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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.


I crit!
I'm not sure I'm willing to believe that Mike Mearls agrees with Ryan Dancy about the 20 minutes thing. If so I couldn't disagree more.

I like the idea of reaching out to other entertainment avenues, after all I think that is where other gamers who haven't found RPG's yet will be, to some extent.

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I think D&D needs good complementary activities to fill out the brand -- novels, movies, casual tablet/phone games, fighting games, CRPGs, online tools, etc. Emphasis on good. The TTRPG shouldn't have to suffer to support those things, however -- just like Baldur's Gate and 2E (at the time) were complementary, so should the other activities.


Not your screen monkey (he/him) 🇺🇦🇵🇸🏳️‍⚧️
I can see Mike Mearls's point about other distractions (like minigames on our tablets and smartphones) keeping us from investing the time in the tabletop game hobby by basically competing for that time. I think they really should start developing apps or allowing others to develop apps that would enable us to continue to interact with the tabletop game from our devices when we're away from the table. That's one thing that's seriously been missing for far too long (although I do manage to get some things done with Pathfinder on my iPad thanks to Paizo's commitment to cheap PDFs and subscriptions). They should be competing with those minigames out there to draw our time and attention back into their products.

What I'm not so sure I like is the idea that because I can run a Mass Effect mission in an hour and a half that I should compress the time it takes to play out an adventure. For ME, that's me interacting with the computer - no mediation with other players, no time sharing DMs, just me and the computer and however long it takes me (and just me) to make decisions. RPGs can only achieve that level of efficiency by having much less content than a similarly timed ME mission. And that's not very satisfying.


Celebrim on Car Wars, http://www.enworld.org/forum/showth...-Edition-on-Kickstarter&p=5906364#post5906364, echoing a similar observation as Mearls.

However, I disagree with Mearls about his theories of the substitution of play for prep. I think that this is relevant only to DM's - players never usually had huge prep times on their hands - and I think it also points to why WotC's focus on system changes for the last 10 years have really missed the point and also explains why Pazio is flourishing despite having by many measures a lousy system.

D&D's dominance has rarely been about system. It's about putting games into game masters hands better than any other system. It's the adventure module and the ease of playing one that IMO separated D&D from its competitors.

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?

*sigh* Comments like that are precisely the sort of things that make Mearls my least favorite designer from the old TSR stable. How many answers do you really want to that?

Mass Effect is a single player game. Compare 20 minutes of fun in 4 hours to typical waits to get friends together in WoW to do some raiding/instancing. Single player PnP and a DM plays really fast too.
Mass Effect automates combat calculations.
Mass Effect is real time rather than turn based, something PnP RPGs can't achieve.
Mass Effect missions are generally trivially simple compared to PnP games?
Mass Effect RP consists of selecting pre-written text from 2-3 possible options, and recieving a canned NPC response that you can truncate if you want and which barely varies regardless of the inputs you give.
Mass Effect missions are only completable in about 1 1/2 hours after you are experienced and have generally abandoned all tangental curiousity.

Seriously, you won't do 'Mass Effect' better than Mass Effect. Or if you can, switch industries.


I don't know that I would say the only form of entertainment, but where D&D is concerned, it's really the only one I care about. MMOs have always hit a "inferior substitute for table top" chord with me, but I know that's hardly universal. I realize I'm not their, what, demographic or whatever now, but really - the way forward for the TT is through things other than the game itself? Maybe, possibly, a good idea for Hasbro, but not a good move for the game itself.
Or at least, any game I've interest in playing.
Even if you only care about the TRPG, the takeaways from this panel are:
  • The TRPG is designed with the assumption that the players/DMs don't have a ton of free time to spend on it
  • They don't care about being the best selling TRPG, because that's such a small slice of their pie. So they don't need to release splatbooks every month just to have something to sell. So they can make publishing decisions based on what's good for the game, not the short-term bottom line.

Both of those are good for the TRPG.


I'm not sure I'm willing to believe that Mike Mearls agrees with Ryan Dancy about the 20 minutes thing. If so I couldn't disagree more.

I like the idea of reaching out to other entertainment avenues, after all I think that is where other gamers who haven't found RPG's yet will be, to some extent.

While I don't think they want the entire game to pan out in 20 mins, I do think they want to fix it so combat takes no longer than that.

What D&D has to compete with now is entertainment that offers more for your buck than just a good game. Players want to play D&D, WoW, Elder Scrolls, Titanfall, watch movies or TV, and explore other entertainment. More often all in the same day. In the past players dedicated that time to play and prepare for the game, but now that time is wanted for more than game prep.

