We're Finally Mainstream! Now What?
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  • We're Finally Mainstream! Now What?


    ICv2's recent announcement that hobby games have become "mainstream" heralds a new age for role-playing games. How did this happen and why should gamers care?

    [h=How Did We Get Here?]3[/h]Role-playing games have steadily been increasing in popularity and media attention. Several factors are likely at play, ranging from older players returning to the hobby (as evidenced by the Old School Renaissance ), to an increased media awareness of role-playing games (Stranger Things being one example), to a wave of nostalgia as 40-somethings now have enough buying power to introduce their kids to the hobby.

    The rise of video and podcasting has also introduced gaming to a much larger population on the Internet. Conventions are more popular than ever before -- to the point that they have difficulty keeping up with the demand. Wizards of the Coast has released a new Open Game License and a distribution platform via DM's Guild. It helps that Dungeons & Dragons has also broadened its audience, with millennials (ages 25 to 34) the largest group, followed closely ages 35 to 44 and 18 to 24 — 30% of which are female.
    [h=Six Million an Hour?]3[/h]According to WOTC, six million people are playing D&D at any given hour. UPDATE: I asked Nathan Stewart to clarify this number. This was his response:

    There was more context given, wasn't supposed to mean every hour, but yes the aggregate was videogames/boardgames/TRPG (not novels)

    The "per hour" seems to be egregious, and is inclusive of D&D-branded video games and board games. Ethan Gilsdorf, author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks, said :

    For those in the know, for those who follow popular culture, the game has gained a kind of legendary status. It's almost like a badge of honor. People who used to play D&D in the 70s, 80s, and 90s are now reaping the benefits.

    The data backs up the RPG renaissance, as per ICv2:

    The number of people playing hobby games, the number of people shopping at game stores, the number of stores, and exposure of hobby games at major retailers were all up in 2016, reflecting the now-mainstream nature of the hobby.

    Mike Mearls, senior manager of D&D research and design, confirmed ICv2's findings:
    We're seeing a bigger audience than we've seen in a very long time—in decades. It's so easy to cast this idea that technology will be the death of D&D, but it's been really interesting to see how that has been absolutely incorrect.
    [h=Will the Bubble Burst?]3[/h]Rob Salkowitz at ICv2 predicts that mainstream geek culture will affect other industries, as they take notes on what works for geek fans and apply it to other forms of fandom like sports :

    It’s been clear for a while that the fan convention template that we’ve known since the 1960s is fraying at the edges as geek culture becomes mainstream consumer culture. On one hand, this means outside players who smell the money are making their play for the fan audience, with increasingly mixed results. But on the other, it means that longtime convention organizers within the space are looking to push their shows into neighboring territory.

    Salkowitz calls this "peak geek" and it has consequences beyond geek circles:

    The danger is that, even with a fresh infusion of smart nerds in strategic spots, mainstream media is still more liable than their niche counterparts to credit know-nothings on an equal basis with informed sources, misinterpret nuances, impose faulty narrative frameworks and just plain get stuff wrong when it comes to covering the business of pop culture--especially if they are taking their cues from some of the more excitable fever swamps of online fandom. The result is a much more treacherous environment for the big companies and big name creators unaccustomed to attention from these quarters.

    For tabletop games, the primary concern is that eight straight years of growth is unsustainable:

    For 2017, there’s widespread concern that the number of releases is going to be greater than the market can support. "I think we're facing some challenges coming into the new year, just on the basis of the breadth of releases," one distributor told us.

    But for the moment, things have never looked better for gaming. As more and more media launches -- from videos to streaming to podcasts to television shows to movies -- geek culture will become so normalized that it may well lose some of its identity. Chris Perkins, principal D&D designer, summed up the current state of affairs:

    Geek culture and nerd culture is now just culture.

    Whether or not that is a good or bad thing will be determined by us.

    Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to
    http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
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    Comments 91 Comments
    1. Jester David's Avatar
      Jester David -
      Following the "6 million" claim to the cited article, that article gives its source as WotC, but doesn't provide a larger reference. But the passage immediately below implies that number is including Neverwinter.
      So "playing D&D" to WotC means "playing a D&D game" but not necessarily "playing the tabletop RPG D&D game".
    1. Charles Rampant's Avatar
      Charles Rampant -
      I had wondered about that number - it seemed extraordinarily high!
    1. Mercule's Avatar
      Mercule -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jester David View Post
      So "playing D&D" to WotC means "playing a D&D game" but not necessarily "playing the tabletop RPG D&D game".
      This is where I start to have a real problem with the WotC "brand management" and have for quite some time: D&D is the tabletop game.

