So What IS Happening to Tabletop Roleplaying Games? Dancey & Mearls Let You Know!

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At PAX East a panel took place entitled "What Is Happening to Tabletop Roleplaying Games?" It featured Ryan Dancey (CEO of Goblinworks which is producing the Pathfinder MMO, architect of the Open Gaming License, and one of the people who spearheaded D&D 3E), Luke Peterschmidt (CEO of Fun to 11), Derek Lloyd (owner of the game store 'Battleground Games and Hobbies'), Luke Crane (Tabletop Games Specialist at Kickstarter and RPG designer of Burning Wheel, Mouseguard and more), Matt McElroy (Marketing Director at DriveThruRPG/OneBookshelf and Onyx Path which currently handles WoD products) and Mike Mearls (senior manager of D&D Next). [threadcm]http://www.enworld.org/forum/showthread.php?354586-So-What-IS-Happening-to-Tabletop-Roleplaying-Games-Dancey-amp-Mearls-Let-You-Know![/threadcm]

It's well worth listening to the whole recording if you have an hour to spare, as it contains plenty of interesting summations of RPG publishing over the decades, plus a lot of discussion about how great Kickstarter is and why it's the latest of a series of industry expansions which included the advent of desktop pubishing, the Open Gaming License and d20 System License, and now Kickstarter. It also touches on the various times the RPG industry has almost died (from what Dancey says, the rise of World of Warcraft seriously hit the industry, and later surveys while he was at CCP working on Eve Online indicated that a lot of people playing these MMOs had once played tabletop RPGs but now played MMOs instead, not in addition to).

Ryan Dancey also goes into the various surveys from ICv2 over the last few years (those ones which have put Pathfinder as the world's leading RPG since 2010 or so, although he acknowledges that this isn't a great way of determining sales - they call a number of retailers and simply ask what their top five selling RPG products are within a given month; no numbers, just a ranking), which leads to an interesting exchange between him and Mike Mearls.

[pf]x[/pf]Dancey: ...some of those games we talk about being mid-market kind of games, they're on this list. Some of the games that are coming out of Kickstarter are on this list... you know, FATE is on this list, Exalted is on this list.. and then we've got this classic duel between Pathfinder and D&D. I wish I could stand up here today and say, like, you know, any given game you ask me and I can tell you how much it's sold, sales, I have no idea, it's impossible to tell. Y'know anecdotally I can tell you that most of the games on this chart, with the exception of Pathfinder and D&D, they're probably not selling more than 20,000 units of whatever their core product is, and some of them are probably selling less than 10. It's hard to say, especially with games that might have a lot of supplements and add-on products, what the total volume is for any one of these games. And ICv2 lumps them all under one category so every sale of Mutants & Masterminds is in that one line, not just the core books.

But here's the thing I want you to see... some of these games are the classic games, the games that we've seen, y'know, for four decades, and some of these games are relatively brand new games that no one's ever seen before, and they change. So the thing that was really interesting to me is that if we had looked at this data from the 90s - and I have data that's kind of similar to this that was collected by an out-of-print magazine called Comics & Games Retailer - and if you just looked at the top five games from like 1990 to 1995 they were essentially the same five games every month, month after month after month. It was very, very predictable. The frothiness, the rate at which these games change and appear on these lists and go away is new. And certainly the fact that D&D is not the number one game on this list is definitely new, that has never happened before in decades. So, there are some weird things going on in this market. We don't have any quantitative data, I can't put a number on it, but we have this kind of qualitative sense that there has been change, that it's easier to get success but it's harder to keep that success.

