.

  12. As a rpg and video gamer, I have some issues with this. First, the RPG hobby as a whole has broadened and deepened. While it's still a small hobby (like many others), it's also less focused around D&D for the simple reason that other options are available. Role playing didn't die in the nineties; most gamers simply shifted their focus to other games. Vampire: the Masquerade, along with other, similar titles, offered an experience focused more on character and story. In more recent times, Fate based games and similar indie titles have become popular.
    D&D has always been, and still is, primarily a game about combat. I enjoy combat. It allows role play primarily in that it doesn't forbid it. Systemically, it is only adequate at supporting non-physical/combat oriented challenges. Computer games can do that at least as well, and with better graphics. am happy to get Like many players, I enjoy combat but am happy to get it from good video titles like Mass Effect and Fallout. However, no computer will ever allow the breadth of interaction I experience playing Dresden Files or Truth and Justice. For creative storytelling, they can't compare.

  13. Sorry for the typos; I was posting from my phone, which made editing difficult.

  14. More than any other I would say that D&D is the game that defined Generation X. Many people have written about GenXers and video games but the rise and fall of RPGs moved in lock sync with the generation, reaching its decline as work, university and relationships understandably took precedence. Video games however were passed on to the next generation and in many ways are a definition of them more than our pioneering 8-bit 300 baud modem dalliances. I find it no surprise that as Gen X gets older and has become more established that the love of RPGs is coming to the surface again as many past players search for a connection to what they honestly enjoy and have confidence enough to go on their own path. May of these people are parents now and desire to pass on the tradition. Like so many of the cultural identifiers of the generation, big business took it and tried to repackage it and sell it back to us as if we were baby boomers hungry for consumption. The OSR is just a Gen X revolution happening again only this time the media isn't watching us anymore. We don't want 4e or WOW for the same reason we didn't want to be sold pre-ripped jeans and designer flannel shirts. We don't need or want derivative corporate versions of the games we made our own long ago.

  15. It's still there in the DNA -- the Final Fantasy games are still D&D to an extent, for example, as is Warcraft -- but yes, I'm not sure people recognise it anymore, and I imagine that even the designers of Final Fantasy XIV regard the use of mechanics like classes, levels and experience points as hallmarks of that series, rather than having originated in D&D.

  16. I'm not buying into this. Baseball was by far the most popular sport in American culture until the early 90s, now football as surpassed it by leaps and bounds. Every kid on my block knew the stats for the Astros starting lineup, now I doubt kids even know who the Astros are. So what?. That's just what happens to EVERY pastime. The good ones stick around forever, though. Everyone has a checkerboard in their closet; it might only be pulled out once a year, but it's there. Perhaps when grandpa comes over. Guess what...YOU'RE GRANDPA. You need to pull out D&D and play that with the kids. No, D&D isn't pop culture anymore, nor is Frank Sinatra or the Marx Brothers. But it'll persist as long as you introduce it to the younger generation because it's an extremely powerful concept.

    As far as D&D's significance as an icon of the S&S gaming genre...when it came out, how was it marketed? "It's this wargame where you get to be Conan or Gandalf." Before D&D the genre existed, so D&D becoming less relevant is simply a natural evolution of things.

  17. Abilgail:

    "Computer games can do that at least as well, and with better graphics. am happy to get Like many players, I enjoy combat but am happy to get it from good video titles like Mass Effect and Fallout. However, no computer will ever allow the breadth of interaction I experience playing Dresden Files or Truth and Justice. For creative storytelling, they can't compare".

    I agree that tabletop RPGs can't be matched for creative storytelling but I find it hard to agree that a video game has "better graphics" than a players imagination, because even if a battle mat is used, that's not where the action takes place. That's like saying the movie had better special effects than the book :)

  18. Well.. as I've often said, "D&D is to video games as theater is to movies". And one of the ways that's true is this: just like movie actors often yearn for the "real, immediate, personal" experience of the stage (e.g., Broadway: even for enormously less money), so to do video game developers usually play D&D in their own spare time. (There are other parallels, too.)

    Every video game shop I worked at (or heard about) had a regular tabletop D&D game going on between at least some of the developers. So the influence is there among the professionals and the makers as the "real thing", if not the mass-market consumers.

  19. @ Brad "Guess what...YOU'RE GRANDPA. You need to pull out D&D and play that with the kids."

