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]![/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 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.

Well there is a big difference between not having time and preferring to do something else with the time that you have. It seemed to me that he was talking about the latter more than the former... But in regards to the former, there isn't time because that's just a symptom of adulthood. As a child you have far fewer responsibilities keeping you from doing the things you might prefer to be doing with your time. I know I have far less time now to spend on games or anything else "entertainment-wise" than I did as a child... But that is a separate issue from which media and how I allocate my time towards in a general sense.

If the argument is that we want to appeal to more adults and there are more things that appeal to adults than just RPG game materials in terms how they might choose to spend their time, than aren't we really just talking about your second statement, which is that we need a set of tools that help us maximize the efficiency of our creative output and fun had vs time spent with our games?

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First Post
Umbran has really nailed it. Its the Cost/Benefit ratio to entertainment. We have SO many choices for entertainment (and my $$) that I have to make choices as to which one gets the time and the money.

I am a MMO fan as well as TTRPG fan. In MMOs, there has been a general trend of so-called "dumbing down" that I think is more a reflection of the same thing Mearls is saying: The older MMOs (EQ I am looking at you) required a LOT of time before you even got to a place where you and friends could group up and kill stuff. But as entertainment became more accesible, as the variety expanded, spending 2 hours prepping for a Raid in EQ then 2 hours dieing, rezing, corpse-running had(has) a hard time competing with WoW where you log in, group up, hit the queue and pop your in killing stuff and having fun with less headache. (before anyone tries to argue, I like the old school challenge as well, and my MMO days are gone, the new stuff is unsatisfying - its the trend I am talking about, whether you like it or not)

TTRPGs have the same issue. When I was 13 prep time was minimal...I didn't know better and my players didn't either. 3rd edition nearly broke me as a DM...prep time was WORK that competed with my fun time. 4E was a breath of fresh air in that regard, despite its flaws. Pathfinder did the right thing with the OGL and the 3E engine by doing most of the prep for you.

Mearls is right, both systems are trying to compete for your time and money, but they are not necessarily competing with each other. Pathfinder succeeds becasue it has done much of the prep for you. D&D Next might/will succeed if it makes DM prep quick and painless.

The publishing model has always focused on players: There are more players, therefore more potential sales. I've always felt that model was flawed. DMs are where the focus is needed, and pathfinder has that fixed publishing model. If 4E failed (arguable, I know) then it was because of trying to push sales to players and having little DM support.

I think D&D 5E is sticking with the "player-centric" model, but moving the brand into other venues: Board Games such as Lords of Waterdeep eg. I think it can be successful.

5E will live or die on the backs of DMs. I 5E supports DMs, it will succeed. Ease of play is one approach. Ease of Customization (modules) will be another DM-centric factor. And quality adventures will be the another. Time will tell.


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.

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?
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.

I think this is an absolutely critical point. From observing my teenage kids, there does still seem to be a significant appeal to that direct interaction. Furthermore, it seems to me that its an attraction enhanced (maybe exacerbated?) by all those trans-media experiences. Folks who live through their phones/computers seem hungry for direct interaction. The kids I've seen definitely seem to recognize that "I can do anything with it because its not a program" aspect of it. (Of course, limited sample size, etc.)

However, I do think Mearls is close to correct when it comes to attracting the attention necessary for new players/groups to experience that in the first place. Ever fewer potential players will spend the time (as many of us likely did in the 70s and 80s...90s even) to slog through some generic tome-like rulebooks and then do all the work needed to GM. As a corporation/institution D&D needs a good way to get some eye-ball time with a lot of those kids.

Personally, the notes above reinforce a suspicion of mine that we will not see a "basic set" for 5e, but we will see "Basic Adventures" produced like "Euro games" in the manner of Shards of Ashardalon. These boxes will be as ready-to-play and full of replay value as they can make them: small rulebook(s), maps, adventure text(s) with helpful notes, monster cards/tokens, perhaps even with minis and pre-gens. If, as Umbran and I suspect, the personal interaction and flexibility is what TRPGs offer over other media, then it will be vital to get new players into that mode of operation as soon as possible.


Still though, it seems like giving up, like a lack of enthusiasm for the hobby in general.

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.


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'll agree that the second one is good for D&D - in fact, it's one of the best things I've heard from anyone on the dev team as far as D&D is concerned.
The first one I'm dubious on - creating a bunch of multimedia (games, books, blah blah) instead of creating, you know, game content, isn't going to get my vote. Keep in mind, my perspective on this is a bit different than most I think. I play lots of different games, and lots of different versions of D&D. The game being in decent shape is more important to me than the company making it showing a profit. Kind of selfish but that's my bottom line. In any case, making more (D&D branded) things to compete with the table top version of the game in terms of every one's precious amounts of free time seems awfully backward to me, save from a business perspective.


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.

Read more:!#ixzz2zeg5eNJp

At various times, I have basically said this very same thing.

Buffy can face some social drama and save the day in an hour's time. With commercials. Why can't D&D go as fast. Buffy has 3 combats in an episode. Why does a D&D session need 12 to get to the bad guy?


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.

There's nothing wrong with that, I'm sure a lot of roleplayers are in the same boat. But if WotC wants to explore new avenues to further the brand, it's not necessarily a bad thing. If they are successful, the revenue streams form other sources help prop up the more niche core RPG, as well as introduce potential new gamers to the game.

To get right down to it, for me, even a healthy brand isn't necessary to my own enjoyment of roleplaying. D&D could die tomorrow and I'll still be gaming next week. But to keep the brand healthy and keep gaming alive, diversity of the brand isn't a bad thing, even if you choose to ignore it.


At various times, I have basically said this very same thing.

Buffy can face some social drama and save the day in an hour's time. With commercials. Why can't D&D go as fast. Buffy has 3 combats in an episode. Why does a D&D session need 12 to get to the bad guy?

I tried running my recently ended 13th Age campaign in bite-sized 4-hour episodic chunks. Extremely unsatisfying experiment, I won't run a game like that again. For me, a game needs a narrative flow between the GM and players, and that should be allowed to take as long as it takes.


Mod Squad
Staff member
The main reason RPGs require interaction is the GM role: Since not all of the rules are codified, the GM must supply rules for anything that isn't covered.

I think the main reason RPGs require interaction is the need to play through unscripted social interactions of characters. You don't need a GM, per se, but when the fictional people interact with something other than swords, the people must interact. Moreover, they have to interact over something in the fiction, not over the logic of rules themselves.

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