Mearls: Oh, I think what's interesting about this graph if you were to take the word "sales" off - I can't see the graph [something]... there's actually [something] well who's releasing the most supplements this actually maps almost perfectly to that measure. And I think the big change we're seeing is in the 90s there was a sort of expected tempo of .. for a tabletop roleplaying game you expected every month that you played Mage or Werewolf or D&D or some of the D&D settings, every month there's a new book. And what we're seeing now is that's not really, no longer the case for a wide variety of reasons. Really, outside .. I realise there's only one or two companies that are still able to do that ... we're not seeing the book-a-month pubishing pattern that we saw ten years ago. And I think that's one of the real big disruptions, where, you know, and there's a lot of questions and is that a good thing for the industry, is it a bad thing for the industry, and what does it actually mean for the ongoing tabletop hobby.

Dancey: And I think, one of the things you mentioned to me before the panel, too, Mike, was that this is really myopic, it's really only going to talk about retail sales, it's not capturing book trade, it's not capturing online, it's not capturing Kickstarter, it's a really myopic slice of the data.


The conversation continues amongst the panel about Kickstarter and the way companies use it to produce sequential different products rather than extended product lines - new games, not expansions.

Dancey: Yeah. Ok, so here's our last topic, which I suspect a fairly significant number of people in this room would like to hear Mike talk about.

(A short sequence of show-of-hand questions establishes that of the people there in the room about an equal number have played Pathfinder and D&D in the last month).

Dancey: OK, so here's my giant spiel. I do not work for Paizo Publishing. I'm not a member of the Paizo Publishing staff, and I'm not here to represent Pathfinder. I'm just moderating this panel. So, Mike is now going to debate an empty chair [laughter]... so, and, prior to this panel I sent the slides round to everybody and I said 'Hey Mike, this is kinda how I see, like, the next three years of life in the, at the top of the chart. Two big, muscular sluggers are gonna duke it out and when that's done one of those guys is gonna be laying on the mat'. And Mike said "I don't see it that way", so Mike, why don't you say what you told me about your theory.

[dnd]x[/dnd]Mearls: Yeah, so this kinda goes back to what I was talking about earlier about the change and about how we look at the ongoing support for D&D and how I think this ins actually interacting with tabletop games in general. So I kinda have this theory I developed, I call it the Car Wars theory. So back in 1987 when I was 12 I bought Car Wars, it was the game I bought that month, and it had a vehicle design system. And I spent hours and hours and hours building new Car Wars vehicles and drawing maps and just playing with all the things around the game but very rarely able to actually play the game, because in order for me to play the game I had to get my parents to drive me to a friend's house and then get that friend to actually want to play Car Wars and then teach him all the rules and all that other stuff, right? And in addition to having Car Wars, and D&D and other stuff, I had my Nintendo and I had my Apple, too. And I bought new video games at about the same rate, maybe once a month if I did chores or I had a little part time job, I'd get maybe one new game a month.

What has changed now is that a game like Car Wars can work very well if I'm not getting a new constant stream of games. Because I have all this time wherer I want to be gaming but I can't play a game, so I'll do all the stuff that exists around the game. But now thanks to, like, this phone... [something] smartphones, tablets, Steam, uh, XBox Live, PSN, I can buy games whenever I want. I mean, I was at the airport yesterday and I was bored so I bought Ten Million for my iPhone and I just started playing. Because I have other games on my phone, but I thought, nah, I'm sick of the games I have, I'm just gonna buy a new one. That would have been perfect time, back in the 80s, to like work on my D&D campaign, or read that month's D&D expansion, or work on new designs for my, uh, for for Car Wars. But what's happening is we have so many new games coming in that the amount of time that one game can take up without having you actually play that game, like World of Warcraft where you just log in and play, or you do things like in the auction house, thta's part of play, right, trying to get resources, you're selling stuff for actual money that's helping you play the game.

I believe that's what's really happening to tabletop roleplaying, is that it used to be a hobby of not playing the game you want to play. And there are so many games now that you can play to fill all those hours of gaming, you can actually game now, and that what's happening is that RPGs needed that time, we, a GM or DM needed that time to create the adventure or create a campaign, a player needed that time to create a character, allocate skill ranks and come up with a background, and come up, you know, write out your three-page essay on who your character was before the campaign. That time is getting devoured, that time essentially I think is gone, that you could play stuff that lets you then eventually play a game or you can just play a game. And people are just playing games now.