    I laughed so hard at that line and agree with it whole-heartedly.

  20. The interesting thing to me is that I’ve had basically the same conversation a number of times with different people. Early on, they say that they don’t play tabletop RPGs any more because the computer games finally got good enough. Later in the conversation, though, after talking about my current game and after they’ve reminisced about their old games, they start to realize that their tabletop games really were different from computer games.

    So, I wonder how many people out there aren’t playing tabletop RPGs anymore simply because they’ve forgotten that they really are quite different despite the superficial similarities and influence.

    (In some ways, it kind of parallels my own “back to basics” within the tabletop realm. I wrote off the older games as obsolete yet they’ve turned out to be the games I enjoy the most.)

    And how I wish we could kill the “D&D is and always has been primarily about combat” thing. Some of us find that mechanics for stuff beyond combat and magic don’t work as well for us, and our D&D games were never primarily about combat.

  21. There are also those of us for whom "D&D back in the day" didn't actually mean playing TSR's games.

    For various reasons, my group played just about everything BUT actual, branded D&D. Traveller, C&S, RuneQuest, Bushido, MERP, V&V, EPT and so on.

    I got in the habit, as well, of calling everything "D&D" because it was a convenient shorthand.

  22. @anarchist:

    As far as the Apple II graphics went, they weren't even CGA. They had their own system of 8 colors -- but two were white and two were black. So there were really only 4 other colors - red (purple), green, blue and orange (if I remember correctly -- most of the time I had a green screen, so it was largely irrelevant to me.)

  23. D&D Irrelevant? Not really. It still has a pretty steady fanbase, it's just changing. Sure, sales might be down, but then sales are down for everyone. People are just enjoying the game in different ways now and it's forcing the industry to adapt-which it's doing a heck of a lot better at that than the music or film industries are. Video games if anything are bringing MORE people to the games. MAny of the people who make some of the most popular video games (which happen to be rpg's) come from a tabletop gaming background. Many pc games are packaged with tabletop rules. Dragon Age, probably one of the most popular video games to come out in the last ten years, has it's own tabletop rpg rules-and there are a lot of people I know who play tabletop DA games.

    There's a huge amount of respect for tabletop rpg's still. Don't close the door to younger players!

    A great example of gamer culture and the influence D&D and games like it have had on it is Penny Arcade. PA is an extremely popular webcomic written by Jerry Holkins and illustrated by Mike Krahulik. These guys pretty much represent gamer culture, and are immensely popular. Their convention, the Penny Arcade expo, brings thousands of gamers together twice a year-once on each coast-and many. many, MANY of the people who go there play. There is even a main event involving the PA guys playing a live game of D&D in front of a huge crowd.

    No, the classic RPG is far from dead, and one of the main reasons there is still life in it and new blood being brought to it IS video games.

    (also, not everyone who plays video games is a moron. I think it's really unfair for some folks who play a game that involves one form of using ones imagination to think less of others who enjoy using their imagination in different ways than they do. I happen to leave my brain 'on' when I play games.)

  24. This post seems more like a half baked troll for comments than the usual well formed and thought provoking piece. In fact it seems recently the posts here are not only increasingly less frequent but generally lack the usual spirit and insight.

    Has the death of the Dwimmermount campaign sapped James' enthusiasm?

  25. I agree that video games are a point of entry for many new players, and not the reason that they are shying away. Many of the genre narratives are being introduced to young gamers through video games. I honestly feel that RPGs played with pencil and paper are the exclusive interest of people who READ genre books. Sadly reading, especially with boys, is way down. There is a cultural shift going on with the children of western culture and reading is falling to the wayside. That means that the genre narratives will have to surface themselves in other media besides books and tabletop RPGs until the trend reverses.

  26. Totally. It's still pushed hard in many game stores here in Dayton - The new D&D rules and miniatures games and whatnot. But it seems like just a huge waste of time to continue putting out these new sets of rules and blah blah blahs. They don't compare to the original Dungeons and Dragons, and they certainly don't compare to the new game systems like S&W.

    It's like Metallica. At one time, their old stuff set the tone for the American thrash movement. Now they have no business releasing new music in this era. D&D should lay down.

  27. Delta, I've always said that RPGs are to video games as books are to movies. For me you might as well lump theatre in with movies as both are passive visual narrative. A movie at its core is a motion picture of a play. The RPG witch takes place in the imagination is to me much more like the book.