      If the tabletop game dies (hypothetically speaking, hopefully), then D&D is dead. Period. I don't care how many people are playing NWN. D&D is an inherently interactive activity where one player (the GM) acts as referee and lead storyteller. D&D can be played wholly without electronic aids.

      So, here's what I really want to know: Are 6 million people playing D&D -- or are 6 million people playing D&D-related games? Keep in mind that NWN doesn't actually count as D&D. Nor do cards. Nor do the various board games that have been released w/ the D&D logo on them.
    1. Hussar's Avatar
      Hussar -
      Why doesn't something like Neverwinter Nights not count as "playing D&D"?

      Just because that's the way we've played D&D doesn't really mean that we get to define what that is, does it? I mean, I've been playing via VTT for about 15 years now. Does that mean that I'm a second class citizen because I don't play face to face?

      What I'm trying to say here, and probably failing, is that tribalism is bad. We SHOULD be as welcoming as possible to all players who are entering the hobby, regardless of how they enter.
    1. Jester David's Avatar
      Jester David -
      Quote Originally Posted by Mercule View Post
      This is where I start to have a real problem with the WotC "brand management" and have for quite some time: D&D is the tabletop game.

      If the tabletop game dies (hypothetically speaking, hopefully), then D&D is dead. Period. I don't care how many people are playing NWN. D&D is an inherently interactive activity where one player (the GM) acts as referee and lead storyteller. D&D can be played wholly without electronic aids.

      So, here's what I really want to know: Are 6 million people playing D&D -- or are 6 million people playing D&D-related games? Keep in mind that NWN doesn't actually count as D&D. Nor do cards. Nor do the various board games that have been released w/ the D&D logo on them.
      Part of me feels like that. Because the heart of the D&D brand very much is the tabletop game.
      But I'm not sure I want to saying that someone playing a board game or video game isn't "playing D&D". Not anymore than I want to say someone watching a Batman movie rather than the comics isn't a "Batman fan".
    1. redrick's Avatar
      redrick -
      Quote Originally Posted by Mercule View Post
      This is where I start to have a real problem with the WotC "brand management" and have for quite some time: D&D is the tabletop game.

      If the tabletop game dies (hypothetically speaking, hopefully), then D&D is dead. Period. I don't care how many people are playing NWN. D&D is an inherently interactive activity where one player (the GM) acts as referee and lead storyteller. D&D can be played wholly without electronic aids.

      So, here's what I really want to know: Are 6 million people playing D&D -- or are 6 million people playing D&D-related games? Keep in mind that NWN doesn't actually count as D&D. Nor do cards. Nor do the various board games that have been released w/ the D&D logo on them.
      If Wizards were to abandon the tabletop game in favor of these derivative products, that would definitely be a bad thing, but, on the plus side, if people are playing D&D-branded games, that is taking them much closer to D&D the tabletop game than any other non-rpg. So many of the folks I've played with over the years had their first exposure to D&D from Baldur's Gate or Icewind Dale. Even for those of us who played D&D first, the Baldur's Gate re-release helped to fuel our return to the tabletop game after a long hiatus. So the success of D&D as a brand really does make it easier for us to recruit players to the game, which is a good thing.

      I think, for the time being, Wizards sees the tabletop game, which is the heart of the D&D brand, as essential to the success of everything else. Without that game, any D&D product just becomes another fantasy game and, honestly, one without very good world or character identity. The fact that there is this arch-nerd game of high imagination behind any D&D product lends it some additional cachet. That's why so much (from an RPG perspective) energy went into developing and building fan support for the 5th Edition. And the 5th Edition is great and getting all kinds of people into the game is very easy. I love it.
    1. chibi graz'zt's Avatar
      chibi graz'zt -
      Accept the fact, D&D is supreme, it reigns in glorious majesty, NOTHING can stop it. Bow down and worship the &!

      Seriously, D&D is in a renaissance, this makes me very happy :-)
    1. Mercule's Avatar
      Mercule -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jester David View Post
      Part of me feels like that. Because the heart of the D&D brand very much is the tabletop game.
      But I'm not sure I want to saying that someone playing a board game or video game isn't "playing D&D". Not anymore than I want to say someone watching a Batman movie rather than the comics isn't a "Batman fan".
      I see your point. Games like Baldur's Gate definitely used the D&D system mechanics, so I have mixed feelings about it. When you get to, say, Skyrim, though, that's clearly not "playing D&D" (not that anyone is claiming otherwise). So, where to draw that line?

