Thursday, April 7, 2022

Thoughts on What We're Playing

Several weeks ago, I made a short post, in which I asked readers what roleplaying games they were currently playing, how often they met to play, and how long they've been playing their current campaigns. The response to the post was remarkable, garnering more than 150 comments, which I believe is the most of any post on this blog. Likewise, the information provided in the comments was genuinely insightful, since it afforded me a small window into not just the readers of my own blog but perhaps into the wider hobby and, especially, the amorphous OSR scene.

I say "perhaps," because I'm not certain how representative the comments were of anything, including the readership of this blog. While 150+ comments is unquestionably a significant amount, that number is less than 5% of Grognardia's daily visitors and Grognardia itself is a but a small drop in the ocean of RPG-related content online. Consequently, I'm reluctant to draw any broad conclusions from the comments, since, much like election polling, there's a certain degree of self-selection going on with regards to who is willing to take the time to comment. Nevertheless, I did learn a few worthwhile things from the comments, which I'd like to share with you today.

The first is that there's a lot of gaming going on. That's very encouraging to me, because I often get the impression that roleplaying is, for many people, more of an aspirational hobby than one in which they participate regularly. Whenever I hear the triumphalist claim there are now more people gaming than there have been at any time in history, I tend to be skeptical. I have no doubt whatsoever that more people are buying RPG products than at any point in history, but actually playing with them? I'm not so sure. Still, the comments to my post make it clear that many readers do still roll the dice regularly with their friends and, as I said, I find that heartening.

The second thing I learned is that, even though the commenters are playing a wide variety of games today, the vast majority of them are playing some version of Dungeons & Dragons, which should surprise no one. What did surprise me was how many of those playing D&D are playing the current edition and by a significant number. I have theories as to why this might be the case – chief among them being the ease with which to recruit players – but the raw fact is that, even in the old school sphere, many gamers have adopted the new hotness. 

Even so, good old Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, particularly in its Gygaxian First Edition, remains the go-to game for many commenters. Indeed, its popularity is only slightly less than that of the current edition and way ahead of that of any other game mentioned in the comments. Quite a few of you are also playing OD&D or one of its clones, with Old School Essentials, itself the new hotness within that realm, being more popular than Labyrinth Lord or even Swords & Wuzardry. Paizo's Pathfinder is another significant presence among commenters.

Outside of the world of D&D, there were several standouts, starting with RuneQuest. This surprised me a bit, though, in retrospect, it shouldn't have. In recent years, Chaosium has done an excellent job of rebuilding their most popular game lines, which is why Call of Cthulhu also figured prominently among non-D&D RPGs in the comments. Traveller was similarly well placed, thanks, I'd imagine, to the steady stream of product being published by Mongoose. I'm not a fan of the Mongoose version of Traveller, but I don't think there's any question that it's ensured the GDW classic still has a presence on game store shelves.

The third thing I learned is, while not the majority, there are still a fair number of commenters who are playing in campaigns that have been going on for more than two years. As an advocate of long campaigns, it's good to see this. That said, I also learned that many commenters are not involved in long campaigns and indeed many seem to play in lots of short-lived campaigns (and for a wide variety of reasons). I pass no judgment on these campaigns, having been in similar places in the past. I only note that the tendency toward campaigns that last two years or less than I first observed in the early 2000s, during the height of the 3e era, seems to have become a permanent feature of the hobby.

The final thing I learned is that online play, whether it be via video chat, virtual tabletop, or even forum-based play-by-post, is very popular. To some extent, this might simply be reflective of the disruptions of the last two years, which prevented more face-to-face gaming. On the other hand, I'd noticed a trend in this direction for years beforehand, in part, I think, because online gaming is so much easier to schedule and maintain. I know that's been true in my own life, so I can hardly blame anyone else of availing themselves of this particular technological boon.

Taken together, the comments suggest that roleplaying game campaigns are alive and well in 2022. At least some of my readers are indeed playing and playing regularly with their friends. That's absolutely delightful to hear, as I am ever more convinced that this hobby is a unique form of entertainment that is not merely fun in itself but that offers many benefits to its participants, not least of which being close contact with other human beings and exercise of the imagination. These are vital in my opinion and the world could use more of them both.