  28. Scott: I think that's a much weaker metaphor. The key difference I see is "live-and-intimate-performance (and less profitable)" versus "recorded-and-mass-replicable (and more profitable)". To expand:


  29. And on that note, here's Socrates arguing against writing as a pale form of proper oral communication.

  30. Yeah, but Socrates was an argumentative old troll. ;)

  31. "The advent of games like Wizardry peeled a lot of people away from the hobby and, I suspect, provided a better form of entertainment for many others who might have picked up gaming as a second best choice in a world that had not yet invented something they would have actually preferred."

    Probably true. It didn't help that there was a cultural backlash the likes of which has seldom been seen since about the 1950s. And it was from so many different quarters. If I remember, it was that backlash that caused many kids I knew who played the game to quit - either they didn't want to fall out of favor with the in crowd, or their parents made them.

  32. I have just three major points of contention with what's been said here:

    1. "D&D has always been, and still is, primarily a game about combat" only when played superficially -- as is usually done by children and childish adults. Emotionally mature people have played it "focused more on character and story" from the very beginning. They didn't need rules to help them play characters and tell their stories. In fact, rules just get in the way of doing those things because they take roleplaying and storytelling away from the players and give them to the game-mechanics.

    2. Playing a tabletop roleplaying game is to playing a video game as *writing* is to reading or watching *anything*. One of the few entertainment activities that's as fully active and creative as playing a tabletop roleplaying game is performing improvisational theater. Almost everything else is, at least to some degree, relatively passive. Even reading.

    3. "This post" *DOES NOT* seem "more like a half baked troll for comments than the usual well formed and thought provoking piece. In fact it seems" that, while "recently the posts here" have been "less frequent", they still show "the usual spirit and insight." But I hope that the less frequent posting isn't due to anything bad in James' life.

  33. Fantastic post as usual James and I agree on all counts save one.

    I do care. I care a whole damn lot.

    Why? Quite simply, the lack of popularity means things won't get made that I want. If the new Star Trek movies do well and the franchise returns to television, is there going to be a new table top RPG? Not if the tabletop RPG industry isn't worth investing in, no.

    When my nephew gets older and I can teach him and his friends to play are they going to get frustrated because there a no stores that carry what Uncle Adam keeps telling them about.

    Personally I don't really see the death of the table top RPG but the weakness of the gaming industry's ability to 'spread the word' really saddens me. I want to see more people playing. Is it likely to return to early eighties heights? Probably not. Could it be more than it is? Always.

  34. With apologies to Spinal Tap, this immediately came to mind reading this entry:

    James: I was just wondering, does this mean uh...the popularity of D&D is waning?

    Comments: Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no...no, no, not at all. I, I, I just think that the.. uh.. that D&D's appeal is becoming more selective.

  35. I'm sorry if I came off as a 'half baked troll' I have nothing but the greatest respect for this blog. It's one of the few things I read online that keeps me from getting depressed when I think about my D&D playing days. I don't get to play much at all anymore, mostly because the group that I've spent the last few years gaming with recently drifted apart, for various reasons. Before 2008, I had last played AD&D (first edition) in 2000, with a group i'd been with for over ten years. Ten years playing the same character is a long time..seven or so years without being able to play felt like a lifetime.

    I got into PC games after my group broke up. The main reason I did was due to the fact that I was blessed with an incredible DM. I was spoiled, and was afraid of trying to jump back into the game, thinking i'd just be dissapointed. I love video games, but Ed is right. Video games can never compare to creating characters of your own out of aether, to creating and writing a story together with good friends. I was lucky enough to meet someone in one of those games (Second Life) who then became a close friend. He had written his own independant RPG game in the late 80's, a little known RPG called 'Enforcers', and he was putting together a group to playtest a new edition, and would I like to join?

    Last year, that group broke up, and I haven't played an rpg since, but I see a LOT of my gamer friends playing rpg's. Some play Pathfinder, some play 4th edition, some play Call of Cthulhu. I'm thinking of taking that plunge again and trying another group on for size. I'm not a troll (I play a bard, TYVM), I'm just someone who cares deeply for these kinds of games. I cried when Gary Gygax and David Arneson died. I've been playing D&D since I was eight years old. I was born in 1974-the year Dungeons & Dragons was first published. Because of my love for roleplaying, I met my future mate in an online rpg chatroom. We both met our future boyfriend on a roleplaying forum (we're poly). So many of my friends and so much of my life revolves around and has been enriched by both traditional RPG's as well as the video gamer community.