      Going back to my statement about "if the tabletop game dies, then D&D is dead," I still hold to that. If DDO/NWN stayed around, but the PHB (etc.) went out of print, I'd consider D&D to be gone. I think it's a branding issue. D&D is a medium. It's the comic.

      Forgotten Realms is Batman. You can have Batman in the comics, on TV, in a novel, in a video game, or on the big screen. You could even have a Batman Musical on Broadway (though that chills me to the bone). Ditto to Forgotten Realms. You can have a FR movie, an FR video game, a novel, etc. You can also have a Forgotten Realms D&D game. Or, a Forgotten Realms GURPS game (which is about as interesting, to me, as the Batman Musical).

      Asking whether people are consuming Batman is different than asking whether people are reading comics. Asking who is playing D&D is more like asking who is reading comics. My interesting isn't in whether the Realms or Eberron or Planescape (Batman, Superman, Spiderman) are selling well. It's in whether D&D (comics) is doing well.

      Carrying your analogy a bit further, the consistent mechanics/different delivery between the TTRPG and the video games might be a bit more like the difference between monthly comics and graphic novels. They're close, but (I suspect) have somewhat different audiences that don't always cross-over. Actually, that might be an extremely good analogy: to the casual player/reader, there's little difference because they get a story told in pictures (or via a set of mechanics), either way. To a fan or author/GM, there's a big difference because one is a finite story/package and the other is ongoing and open-ended.

      Ultimately, I'm most interested in what keeps DMs in business, so to speak.
    1. ZeshinX's Avatar
      ZeshinX -
      My own definition of D&D is the table top game. When I say or refer to playing D&D, I mean the table top game (I suspect that's what a lot of people mean when they say "play D&D"). The various other media like video games, novels, comics, etc certainly offer a D&D experience for that medium's strength(s), and that's excellent, but to me, D&D is the table top game (I consider VTT just tabletop played with webcam...yes, I know they go beyond that basic definition lol). The rest are ancillary and derivative of the table top game (like the D&D table top game is derivative of various war game concepts smooshed together).

      That's how I define it myself, others can define it as they wish of course.

      I never take what WotC says about the success of its products at face value. This is not to suggest I find them dishonest or shady. Not at all. Merely that they have a vested interest (necessary I would say) to present their product in a positive and successful light (basically to encourage more sales...if they were more specific in the breakdown of their numbers, that risks being perceived as negative towards some of those areas, thus likely impacting sales). I have no data to corroborate this, it simply seems logical. Lumping all forms of D&D games together (tabletop, video games, VTT, card games, board games, etc) does make sense, but I do find some of them more of a stretch than others. For example, a card game based D&D (if one exists) I would not consider playing D&D in much the same way I wouldn't call a game of poker using Magic the Gathering themed cards a game of Magic the Gathering. For most, I suspect it's a matter of degrees how they define what is and is not playing D&D.

      I'm glad it's successful. I like the 5e table top game (even if I find it a bid threadbare in product I can buy, since I don't touch adventure/storyline stuff). I'd also like to see a proper and good 5e video game, not the mighty pile of goblin dung that was Sword Coast Legends (they were on the right track, going for Baldur's Gate with Neverwinter Nights toolset...but massively botched the execution).
    1. Ralif Redhammer's Avatar
      Ralif Redhammer -
      Considering the ugly results of tribalism in videogames we’ve seen , I totally agree.

      But on another point, I think that a bust period is inevitable. Every other period of “peak D&D” has had one. That being said, there are more ways than ever to consume and experience D&D, so maybe the downswing won’t be as deep.

      More and more of my friends are playing games – either returning to the hobby after an absence, or getting into it for the first time.

      Quote Originally Posted by Hussar View Post
      What I'm trying to say here, and probably failing, is that tribalism is bad. We SHOULD be as welcoming as possible to all players who are entering the hobby, regardless of how they enter.
    1. AriochQ's Avatar
      AriochQ -
      Every product enjoys a renaissance when the group that was exposed to it as children grow older, get jobs, and acquire disposable income. For example, Dodge brought back the Charger and the Challenger and all those people who couldn't afford them as teenagers bought them up (Even though a 4 door Charger is an abomination). Part of the Geek Chic in current culture is a result of that phenomenon. People who played D&D during the boom growth in the 80's are coming back to the game. They are bringing friends and family with them. Of course, WotC did their part by releasing a good product.
    1. Lord_Blacksteel's Avatar
      Lord_Blacksteel -
      Quote Originally Posted by Hussar View Post
      Why doesn't something like Neverwinter Nights not count as "playing D&D"?


      I think it's debatable, at least as far as where you want to draw the line. Does playing World of Warcraft count? Because it was at 10-12 million for monthly subscribers for years. It is a fantasy RPG played with other people - it just happens to be on the computer.

