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.


Well, that was fun
Staff member
Yeah, Morrus. So do most of us.

But consider - a guy's running a campaign, but he has a day job, a wife, and a house. His free and alone time probably comes in one or two hour chunks, here and there.

Umbran, I do understand the concept of being an adult with responsibilities. I'm a grown-up, too! :)

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I crit!
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?

No, I'm not talking about 'Angry Birds - Forgotten Realms'. I think Mike Mearls is. I don't think shooting multiple copies of Elminister the Mockingjay at the Pig Wizards of Thay will help my rpg game. Might get some folks thinking about D&D and might interest them in giving it a try, that would be cool. And I must admit a weakness, I'd probably play that game. But no, it won't help my rpg game.


Slumbering in Tsar
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?

No, not at all. I love playing and running Pathfinder. I don't love designing it.

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.

Pathfinder combat duration isn't an issue for my group, but then, we like the tactical part as well as the role-playing part.


Slumbering in Tsar
I personally still enjoy all that stuff. The stuff away from the gametable is pleasurable to me. So is the stuff at the gametable. Two different enjoyable activities, but I find both very rewarding.

Then again, some of that might be the same instinct that makes me want to write an RPG, or build a website. I like the building of stuff.

I used to. Just not anymore.


Nobody's saying and RPG will be as smooth as a TV episode. But what Buffy achieves in 45 minutes of content should be doable in 4 hours of RPG time. There are tables and adventures that fail that.

There will always be tables and adventures that fail that. However, for both of my most recent campaigns, our 3-hour sessions proved to be a very close analogue to a single episode of a TV series - indeed, intentionally so.

(I do need to put one big caveat on that: in the former of those two campaigns, a 3.5e game, it only applied at the lower end of the level range. As the game climbed into the teens, the rate of progress slowed noticeably. But that shouldn't be a surprise - the problems with high-level play in 3.5e are well known.)


First Post
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.
But that isn't all. Card and board games have the same strength, i.e. 'interaction at the table with other human beings', but in contrast to RPGs they don't require prep-work. Actually, for me, board games _have_ replaced the time I used to play and prep for RPGs, since for various reasons we only manage to meet for RPG sessions about once a month.

So what are the strengths of RPGs over (other) board games that make the additional amount of prep-work worth it?
I think it's the freedom to (try to) do whatever you can imagine as opposed to being restricted by the typically very limited, static rule framework of a board game.

Related anecdote: I have played the 'Mansions of Madness' board game, hoping it could scratch my itch for Lovecraftian Horror roleplaying. Unfortunately, it fell completely flat for me (in that regard). Although it's a really nice and flavourful board game it's sadly just a board game. Being restricted to two rather abstract actions per player turn somehow killed the atmosphere for me. I missed being able to simply tell the GM what I wanted to do and her telling me how to accomplish it and/or giving me feedback on my success and any consequences.


First Post
Well, yes - I think that's what was very clearly stated. That's the take-home message here: D&D is going to turn into something else - a whole media property. It may have an RPG (just like LotR has one, and Star Wars has one) but it won't be the RPG.

I'd love to see the primary property within the D&D brand become the world's first significant post-tabletop RPG. I want to see someone define that space and figure out how a game can effectively occupy it.


I crit!
Evil Hat's Fred Hicks posted some interesting stuff publicly on G+:

Mike was talking about is the idea that the “time where you wanted to be doing something else” used to belong to RPGs, but doesn’t now. If I were to reword it I’d say the idea is essentially that nobody’s got time now for “lonely fun” (sitting around, making characters solo).

We’ve been feeling this change for most of our time as a company; it’s some of why we orient on character creation as a group play activity. It also informed some of the direction I gave to +Mike Olson when we kicked off the Atomic Robo RPG, w/ its “create characters AS you play” feature.

What's interesting to me is that Mike’s take on all that sounds like “we should retake that smartphone time” whereas mine is “let’s stop needing that time”.

The companies that are specializing in acquiring your attention for "smartphone time" are good at that and getting better. There ain't no RPG publishing company that's going to get as good at it as they are because that's not the core competency of RPG publishing, at the end of the day.

We don't do software. We do stories and in-person/tabletop/hangout-driven play experience. That's where I want to "solve" the attention/time problem Mike's talking about — away from the smartphones.

I want to see play structures and experiences that don't need that time. It used to be we could rely on it — but too many other things compete for that time now, and retaking it might well be a waste of effort.

I will be super excited if I can be shown that retaking it can be done. But for today's designs, I think it's smartest (if you don't have the resources of Hasbro) to assume we can't, and to make deliberate design choices that work with the constraints of that assumption.

I agree with him that an RPG company trying to compete with large multimedia properties like movies and comics and TV is out of the core competency, as he puts it - or as I put it earlier, those things aren't D&D's strengths. I disagree that nobody has time for solo engagement with RPGs - that's exactly what [non-multiplayer] video games are. We have plenty of time for solo activities. What he refers to as "lonely fun" is very common these days - but it's electronically facilitated, not book-facilitated. The tech's changed, but people still have "lonely fun" (that sounds dirty!)

Here's a link


First Post
But that isn't all. Card and board games have the same strength, i.e. 'interaction at the table with other human beings', but in contrast to RPGs they don't require prep-work.
I don't see that rpgs require prep work. That's something people do because they want to, not because they have to.

I think it's the freedom to (try to) do whatever you can imagine as opposed to being restricted by the typically very limited, static rule framework of a board game.
Or just about any game really. That open-endedness is pretty exciting.
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