And what we're really doing with D&D Next is we're really looking at thriving and surviving in that type of market. If you've playtested the game, you see we've run much simpler with the mechanics, things move much faster when you play... one of our very early things was was to say, look, I was playing Mass Effect 1 or 2 at the time. I can complete a mission in Mass Effect in about an hour and a half. So why can't I complete an adventure in D&D in that time? Why does it take me 4, 8, 12 hours just to get from page one of the adventure to the end? I mean, yeah, you can have huge epic adventures but I can't do it in less than four hours.

Dancey: You didn't want to have 20 minutes of fun packed in 4 hours.

Mearls: Exactly, exactly, yeah. And so it's looking at the train and saying, well, things have changed, and tabletop roleplaying in a lot of ways hasn't changed with the times. We've been doing the same thing, the same way, that we were doing back in the 80s. I mean, the game mechanics have been refined but really until indie games [something] no one had taken a look at the core essence of what makes a tabletop roleplaying game tick and taken it apart and rebuilt it. And so in a lot of ways with D&D, and you know Ryan has the slide, that's really not how we see it at all because for me that boxing match, it isn't D&D against any tabletop roleplaying game, it's D&D versus the entire changing face of entertainment, of how a tabletop roleplaying game... that's the best thing you can do with your friends. But what about when you're home alone, or when you're online, or when you're waiting in line at the airport and you just want something on your smartphone. The big question for, specifically for D&D is, if you're a D&D fan, what can we do to fill that time in a way that's engaging and fun for you? To take those settings and characters and worlds, the Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, or whatever, and bring those to life for you in a way that we haven't been able to before. Because in the past it's always been.. we have a new setting, we have Eberron, we're gonna do the 300-page book, and it's gonna be for the TRPG and that's where it' gonna begin, and that's where it's gonna end. All of our back-catalogue and settings, if we're not publishing it for the RPG line, are we doing anything with them, probably not, that's it, all we do is the TRPG. And so for us, it's really been looking at the entertainment, not just tabletop roleplaying, but entertainment as a whole, everything that people do now to engage themselves in stories, thinking where can D&D thrive within that terrain? And what can we do, starting with the tabletop roleplaying game, to make it more acessible, to get that new generation of players in. And even the current generation who are strapped for time and have a million other options, what can we do to live within that environment?


The too-long-didn't-read version of that, I think (and this is my own interpretation of what Mike Mearls was saying) is that much of the stuff we used to enjoy around an RPG we don't do any more, and we do other entertainment-related things with that time instead. So D&D (as in its settings and characters) is focusing on doing those other entertainment things rather than just being a tabletop roleplaying game - the goal, obviously being that "D&D" as a brand flourishes. And, further, that that means it doesn't matter to them what Paizo is doing with Pathfinder, because D&D doesn't need to be the top-selling tabletop RPG (not that I'm saying it won't be - I expect it will be again come next year, though time will tell) as long as D&D as an overall entertainment property is doing a whole bunch of things.
 


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Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
I don see that rpgs require prep work. That's something people do because they want to, not because they have to.

I look at my 3e books, and consider the details required for the GM to play a high-level game by the rules, and I can't see how you come to that conclusion. Moreover, whatever *you* may have for skills, you should consider that not everyone is good at improvisational GMing. For those who can't get good results winging it, preparation is required if the game is to be played.
 

Ahnehnois

First Post
I've come to look at a game session as being roughly equivalent to an episode of one of the big-scale serialized TV dramas (GoT being the obvious fantasy example). You're invariably spending a lot of time on minutiae when combat happens (just as fight scenes take a ton of time to shoot), and there's distractions from RL concerns like food. But I end up writing fairly vague summaries that can run ten pages long. It's very doable if you work at it.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
But that isn't all. Card and board games have the same strength, i.e. 'interaction at the table with other human beings',

I have seen many a game of Magic: the Gathering and chess played in complete silence. The depth and breadth of interaction called for in RPGs are, in my opinion, far greater than that called for by the other game genres. There's a qualitative difference in the nature of interaction called for.