    Why all this tl:dr? Because I wanted to make a better post. Earlier, I was too emotional (I am now, but I'm also not half asleep like I was earlier). Please don't ever think D&D is dying. It was never meant to be huge, and i'm glad it's stayed the size it has. It wouldn't be as special. Right now, there are some truly dedicated people making some fantastic rpg's. One thing the rpg market has over the huge video game market is a majority of products that don't suck.

    I tell you with the utmost sincerity that there are a LOT of video gamers out there who love rpg's. Please don't look down on all gamers because of some misconstrued notion that we aren't creative, that we just sit back and let the screen feed us how to think and what to feel. Just google any video game title and type the words 'fan fiction' after it, and you'll see that games inspire the same amounts of creativity in people that rpg's do. You'll find both the horribly bad and the surprisingly good story, just like there are DM's that suck and DM's that leave you talking about games for decades afterwards.

    I love Roleplaying games, I always will, and there are a lot of my fellow gamers that do as well. Won't you give us a chance? Please?

  36. Zidders:

    Cibet's comment was directed at James' original post, not your comment. It just happened to come right after your comment. That's all. You don't seem at all, even in the slightest, like a "half baked troll". The only one here who does is Cibet.

  37. Some added info on the whole CGA thing: CGA had a palette of 16 colours: red, green, and blue combine in 8 different ways, and each combination could be displayed in low or high intensity. However, in the 320x200 pixel graphics mode (roughly the resolution of VHS) only four of those colours could be displayed at once. You could pick any four colours you liked, as long as three of them were cyan, magenta, and white; or green, red and yellow. The first set was generally seen as the less garish set and so was the more commonly used.

    EGA had not only a much higher resolution, but could display 16 colours at once out of a palette of 64 total colours, but EGA was a high-end option until the late 80s. The MCGA mode of VGA, which became standard for games in the early 90s, had the same resolution as CGA, but could display a palette of 256 colours at once (with over 16 million possible colours available) and allowed for images that looked basically like grainy colour photos.

    Ah, memories.

  38. Yes! Yes, yes, yes. This (and Delta's theater comment) is exactly it. It always irks me when people talk about »the D&D fad«; D&D was never a fad in the same sense as, say, collecting oddly-shaped rubber bands. D&D, and roleplaying games in general, are an interstitial form which has been rendered obsolete; the fact that the games industry is now bigger than the film industry shows the enormous and generally compelling power of the core idea driving both forms, D&D and video game. A fad is something that has no real core; like modern celebrities, or social networking sites, it becomes popular because of its popularity. This is fundamentally capricious; rubber bands could have been substituted for oddly-colored animal figurines or something; they have no inherent property which makes them popular. Roleplaying, on the other hand, I think could not really have failed to become popular, because it was the best or only outlet for its associated desire.

  39. I think 4th edition was a mistake. BUT, I don't know that WotC had any choice. They had to make a clear break from 3.0 and they had to make the game relevant to a new generation. I do know that many new gamers really like 4th edition. Unfortunately the core audience was alienated.

    I think the cost of alienating their core audience was too high. And this made a huge opening for Paizo to exploit, which they have done very well.

    I don't see any reason a savvy game designer couldn't take the original D&D and make an amazing new edition that appeals to new and old gamers alike.

  40. There was an additional middle-step between the tabletop and the MMO, and that is the various types of MUDs and MUSHes in the early 1990s. These were essentially text-based online computer games, with a scripted engine behind them. They combined the communal atmosphere of tabletop with the ability to find a community of people who shared your interests, but may not have been available locally.

    They formed an interesting halfway point, since they allowed the users to create the world (usually with differently graded steps of authority), but also meant that you didn't have to worry about organising a night when everyone was free. You could simply play (or build).

    And that's the big advantage of the computer game (whether it is an MMO or a single user), is that you can play it when you have time and when you want to.* And it looks snazzy. The disadvantage, (beyond the one where you are generally limited to interactions that were envisaged by the programmer, is that the entry bar to creating your own content is even higher than with MUDs.

