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


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.


Second Most Angelic Devil Ever
Kind of what I took away from that too. It seems like Wizards has been trying to leverage D&D into some multimedia franchise, with about the same level of success, since 2000. I don't think it's happening. Moreover, movies, and legos (sorry, KreO or whatever), and video games, etc etc. do not further my ability to sit down and actually *play* the game, so it seems like an unnecessary diffusion of effort and resources.
I don't especially want some kind of Entertainment Transmedia Experience (tm), I just want to play some table top with some friends and enjoy some shared experience.
What if it is the Kreo, DnD movies, Saturday morning cartoon, or something else that brings in the younger players? Is it worth it to have D&D survive/thrive if it depends on things like crappy movies?

Personally, the thing that is keeping D&D or Pathfinder or Rogue Trader from being an "every week, binge-game" event is the fact that combat takes too g**d*** long. I love gaming, but what I like is the roleplaying, and D&D's rules actually get in the way of roleplaying. So yes, please, make the game more elegant so it plays faster, even if that means simplifying some things.

Making combat less tedious and prep less time-spongy (is that really a word?) are good goals to have. I like high-level 3.5, but I after spending six hours on one combat--and not being halfway through--I begin to enjoy the game much less.

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Mod Squad
Staff member
So you start designing PnP RPGs for people who do not actually want to play PnP RPGs and instead are just looking for their next "fix" of whatever they can get their hand on?

No. You're driving to an extreme end, and apparently forgetting that there's a continuum available. If you design for gearheads, you can get them. But you'll get only them. If that's enough for your game, then fine. But, if you want a larger market, you have to remember that many of the potential players may love the action at the table, but may not find engaging away from the table compelling compared to the other things they have in their lives.

Tabletop RPGs can never compete with other forms of entertainment like computer games on the ground of accessibility and ease of play. Instead when making PnPs the designers should focus on the strengths, on things other forms of media can't deliver, instead trying to achieve the impossible by "dumbing down" the game as jrowland calls it for mass market appeal.

The opposite of "game that requires lots of out-of-game-time engagement" is not "dumbed down". Unless, I suppose, you think that spending lots of time with calculations on your own time "smart".

As far as I can see, the *real* strengths of RPGs has squat-all to do with rules, but has to do with interaction at the table with other human beings. That's the thing that Tabletop games have that the other media cannot, as yet, touch. So, tell me, how is a game that calls for a lot of away-from-table engagement focused on that strength?

From that startling point, we can then note the variations - there's flavors of interactions, there's tastes you can serve in addition to getting those human interactions. There's lots of ground that can be covered to meet many playstyle needs. But the human interactions are still the central piece.


So are you saying the D&D designers shouldn't even try to make the game quicker, easier, smoother, etc.? Do you not think that is a good goal for the game?

I'm saying the chosen comparison is one that is unflattering to the medium and has a gap that can never be closed.

I'm saying that any attempt to close said gap should have realistic goals, and an understanding how any such improvement compares to the compromise in whatever other area is being affected to grant said improvement.

Argyle King

I don't think it's as simple as light/heavy though. I tried to say that in a different thread elsewhere, but the wording I chose was poor. I think intuitiveness of rules and how a game world works helps as well. For example, I view D&D 4E as being relatively light compared to other games I play, but it took me a while to understand how to GM the game because the way the 4E game world works wasn't intuitive when compared to how I felt things should work out given a situation. I also think making the game interesting helps; while I thus far find 5th Edition ok, I don't think I see myself heavily investing into it. At this point; in spite of the fact that I sometimes enjoy Encounters, I'm doubting I'll purchase the system. I do still plan to try the game once the full version is available, but it hasn't yet grabbed my attention. With that in mind, I'm wondering what the brand as a whole will offer to make me feel differently about the rest of the brand. I don't feel negative about the brand; the 'problem' is that I don't feel much of anything beyond that the ideals I have about games and entertainment is much different than the ideas the design team behind the brand has.


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.
The thing is, you have to look at it from WotC's perspective. It is, or at least was, nothing for them to have the top dog in the TRPG industry. Even with the big 3e/4e split and Pathfinder scooping up the 3e diaspora, as long as they were releasing regular supplements, they were they industry leader. But where do you go from there? Particularly when the industry you're leading is slowly but surely losing ground in the larger entertainment industry?

Bill Slavicek's answer to this question was to attempt to reposition the TRPG itself to take advantage of the changing landscape. At best, we can say that this strategy expanded the market but also left a chunk of money on the table, which went to Paizo.

Mearls' answer is to let the TRPG be a TRPG, and let other iterations of the brand explore the wider entertainment market. Because, worst case for the TRPG, it remains in 2nd place, one of only two games in the entire industry out selling every other game by 3 or even 4 orders of magnitude.


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

I disagree, I think that it's saying that the RPG got enough brand recognition that they will be able to leverage it into other media, but I hardly think that they will abandon the TTRPG, like it or not D&D is labaled as an RPG, even people who won't ever play the RPG but will watch the movies or the TV-shows or will play a digital game or even just read the novels know that at the bottom of all of this there is the RPG.

It's like with marvel movies and tv show, I don't read the comics but I know that everything I see on the screen is based on things in the comics and I know that behind what I see there is a rich background and it's the same thing that can happen with D&D.



I crit!
I have to say, if it means the end to the edition treadmill or the supplement treadmill or splat treadmill or all three, more power to them.


What if it is the Kreo, DnD movies, Saturday morning cartoon, or something else that brings in the younger players? Is it worth it to have D&D survive/thrive if it depends on things like crappy movies?

I can understand the desire to continue bringing in new players, but not at the expense of the existing customer base. You'd think that Wizards would have gotten that particular learning experience down by now. Given the way the concerns of many 4e players have been, ah, politely disregarded, it isn't looking that way.
But that's fine - wizards ought just make sure they're making more money off the new players they are bringing in than the money lost by those who move on to other things.


Well, that was fun
Staff member
For me, much of what is being described by folks here as too much work/time is what distinguishes an RPG. I play them because of that, not despite it. I can play boardgames instead if I wish; I don't, much. I play RPGs.

This is why RPGs were different to the boardgames of the 70s. And why they're different to the various entertainment options of the 21st century. Diluting what has always been a characteristic of the RPG may well fit in with the time schedules of some demographics, but it doesn't fit in with the way I personally play - and want to play - the games. I've *always* been able to easily find things to do which take less time; I could do that in the 1980s and I can do it now. I choose not to because I enjoy that off-the-table process and choose to make time for it above some other choices of entertainment.

I know I'm not a representative sample, though. I mean, I'm producing an RPG which continues to scratch that itch for me precisely because I want to keep that tradition going and ensure it continues to be supported and available.


That and

  • the medium is audio-visual which cuts out a lot of description time
  • the show is edited to remove "dead time" the characters face: strategizing, chatting, travel between scenes
  • the show is edited to remove all time sinks the hypothetical players would face such as mechanical resolution, clarifying the situation, clarifying expected outcome/rulings, table breaks, waiting for the slow guy, etc.

Compare the filming time of a Buffy episode to a game session and see which is shorter...
So are you saying the D&D designers shouldn't even try to make the game quicker, easier, smoother, etc.? Do you not think that is a good goal for the game?

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