To generalize: Other games allow interaction. RPGs require and reward it.
 

Argyle King

Legend
I agree with the general idea that more time actually playing is good.

However, what I disagree with is that there seems to be this belief that doing rpg-related things away from the table is somehow unfun. I don't believe it needs to be. Heck, I wouldn't be here on Enworld even talking about this if I did not have a desire to engage in rpgs and the hobby on a deeper level. By all means, yes; as people grow older, we may have less time due to increased obligations to other things. So, to some extent, I do agree with making the game smoother and more intuitive to engage; I also think allowing quick play should be an option (though not the sole option the game is based around,) but what I took away from the panel was that there seems to be this idea that people no longer enjoy engaging a rpg on a deeper level. Maybe that's not what was meant, but it is how it came across to me, and I very strongly disagree with that.

I have video games that I play, hobbies that I engage in, and a much wider variety of entertainment choices available to me now than I did when I was younger. However, I still do also have rpgs, and I don't view my time with rpgs as time I'd rather be doing something else. If I wanted to be doing something else, I would be; when I gather around a table with my friends or sign into rpol.net, I do it because I want to. More than that, I engage in rpgs because I want a more cerebral experience; I want something I can immerse and lose myself in. I find it hard to believe I'm the only one who wants then when I look around me and see a world in which video games have become more immersive -not less; I see a world in which people binge watch an entire season of a tv show at a time via things like Netflix and Hulu; I see a world in which people are willing to watch several super hero movies and a tv show just so they'll know as much as they can about the story before seeing Avengers 2, and I see a world in which elements of rpgs are more part of mainstream culture and entertainment than I remember them ever being. Certainly, this is also a world in which casual gaming rules cell phones, and perhaps the attention span of people isn't what it once was due to cultural changes, but I also believe there is room for a more engaging experience out of a roleplaying game.

I am not exactly surprised by the panel discussion though. I've been engaging in Encounters for a few seasons now, and the impression I currently have of 5th is that it seems ok for a casual game, but I haven't yet had an experience with it that makes me believe I'd want to play it heavily as my primary game; base a long term campaign around it. I kept telling myself that maybe that was due to the Encounters format and due to not having the full version of the game available to me. Now it seems that feeling is a designed part of the game...? For what it's worth, this isn't meant as a complaint; just an observation from one point of view (mine,) and the feedback from one member of the rpg community (me.) On the upside, I suppose if D&D no longer wants to be the kind of game I'm looking for, I live in a time when a multitude of rpgs are readily available.

I understand the desire to grow D&D as a brand, but, as just an average joe on the street, I'm a little confused by some of the mentality of the team. I do not make that statement as only a gamer, but also as someone who enjoys those other forms of entertainment such as movies, video games, and etc. If I don't have that deeper connection with the brand anymore, what is being offered in those other avenues to engage me? ...to engage someone who isn't familiar with the brand? Maybe it will make more sense with time. I'm sure there are many pieces of the skill challenge I'm just not seeing yet. Maybe I'm in the extreme minority and the desires I have for gaming aren't share by anyone else. All I do know is that where I'm standing now is somewhere that feels so far away from what the D&D brand is and wants to be that it's hard to believe that brand was at one time such a large part of my life. I used to be someone who would take a chance on buying something blindly, and now the mentality and culture behind the game seems -at times- completely alien to my way of thinking. I often wonder if how I feel now is in any way similar to how some of the old greybeards who grew up with 1st and 2nd edition feel now when they look at D&D.