    I'd like to see more toolkits available (as they are in tabletop hardware) that allow the home user to create their own game. Unfortunately economics dictate that they will probably never appear (beyond the prototypes that are already in pseudo-existence).

    [* This is something the designers of 4e missed in their desire to make the tabletop experience more similar to the computer experience, and why I doubt that they will achieve the revival they were looking for.]

  41. "[T]he big advantage of the computer game (whether it is an MMO or a single user), is that you can play it when you have time and when you want to."--Reverance Pavane

    That's quite possibly the main reason why computer games have become, and will stay, more popular than tabletop RPGs with people who see themselves as having either little spare time or unflexible schedules or both. They might even know that they'd prefer the actual human interaction and fuller creativity of tabletop RPGs, but they don't see them as practical choices in their current situations.

  42. @ticktockman: I salute your courage in writing an interstitial form which has been rendered obsolete in this forum, full of active, obsolete players. I disagree but will defend to the death etc etc.

    I disagree with the post, too, though. Popularity matters. Where it goes, money, social status and all kinds of attention and mindshare follow. As someone who works in academic humanities and roleplays at other times, I fear neither my day job nor my weekend entertainment will survive my generation, because money has left and mindshare is dribbling away. RPGs are social games - they need groups of players in the same location (sorry PB(e)Ms, I'm with Socrates on this one), and as RPGs lose statumonearity it becomes harder to get those players - not just because the existing pool is aging and shrinking but because the lack of mindshare makes the bar higher and the rewards slimmer for any new player who just might be interested.

    So I disagree that we can live happily on a shrinking island that's slipping off the map. I also disagree that we have to evolve into something unrecognisable (that delivers fundamentally different goods) or die out. Somehow I think we have to figure out how to emulate the alligator - outlasting the dinosaurs without turning into a bird - but I don't have the magic recipe for how to do it.

  43. I think you have it backwards: The computer games attempted to simulate the table top roleplaying experience.

    Without D&D, there wouldn't have been anything for the games designers to simulate... there would have been no computer roleplaying games to speak of.

    D&D is still relevant today, it will outlive any computer roleplaying game that you care to mention due to not being reliant on local computer hardware, vast software stacks and staggering numbers of servers in order to be played. That's the beauty of simplicity: even if all the oil runs out and civilization were to come crashing down around our ears, all it would need is a pencil and some paper and some dice and bingo, somebody is still playing D&D.

  44. A new Star Trek RPG? Something that is likely to either not fit your style of playing or the license...or both. A line that will get cancelled even before all the books that are written make it into print. A game that will be mostly incompatible with all the previous Star Trek games and whatever whoever gets the license next come up with?

    In my experience, it has always been better to adapt an existing system to such a setting yourself. If I knew anyone whose first RPG was a licensed RPG, I’d at least think it was worthwhile for promoting the hobby, but I don’t.

    And the really wonderful thing is that there are so many really good and (essentially) free RPGs today. It doesn’t really matter if you can buy one at a store. We just need to be able to order index cards, pencils, and dice online. (And we’re getting some decent virtual versions of those if you want to go that way.)

    (Which is not to say having RPGs in stores isn’t desirable. Simply that I think good, free games do more for the hobby today than a single game on a shelf somewhere. And if not yet today, then soon.)

    I am certainly disappointed how the biggest name in the industry is failing to promote the traditional game. But, I try to find the serenity to accept that as their choice.

    For me, Richard, the way I can try to make this hobby like the alligator is to introduce the hobby to my friends, my kids, my friends’ kids, and my kids’ friends. To do my best to understand what I find magical in it and share that as well. I have to believe that if we each do what we can, it will be enough. After all, that’s how the game originally grew enough to be able to afford marketing or attract publicity. Gamer to gamer.

  45. @Recursion King: quite so on the history - is William Crowther still playing? He must've been among the first generation of OD&D players, maybe even a pre-publication tester?

    But as time goes on the computer games develop their own traditions that have nothing to do with D&D - that D&D actually gets in the way of - and the commercial lifespan of any one product doesn't guarantee anything. Many activities have died out simply because nobody kept them going. One day archaeologists might try to reconstruct the D&D campaign from published sources, but there's no guarantee that there'll be a living tradition for them to look at.

