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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lkj

Hero
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.


I don't disagree exactly, but there are two points I think are worth making:

1) Mearls has pretty consistently indicated that the goal is to make a game that gives you the option to pick up and play quickly but also has enough depth to engage the 'gearheads' who really enjoy tweaking and designing and creating as it were. I really don't think these objectives are incompatible if the design of the game is done thoughtfully. And I see a lot of potential for this in the playtest. If they put it together right, I think this apparent conflict between the way you want to play the game and still making the game accessible to the market which wants to play but is unwilling/unable to put the prep time in will go away. We'll see.

2) I really like creating too. I enjoy the prep nearly as much as the game as well. It's why I'm nearly always the DM. However, there are two different kinds of (non-mutually exclusive) prep. There's what I'll loosely call 'narrative prep'-- You focus on creating a world and plot hooks and narratives that engage both you and your players. You populate that world with the various monsters, NPC's and bits and pieces you want. Then there's 'mechanical prep' where you spend a great deal of time designing the detailed characteristics of each NPC, monster, and set piece that you want to use. Both of those can be fun and go hand in hand. But these days I lean very, very heavily toward the former. Due to time constraints, I want my prep time to be primarily focused on what's the most fun for me-- filling out the narrative and story elements. When I come up with a cool idea for a villain or monster, I would like to be able to quickly slot in some mechanics to create the feel of that villain or monster. I can handle the rest at the table. I no longer have the time (and less of the inclination) to spend hours developing these pieces. Sure, I'd like the option to get detailed if I feel like it for some master villain. But I don't want it to be a necessity. I want to be able to quickly generate a villain and feel confident it will work pretty much how I envision it.

I loved 3rd edition. Still do in many ways. It reinvigorated my gaming group. But at some point, I was running a high level 3.5 game, and the prep time not only felt like work, it was stressful. I found myself spending so much time trying to get the mechanics right I could barely get a handle on creating the flavor and opportunities for narrative that had made the game so fun in the past.

What I hope for the new edition is that I can pick up and play a quick game based on a cool idea I have in fairly short order. But that I can also-- when the time and inclination arises-- create an intricate world with intricate NPC's. Sometimes the latter will happen because the former went so well.

Anyway, enough ramble from me.

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Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
I don't disagree exactly, but there are two points I think are worth making:

1) Mearls has pretty consistently indicated that the goal is to make a game that gives you the option to pick up and play quickly but also has enough depth to engage the 'gearheads' who really enjoy tweaking and designing and creating as it were. I really don't think these objectives are incompatible if the design of the game is done thoughtfully. And I see a lot of potential for this in the playtest. If they put it together right, I think this apparent conflict between the way you want to play the game and still making the game accessible to the market which wants to play but is unwilling/unable to put the prep time in will go away. We'll see.

2) I really like creating too. I enjoy the prep nearly as much as the game as well. It's why I'm nearly always the DM. However, there are two different kinds of (non-mutually exclusive) prep. There's what I'll loosely call 'narrative prep'-- You focus on creating a world and plot hooks and narratives that engage both you and your players. You populate that world with the various monsters, NPC's and bits and pieces you want. Then there's 'mechanical prep' where you spend a great deal of time designing the detailed characteristics of each NPC, monster, and set piece that you want to use. Both of those can be fun and go hand in hand. But these days I lean very, very heavily toward the former. Due to time constraints, I want my prep time to be primarily focused on what's the most fun for me-- filling out the narrative and story elements. When I come up with a cool idea for a villain or monster, I would like to be able to quickly slot in some mechanics to create the feel of that villain or monster. I can handle the rest at the table. I no longer have the time (and less of the inclination) to spend hours developing these pieces. Sure, I'd like the option to

Sure. To clarify, I wasn't referring to what Mike said but rather what folks have said in this thread since he said it. I'm 100% sure I'm going to like 5E.
 

lkj

Hero
Sure. To clarify, I wasn't referring to what Mike said but rather what folks have said in this thread since he said it. I'm 100% sure I'm going to like 5E.

Ah. Fair enough. I like your confidence. (And find myself wondering if it's only the latest public playtest that has inspired it . . . but I'll leave it at that . . .)

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Normally I would say that it's a smart business move to take your IP and extend it into other media, toys, online games, etc.

The reality, though, is that the various owners of D&D (from TSR to Hasbro) have tried to do that for a really long time now, and it never takes. They have the right idea, but not the right IP.