Games are becoming quicker to assemble a game through limiting options, but making those options count. We're seeing less encyclopedia style campaign settings and returning to the days of old where there was just enough to give you an idea of what the setting was like but leaving the rest up to the GM and players.

It will be interesting to see if their predictions are correct.


I just don't know that I agree with the premise that people aren't putting as much "alone-time" into their RPGing experience because they have "more options" now than they did in the 80's. There were movies, videogames, computers, arcades, books, toys, and all kinds of other things that were available to pass the time back then add there are now. People either want to devote time to reading and prepping their RPG materials or they have other things they would rather do with that time. Same was true then as it is now, for me.

In 1987 I was devoting more time to trying to complete Super Mario Bros, and riding my bicycle, than I did trying to read and prepare D&D stuff, though I spent some time on that as well. These days I spend far more time on it than I ever have in the past.

Is Mearls talking explicitly about multimedia as way of keeping the D&D brand at the front of our attention? It seems that way, but why would that be important to us as RPGers who are interested in D&D for the RPGing? That's a fine way to get new people into the hobby, by making quality entertainment in media that reaches a broader audience, but you've still got to have a game that people want to devote their time to!

So the concern should be: how do we make spending time with the RPG materials themselves appealing to people even when they aren't actively with a play group?

I think the materials themselves should be fun to "play with" outside of the game itself.

His example of Car Wars makes this obvious... to be sure, he spent his time alone generating custom play materials for that game because doing so was fun in and of itself, considering he implies he almost never got to play the game in the first place.

Of course some people will never want to spend their time doing that. It all comes down to personal tastes about what's fun and how creative and imaginative you are.

An RPG is in a lot of ways a toolkit for expressing your creativity.

I don't think RPGers are concerned with a multimedia problem. We just need to be presented with effective tools that are fun to use and allow us to express and share our creativity.

So why even mention to a room full of RPGers (or at least seem to imply, unless we are all mistaken about what he was trying to say) that we have an attention deficit problem that can be cured by multimedia endeavors to fill our non-gaming time with D&D? We aren't concerned with D&D, only Wizards of the Coast is, and as far as I could tell this wasn't an investor's meeting, we are concerned with having an RPG product on the market that will be worth spending our time and money on.


First Post
So why even mention to a room full of RPGers (or at least seem to imply, unless we are all mistaken about what he was trying to say) that we have an attention deficit problem that can be cured by multimedia endeavors to fill our non-gaming time with D&D? We aren't concerned with D&D, only Wizards of the Coast is, and as far as I could tell this wasn't an investor's meeting, we are concerned with having an RPG product on the market that will be worth spending our time and money on.

Looking in context, those quotes seem to be in reply to the host saying that he thought the future of the RPG industry was going to be Pathfinder and D&D battling it out until one laid dead on the ground. Mike is saying that's not the case... even if Pathfinder continues outselling D&D in the tabletop arena, D&D won't be dead because it's a much wider IP.


Mod Squad
Staff member
Seriously, you won't do 'Mass Effect' better than Mass Effect. Or if you can, switch industries.

I think the point is that, for a large section of the potential market, whether it is Mass Effect or D&D is, honestly, not terribly relevant. They are both *entertainment*, and for many people, that's enough. They aren't dedicated to one genre (videogames, or TTRPGs, or bowling, or watching TV). All the genres are lumped into "pleasant stuff I can do with my spare time". For these folks, D&D, and tabletop games in general, is in competition with all the other ways you can spend your spare time.

"How much work does it take to get your entertainment?" then becomes a notable question. There are other notable questions, of course, but this becomes one. Specifically, if your work to entertainment ratio is too high, your activity will drop off.

And, that the work/entertainment ratio is not high for players doesn't invalidate the argument - the game doesn't happen at all without a GM. If there's too much work for the GM for the value they get out of it, they won't run a game.

I'm facing that very point myself, with a new Shadowrun campaign, and looking at how I can present high quality game, that's fun to run, with smaller amounts of prep.
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I crit!
I think Mike Mearls is correct. There isn't time. I know I find it hard to make time. Also I think they should use the brand in other products that make sense.

Still though, it seems like giving up, like a lack of enthusiasm for the hobby in general. I'd really like things that would help me reduce the time needed for a game, tools and products designed for me to run a session with little prep, but with lots of depth and detail. Maybe t hat's not possible.

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