  1. As an update,I'm currently in a play-by-chat medieval fantasy Free Kriegspiel game on Telegram.
    I'm enjoying it very much

  2. I've managed to get in a couple more sessions with my pair of Sentinel Comics RPG campaign - which only has two active players right now, but I actually kind of like that format for supers games so that's okay. Power man & Iron Fist is easier to write for than the Avengers any day of the week. :)

  3. I would like to add that I live in a city of a million people (ok, mild stretch. I live 90 minutes from... but I shop there) and there is one store that carries used games. and, despite the hype, maybe 5 stores that carry anything, not counting 5e stuff in normal bookstores.

    and most things are simply not carried. CoC is in three shops total, Runequest in one. two shops carry some of the alt-cthulhu, like trail or confidential. one shop might have a DCC rulebook, but no modules. ever. And when I say they "Carry" I mean, they might have a book or two, if they still have them. no regularity. No complete lines. One shop had delta green stuff, which is great, except they went over a year without a handlers guide (DMG). kinda key, actually.

    all this makes it challenging to do more gaming, and makes me think that there is not as much gaming going on as you might think. My wife likes to point out that if the owners were good at this, they would be selling houses or cars, something more lucrative, but at least two of those stores have been open since the 80s (but for both, RPGs are a sideline from the main, mostly comics, etc). and I keep thinking if there was a good market for this stuff, the management would be pulling more stuff in. and this all predates the covid/supply chain issues.

    Make of this what you will. just a report from the capital of Alberta, Canada

    1. Ask your store owners how much of a percentage of their overall sales RPGs make up. Then ask about card games, board games, and miniatures (particularly GW if they stock them). Odds are good that what RPGs they do carry are lucky to reach 10% of the gross. Contributing to that, distributors have steadily reduced what they offer to retailers over the last 15 years or so, to the point where restocking stuff that sells out is difficult or impossible. The market's changed a lot even since 2000 (when D&D 3rd and the d20 SRD really caused a boom in the industry as a whole) and the majority of RPGs are sold online now, not in brick & mortar stores.

      You might have an outlier case or two, but in 2022 most successful game stores rely on CCGs, board games (which are booming over the last ten years, particularly the last two), and perhaps a carefully chosen minis range (likely GW) to stay afloat. For better or worse, RPGs are becoming a sideline in the retail market.

    2. No argument here. in fact, my point is exactly that, if they were selling more, they would carry more. seeing a line sell out quickly makes you wish you had a few more on the shelf. I don't think RPGs are selling very much, period.

    3. I think overall sales are fine or we wouldn't be seeing the massive proliferation of RPG products from companies large and small, but the way they sell has changed. Retail stores aren't as relevant (or useful) as they once were, while online sales are booming, either direct from the publisher or thru sites like DTRPG. Crowdfunding has also greatly changed the picture for both RPGs and board games, since creators often print just above the numbers needed to fulfill backer orders and there's little or no physical product for anyone else. FOMO marketing at its finest - and worst. I frankly despise it, but that's the way things are now.

    4. agreed 100% on the FOMO part. I also despise it. seeing prices for things on the aftermarket makes me cranky.

  4. So I’ve been running a fifth edition campaign since 2018. We met weekly face to face before the pandemic and then shifted to Fantasy Grounds with a Google Meet for voice/video. The switch to virtual went better than I thought it would and we’ve been able to game more regularly on account of the online connection. We’ve also pulled in players from farther away which has kept everything fresher. The challenge I have is the characters have advanced steadily and are pretty high level. Even after a functional reset following a TPK (fighting Acerack in the Tomb of Horrors) where the souls of the characters were imbued into new low level bodies, they are back up into the 16th level range. It’s harder and harder to find viable settings and challenging monsters and I think the players would like to change out to new classes. What’s a good way to close down a campaign? Just pause the one and start another? Conclude the existing - “you win, we’re done”? Retire the characters to the countryside, but keep them in the background as the new campaign spoils up? I want to end on a good note but have a fresh start…

    1. If they are lawfully oriented, you could have them retire to a castle and run a fiefdom with their skills and money, and allow them time to build up a community. Then, when your newer campaigns need a break, revisit your graybeard Seal team now and then for some special mission, or battle against a rival fiefdom's or eldritch uprising's expansionist designs.

  5. OSE is a B/X clone, not an OD&D clone, right?

  6. "...I often get the impression that roleplaying is, for many people, more of an aspirational hobby than one in which they participate regularly..."

    This was true in the 1990s.

    The kids of the '80s got married and went to work, often moving for jobs. It was harder to find other folks to game with, or to make the time. Magic: the Gathering made it easy to scratch the fantasy game itch with less players and no prep time.

    Then the internet enabled the OSR, allowing us to easily find each other to play IRL or online. Add to that, the 5th edition's appeal to the next generation. People ARE playing now more than ever before.