  46. Richard:- There was no living tradition when it was invented, either (by definition)... yet here we all are, with our years of varied experience, discussing a game that was invented over thirty years ago and crucially /is still being played today/.

    I sense the pessimism on James' part is his own moving away from D&D to play a different RPG for a while, which is perfectly natural. Our enthusiasms for 'stuff' waxes and wanes and the timescales involved can be long.

  47. Richard, I myself play D&D with the Rules Cyclopedia and don't like WoW. I just don't think that my personal preferences have anything to do with the general truth, which is undeniably that when both are offered, WoW is massively popular on a scale which D&D can't nearly approach. I stand by my statement; D&D is rendered obsolete for the vast majority of potential players.

  48. I think all of the prognostications of doom are a bit exaggerated. Though computer games share the same tropes and terms of tabletop rpgs, they are not the same. They are completely different experiences. From what I’ve seen, and as other have said, games like WOW are introducing new players to the hobby, not taking them away. Just look at the rpg community on the internet. Is it shrinking? Are we seeing less web sites devoted to rpgs? No. It’s the complete opposite. The big change is that the game shop is no longer relevant. It has been replaced by the Internet, forums, and blogs.

  49. ticktockman:- your definition of obsolete is somewhat different to mine, that's for sure. D&D is rendered obsolete for the vast majority of players of _what_? World of Warcraft?

    Isn't that like saying that D&D has been rendered obsolete for the vast majority of players of Vampire? Or chess? Or Farmtown?

    Which tells you what exactly? I'll hazard an answer, if I may. It tells only that people play different games to each other and invest what time they have into them.

    Lets turn it onto its head to illustrate my point... D&D hasn't been rendered obsolete for the vast majority of players ... of D&D... which happens to be the most popular RPG /there has ever been/.

  50. I feel sorry for the kids playing computer games instead of D&D. I'd rather stare at a blank wall than stare at a computer game.

  51. "Though computer games share the same tropes and terms of tabletop rpgs, they are not the same. They are completely different experiences."

    What is it the kidz say today? Ah: QFT :)

  52. I will make sure to tell all the gamers who come in here (from the packs of high schoolers who play upstairs every Friday to the graying people who keep looking for books to complete their collection) buying various D&D books that the game and its influence is irrelevant. I will tell that to everyone I know, 95% of whom know what I am talking about when I bring up D&D. I will make sure that when inevitable associations or metaphors of D&D come up in conversation that I dismiss them as empty of meaning. I am sure this will be a shock to lot of people, this irrelevance.

  53. Could it be that simply the scale changed, so pen-and-paper RPGs just don’t seem that big anymore in comparision?

    Nowadays WoW has 12 million subscribers. That’s 12 mio *monthly paying customers*. And likely about 10 mio alone in Europe and the USA. That’s about one out of a hundred people. Active players. Take away all the old ones and all those who are too young and you might get to one in 20 potential gamers. That’s on the scale of pupils playing soccer in the lunch break in germany. Compare that to maybe two or three cool gaming groups in the school.

    How many core rulebooks did DnD sell per year in its golden age?

    And now WoW is in the news, but not PnP RPG. Because it is much bigger and just as strange for those who don’t play it. And it is on the *internet* (raise your hands and humm ominously).

    And well, PnP RPG is suddenly just right for pupils. A friend of mine tries to get *public funding* to teach youths PnP RPGs (he has my deepest respect). Imagine that 10 years ago.

  54. This week I heard a couple of my 12-year-old students describe D&D to their friends as "Warhammer 40K but in the Middle Ages." Alas poor WHFRP and Warhammer Fantasy - the young ones know you not.

    Interestingly, the one member of my Games Club who came in having already played D&D4E, actually knew there was a 40K RPG, but he still liked the "40K with swords" analogy.

    Re, the main argument: I think it's evident to the folks at WOTC that computer RPGs are the dominant expression of the genre today because they certainly designed 4E to appeal to young players coming to PnP from a computer game background rather than to the Baby Boomer and Gen X veterans who had been migrating along with the evolving PnP game through the decades.

  55. Actually those kids are correct - Warhammer Fantasy isn't "Middle Ages."

  56. I played in my early ages with DnD like crpgs. I met first time with dnd and rpg in the EOB II. But in my pnp era I played another rpgs. I have just tested dnd, but it wasn't my best expirience.

    And my opinion is Wow and its clones will kill the pnp.