      Quote Originally Posted by AriochQ View Post
      Every product enjoys a renaissance when the group that was exposed to it as children grow older, get jobs, and acquire disposable income. Part of the Geek Chic in current culture is a result of that phenomenon. People who played D&D during the boom growth in the 80's are coming back to the game. They are bringing friends and family with them. Of course, WotC did their part by releasing a good product.


      We were told this is what was happening around 2001 with the 3E boom. This might be another wave of that but I think technology plays a role too. Smartphones/YouTube/Twitch/social media means things are more connected than they were even that recently and amplifies the "network" to a far greater degree than before.
    1. Jester David's Avatar
      Jester David -
      Thinking more on the absurdly high number of people playing, I imagine some of that includes double dipping. People playing Neverwinter on the XBox and their PC. Plus alts: it's a Free 2 Play game that puts a *serious* cap on your number of characters and bank space, expecting you to pay for those. But it's far easier to just sign-up with an alternate email.
      To say nothing of people who play Neverwinter *and* the RPG. After all… how many people are really playing a mediocre F2P MMO that really tries to milk you for cash who aren't fans of the brand already?

      Quote Originally Posted by Ralif Redhammer View Post
      But on another point, I think that a bust period is inevitable. Every other period of “peak D&D” has had one. That being said, there are more ways than ever to consume and experience D&D, so maybe the downswing won’t be as deep.
      Maybe…

      There are two real bust periods that can affect D&D: one is the books not selling, and one is people not playing. Which are very different.
      You only need so many D&D books before your library feels complete, so eventually existing players will stop buying accessories. Meanwhile, sales of the core books are still good, but that's from waves of new players coming into the game. Eventually that's going to slow down as there's only so many interested people willing to buy the books. You saturate the market. That PHB sales are still strong is a huge anomaly that can't possibly last. New gamers aren't maturing fast enough...
      But that doesn't mean people aren't still playing. They're just not buying more/ replacement books. But, financially, that would be a bubble popping.

      The variant is people stopping playing. Campaigns end; people get busy with life; people graduate college, get married, have kids; life. Now, even if they're not playing, people might still buy the books. So this aspect of bubble poppage would be less apparent.
      However… there is the added twist of other games. After one or three or five D&D campaigns, people might feel finished with the ruleset and want to move onto another RPG. People burn on on systems. I think D&D is in a good place for this, as most of its strongest competition (Pathfinder, Numenera, Star Wars, AGE, Fate) predates 5e. There's fewer "new shinies" to attract attention away from D&D. While I'm critical of Starfinder, it might be coming at a good time for people who've been 5e-ing since 2014 to want to take a break.

      I think the two "bubbles" are rather interrelated. As people play, they generate attention for the game, which brings in new people and generates sales. And because so many new people have been coming into the game, fewer might be familiar with other RPGs and less likely to drift to competitors as quickly. And since there has been so many steady waves of new and returning players, people are less likely to burn out of the edition at the same time. So there might be more of a rotation of people coming and returning after a break.

      Theoretically though… the bubble might not pop. I mean, what if it doesn't?
      Video games didn't pop following the mid-80s crash and have been growing steady since then. Magic the Gather and CCGs are no longer at their peak, but they're also not suffering.
      D&D might peak, but the current wave of tabletop and RPG gamers might segue into another game and stay in the hobby, keeping money flowing in the industry as a whole. And if D&D can maintain sales for long enough, enough time might pass for WotC to even release a "revised 5th Edition" without tanking things like in 3e, that can reinvigorate sales of the core rules. (Especially if they can be more restrained in the revision and keep the existing adventures/ accessories usable.)
      And that's not even considering something like the movie being released, which could send a surge of attention towards the game.
    1. talien's Avatar
      talien -
      Just to put the number in context, here's the relevant quoted text about "six million":

      It was a fantasy formula for success that’s still going strong four decades later. Six million people are playing D&D at any given hour, according to Wizards of the Coast.

      Seattle’s PAX West gaming convention is hosting “Dungeons & Dragons Live” on Sept. 4, where cosplaying actors will play D&D before an audience of 3,000 people. The adventure will also screen live in select movie theaters around the country, with tickets going on sale Friday.

      And digital natives are playing and discovering D&D today through video games, novels, podcasts and even through watching games being broadcast on streaming services like YouTube and Twitch. “Over three million people are playing on Xbox One right now,” marvels Nathan Stewart, D&D’s brand director. “It is a comeback and revitalization of the brand that’s been happening over the last few years.”
      So it looks like WOTC is considering "video games, novels, podcasts, and attendees watching games being broadcast on streaming services" which is a very different definition than sitting down and playing a tabletop version D&D. It's more likely that it's six million people are "engaging" with the Dungeons & Dragons brand, which is a little different.