D&D was designed by folks who came out of the wargaming community, and it shows. They were also very into Tolkien (and Howard and Moorcock, etc.), and it shows. Though the game was revolutionary for it's time, the basic fantasy elements were largely borrowed from existing fictional universes. There was nothing innovative in their world concept/design - the innovation was in introducing roleplay into wargames.

When you try to move things to other media, your core world concepts need to seem innovative in some way if they are going to catch on. The gaming aspects of D&D don't translate to movies, toys, comics, TV series, etc. In those media, it just comes off looking like a mishmash of Tolkien, King Arthur legends, general European mythology, etc. There are far too many movies with those same fantasy elements already. D&D just gets lost in the mix.

There have been different campaign worlds in D&D to be sure, but very few of them have deviated much from the general high fantasy concepts of Tolkien, Howard, Moorcock, etc. In fact, there's very little conceptual creativity in any of the popular high/epic fantasy roleplaying games. A Pathfinder movie wouldn't do well, either.

I started playing D&D back when it was first released in the 70s, and have enjoyed it in all it's various incarnations (except for 4e). I have yet to see them produce anything in other media (except fiction) that has enticed me, even though they have tried very hard. What works well in a gaming enviroment does not necessarily work well in a movie. It can be fun to struggle to climb a mountain or kill a dragon in a game setting, but it just looks stereotypical and boring in a movie unless you have a very talented director at the helm who can bring something new to it.

To take it from the opposite end of things, "Game of Thrones" is doing well on TV. The original books are doing well, too. If you move it to a roleplaying game environment, though, you might as well just do it in D&D or Pathfinder or any other epic fantasy game. There would be no reason to buy a dedicated "Game of Thrones" game.
 

Janx

Hero
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...

Of course that's true. But are you telling me that you haven't watched a game and seen a bunch of things the GM put in there that could have been cut to make the game flow better/faster?

Like having 12 combat encounters stand between the PCs and the bad guy, instead of 3?

Or wasting time hex crawling across a map to get to the next city where the real adventure is and as it turned out, the only thing that happened was an encounter with orcs?

There are still editorial lessons a GM can take from how TV shows handle pacing, though obviously, not everything is applicable.
 

I still don't see how they are going to leverage the D&D-brand. Computer games? No good D&D computer games have come out in a long time. The large developers prefer to use their own settings / IPs. D&D comes out with a few Facebook games or some such, but they seem to come and go without people really noticing. Board games, though are cool. But Paizo is doing this as well, with the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game. Movies? The D&D movies are horrific. When it comes to fiction, it has been my impression that TSR was already having much success with it, and that it is nothing "new" to Wizards.

I'm waiting for Wizards to expand the D&D-brand in a new and interesting way, but I'm not seeing it. They have to give priority to the tabletop roleplaying game. If they permanently lose their number 1 slot there, I can't see them gaining headway (or becoming industry leaders) anywhere else.
 

Halivar

First Post
On prep: I want to be an improvisational DM. I MUST be because I don't have the time to plan. If WotC can help me with this, then I would be thankful.

On cross-media: Giving up? No. If they can replicate Baldur's Gate, and make people like young me go "OMG this is the funnest thing ever, what is this D&D thing? I wanna play it" then this would be of inestimable value to the TTRPG (or even TTRPG's as a whole).
 

DMZ2112

Chaotic Looseleaf
I imagine D&D has quite the challenge on it's hands - instead of competing with other tabletop games, it's now putting Drizzt & Co. up against Tolkien, Star Wars, Marvel, and the like. Hope it can deliver!

Well, I think long-time fans of those properties would say that they were delivering consistently long before they hit Hollywood like a bullet train (well, Star Wars notwithstanding), and I think D&D is in the same boat. It does deliver. The real question is, can WotC/Hasbro successfully scale up that delivery?

Transformers is huge, but horrible. Battleship was awful, but Liam Neeson. They are trying to make a Hungry Hungry Hippos movie, which is at once the most insane, boldest, worst, and most epic idea I have ever heard.

...Frankly, all will be forgiven if they get Liam Neeson to play Mordenkainen. With hair.
 

Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
So instead of making D&D so good that you rather do that than watch Netflix you rather see D&D be made so simple that you can play it as 2nd choice when you tire of Netflix?
If RPGs had someone capable of designing a game that no one could resist, eschewing all other distractions, no one would be capable of posting on ENWorld to debate the issue.
 

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