As for Car Wars? I don't have a lot of experience with the product, but I'm looking forward to the new product. http://www.sjgames.com/ill/archive/December_07_2013/Mini_Car_Wars_Returns

http://www.warehouse23.com/products/car-wars-classic-t-shirt
 

delericho

Legend
I look at my 3e books, and consider the details required for the GM to play a high-level game by the rules, and I can't see how you come to that conclusion.

Yep. D&D 3.5e, PF, and SWSE (and, probably, other systems I'm less familiar with) may not absolutely require significant preparation work in order to run, but only in the same way that I don't absolutely require a spoon to eat soup - sure, it's technically possible to manage without, but it's sufficiently messy as to not be worth it.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
I agree with him that an RPG company trying to compete with large multimedia properties like movies and comics and TV is out of the core competency, as he puts it - or as I put it earlier, those things aren't D&D's strengths.

Well, WotC, and Hasbro, are not just RPG companies, now are they?

I disagree that nobody has time for solo engagement with RPGs - that's exactly what [non-multiplayer] video games are. We have plenty of time for solo activities.

Yes, but now you have that big question - reward vs work. It isn't enough to be "engagement". That engagement has to be *fun*. Is sitting and working out the stats of an NPC as entertaining as those non-multiplayer video games? For some people, yes. For many others, probably not. So, how big do you want your market to be? Is requiring that solo engagement going to pay off?
 

Ahnehnois

First Post
I look at my 3e books, and consider the details required for the GM to play a high-level game by the rules, and I can't see how you come to that conclusion. Moreover, whatever *you* may have for skills, you should consider that not everyone is good at improvisational GMing. For those who can't get good results winging it, preparation is required if the game is to be played.
Of course there is a skill component; I don't expect that most people can sit down and reel off a masterpiece off the top of their heads on the first try.

But trying to create a living, dynamic game experience from static prepared material is also a challenge that also requires various skills. So while it may be hard to improvise, I'm not at all convinced that it's harder.

I also think that they are disparate skill sets to an extent, such that if you learn how to DM using maps and prewritten characters and whatever else, you are naturally dependent on those things. I think the gaming company's role in this-if they are truly wanting to reduce the time commitment in playing-is to push improvisational skills and de-emphasize prepared elements in the material that they put out.
 

Argyle King

Legend
Well, WotC, and Hasbro, are not just RPG companies, now are they?



Yes, but now you have that big question - reward vs work. It isn't enough to be "engagement". That engagement has to be *fun*. Is sitting and working out the stats of an NPC as entertaining as those non-multiplayer video games? For some people, yes. For many others, probably not. So, how big do you want your market to be? Is requiring that solo engagement going to pay off?


For me, I'm looking at it from a different angle. Did I find prepping for 3.5 fun? Not really.

However, what I do find fun is engaging in a deeper level of entertainment than what a board game or a more casual game typically gives. There have been plenty of times when a campaign premise was simply to kick in a dungeon door and kill some monsters, and I certainly enjoyed those times. That being said, the moments that really stuck with me are when a group of friends and I lost track of time and realized we had been playing a game for several hours; moments when we'd talk about the game away from the table... discussing how we thought a session went or what the heraldry for the kingdom we just founded should look like... as a DM, sitting with a player and working out the details of a story element we created together, and actually looking into the face of a person who is just as excited as I am to do it; even if that means doing a little extra math or getting together a little bit earlier than the session normally starts.

I agree that the engagement needs to be fun. Though, what I'm gathering from the panel is that there is supposedly no longer room for a deeper type of engagement with the game or the brand, and that's something I wholeheartedly disagree with.
 

darjr

I crit!
I don't think anyone's actually saying it will, except in terms of helping the overall business, so that continuation of the RPG is a non-issue.

That was my point. It feels like giving up on the RPG.

Of course Mike Mearls has to manage all of D&D and his focus isn't just on the RPG. I hope they are successful and that it tangentially helps the RPG. More revenue for that part of WotC is a good thing.
 

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