      I tweeted at Nathan to see if he can clarify.
    1. Benji's Avatar
      Benji -
      Quote Originally Posted by Mercule View Post
      If the tabletop game dies (hypothetically speaking, hopefully), then D&D is dead. Period.
      How, theoretically, would that happen? Even if wizards stop making the game, it doesn't stop people like us playing it.
    1. Ralif Redhammer's Avatar
      Ralif Redhammer -
      Back in the mid-to-late-90s, I had no idea just how moribund TSR was before Wizards’ acquisition.

      But I don’t think we’ll see that confluence of events (the Random House distribution deal going pear-shaped, the layoffs and walk-outs, and the complete botch of public relations with internet content) again. I think if we see a dampening of the brand, it’ll be subtler, a slow fading, until the next big breakthrough.

      Quote Originally Posted by Benji View Post
      How, theoretically, would that happen? Even if wizards stop making the game, it doesn't stop people like us playing it.
    1. Mercule's Avatar
      Mercule -
      Quote Originally Posted by Benji View Post
      How, theoretically, would that happen? Even if wizards stop making the game, it doesn't stop people like us playing it.
      That's why I said "hypothetically". Probably the worst-case scenario is that WotC gets to the point where they don't need the RPG to make money off a D&D video game, movie, etc. and stops publishing it. To protect their IP, they aren't going to just let someone else publish the game under the D&D name, or even publish new rules additions for it. At that point, D&D dies. Someone will probably rename it to D20++ (as a silly example), but that's still slightly different.

      What I'm really getting at, again, is that I don't really care about the stats for anything but the TTRPG. I don't even care about the existence of those things, except insofar as they benefit the TTRPG. I've played almost every D&D video game back to the original Eye of the Beholder, read a few of the books, and seen the movie (though I'm not sure that's worth mentioning). None of the video games held my interest long enough to finish them. Dragonlance was OK. All I actually care about is the game.

      I have little-to-no faith in a D&D movie being compelling as a "D&D" movie -- you can do a lot with Dragonlance, Eberron, even the Realms that might be fun and hold my interest. But, those are because of the D&D-adjacent brands (the settings). I don't like the brand confusion. It's not so much a D&D product as it is one of those. I have one of the original Dragonlance novels in reach and it doesn't actually say "D&D" on it, anywhere, in any form. That's the correct branding. It's not a D&D novel. D&D is the brand name for a TTRPG and those mechanics have been adapted to power a video game engine, from time to time.
    1. Mercule's Avatar
      Mercule -
      Quote Originally Posted by talien View Post
      So it looks like WOTC is considering "video games, novels, podcasts, and attendees watching games being broadcast on streaming services" which is a very different definition than sitting down and playing a tabletop version D&D. It's more likely that it's six million people are "engaging" with the Dungeons & Dragons brand, which is a little different.
      ?Que?

      Okay. We can have the debate about whether the video games count. I get that I'm being somewhat of a purist on that one. But, watching Critical Role does not count as "playing D&D". That's not splitting hairs or being generous; it's doctoring the numbers to the point of dishonesty. That's like saying that we're all playing D&D by posting to/reading this thread. And that's a lot closer than reading a novel.
    1. Benji's Avatar
      Benji -
      Quote Originally Posted by Mercule View Post
      At that point, D&D dies.
      My point was really that is doesn't really die then. If D&D has stopped at 2nd ed, I'd still be playing it. But I feel I might be arguing semantics here rather than adding to the conversation. With your clarification, I realise that my point is tangential to the point you are making.

      As for classification of genre, I tend to agree with you. I have never played a D&D computer game, so it's hard for me to classifying them as anything but 'Other'. But why not brand stuff like dragonlance with D&D stuff? The thing that made me want to play D&D was when I read the bit in the back of the dragonlance novel that told how it was written as part of a game. I had a copy of first ed stuff at the time from a school bring-and-buy but it was that connection that made me want to use it.

      Edit for clairifcation: I agree that the six million figure should only figure in actual play. Otherwise it's misleading.
    1. Igwilly's Avatar
      Igwilly -
      I'll buy and play the game as I've always did. If anyone wants to come in, they are accepted. The reverse is also true.
      I actually dislike D&D 5e with a black passion. However, if people are interested in a system I actually like, then that might be a good thing. Getting new engaged players in my game is *very* good.
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