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Worlds of Design: What the Future Holds for RPGs - Part 1

This is approximately the 100th “Worlds of Design” column, so a good time to consider the future of role-playing games. In this column I’ll talk about the connection with computers, and in Part 2 I’ll talk about actual play and about the economics of the hobby.

How much do you play video games?

This is approximately the 100th “Worlds of Design” column, so a good time to consider the future of role-playing games. In this column I’ll talk about the connection with computers, and in Part 2 I’ll talk about actual play and about the economics of the hobby.


Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Study the past if you would define the future.” - Confucius
Even self-proclaimed “Futurists” and science fiction authors have weak track records in forecasting the future, and I’m neither! I have no crystal ball other than a strong understanding of history. But I thought a discussion of the future of tabletop RPGs might interest readers.

The Rise of Technology​

The obvious way to “forecast” the future is to extrapolate current trends, and that’s what I’ll try to do. The biggest predictor, in my experience, is what’s happening in video/computer RPGs. Technology in general can be a predictor. And now we have the long-term effects of the pandemic.

RPGs will be played as long as the real world holds itself together, though I think gradually computers will overtake tabletop RPGs, not because they're better but because they're easier and more convenient. Being a good GM of a tabletop RPG is difficult, and for most people it's a form of work, work they accept in order to entertain their friends, or perhaps for other personal reasons. As computers become more powerful and computer programming improves, a computer can take on more and more of the work required of a really good RPG GM.

Perhaps computer assistance is the wave of the future, but I suspect in most cases it will be "let's play this cooperative RPG or this MMO" on computers, rather than "let's use computer assistance for tabletop games."

Computer/electronic assistance is already around today. I watched a few minutes of an in-person RPG session earlier this year, and saw that most of the players were referring to their smartphones. That can be a problem in general in face-to-face play, but in this case they had their character sheets on their phones, none of them had a paper character sheet.

At the other extreme, online rather than face-to-face play, many programs exist to help make playing a tabletop RPG online more practical.

A Matter of Convenience

Convenience will continue to be a strong incentive. Check out GoDice (GoDice | Incredibly Smart Connected Dice For Any Game!), for example, which (among other things) transmit the results of your rolls to a smartphone.

The visual side (aids to the imagination) will continue to improve, as well. There are already lots of 3D printed character and monster figures for sale online, even 3D printed dice towers.

I’ve suggested that imagination is atrophying in the population at large, a trend we can expect to continue. This makes visual aids all the more important for tabletop games, as the alternative is the photo-realism of AAA list video games.

Keep in mind, computer RPGs themselves are immensely more popular than tabletops, even with the rise of D&D 5th edition. To pick out just one CRPG, Skyrim had made $1.4 billion (with a “b”) worldwide and counting several years after its 2011 release ($450 million in its first week). This is far more revenue than all tabletop RPGs for the past decade and more. Tabletop RPGs are a minnow in the game industry in dollar terms (as Morrus explains periodically from ICV2 USA statistics), $80 million (2019) for tabletop RPGs (US only), but not so long ago (before D&D 5e) it was just $15m for a year.

Moreover, playing tabletop RPGs via online connection was a growing thing even before the pandemic; as the connections grow faster and more common, both visual as well as audible, surely this will continue to grow, especially because of the effects of the pandemic.

Co-op games are a big thing in board and card games, and to a lesser extent in video games. RPGs are the ultimate form of co-op, a game with human-controlled opposition. (See my column “Tabletop RPGs are the most naturally cooperative games”).

Tabletop RPGs have the social aspect in their favor that you can't get with computer RPGs, even MMOs. Many of my friends have been D&D players. I met my wife through D&D in 1977, and in that group of five, two others (who were not in a relationship when we started playing D&D) married one another, and the last one married my wife's best friend! And we're all still married to one another. You can't beat that!

But online/computer RPGs are improving communication among players just as the players are more and more accustomed to playing a game when they’re the only person actually present. And many are more accustomed to doing things online as the pandemic has forced them to work from home.

Your Turn: How much do you play video games?

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio
I only play Fortnite: Save the World, nothing of BR.

Videogame industry will move more money than the TTRPG. The future of many RPG franchises will be in the videogames.

I guess we also will see a fusion of game-live shows (critical role & cia) with virtual tabletop games, something like youtube streamers playing videogames. I feel curiosity about survival horror virtual tabletop rpg where nobody knows, not even the own game master, what is going to happen.


I play computer games, but I prefer tabletop games for the social aspect. It's a lot easier to fit in 20-30 minutes of a computer game than it is a 4 hour D&D session, though!

Argyle King

I play tabletop and board games increasingly more.

Video games are (like movies) evolving in a direction which (to me) is a lot of flash and special effects but more-hollow content. There are exceptions (and I have enjoyed some fantastic video games,) but I find that my selection of video games has grown more narrow as my selection of tabletop and board games has grown more robust.

I have also noticed that tabletop gamers are now some of the most social people I know. At one point in my life, playing rpgs was derided as something done in the basements of anti-social weirdos and nerds. Now? In a world where interpersonal communication is often replaced by text, Facebook, Snap Chat, and a variety of other experiences; sitting down and pretending to be an elf with my friends is a form of human contact and interaction. This is especially important during (and after) the era of Covid.


Don't really play video games anymore, which is semi-ironic as video games I made content for 20 years ago, war games, have been upgraded to being browser games currently.

Jeff Carpenter

Hopefully the future is more automated virtual table. With easy isometric map making, built in content, and where the interface is point and click and the DM can just grab a orc from a list move it on the table and its done.

Kind of what was promised at the 4e launch before the unpleasantness with that software crossed with the old Neverwinter Nights pc (which i didn't own but it looked cool).

Ultimately it would also have the ability to run with or without a DM. If the DM wants to control the monsters they can or they set the orcs can run on a script. Plus and you can build a dungeon and send it to your friends to run through DMless to try that new build.

Tabletop boardgames are also much more efficient in digital form than face-to-face. There's no setup, the apps handle shuffling, dealing, tracking points, and cleanup. You can play against people anywhere in the world. And it's cheaper than buying a cardboard game.

And yet cardboard tabletop gaming has been enjoying a remarkable boom for over a decade now, with it's strongest growth in the very demographic - educated Millennials - who are most at home in the digital world.
Clearly the analog, face-to-face nature of tabletop gaming is a big selling point. People are playing Ticket to Ride, Gloomhaven, and Blood Rage because they're face-to-face experiences where you're not looking at a screen. They're a respite from the ersatz socialization of Instagram and twitter.

Tabletop RPGs should lean into the appeal of that tactile, face-to-face experience.


Snotling Herder
As I get older the more I drift away from video games. I don't dislike them, but its rare one truly gets its hook into me these days, I think the big releases are becoming very formulaic, and although they are good games, I often feel I've been there done that.
I used to spend my free time on video games, the odd hour here and there, but I now find myself using that time to tinker and plan my campaign and even though it may never get played, I'm enjoying it much more than any game I've played recently


That's my dog, Walter
For some reason I feel differently about what I like out of a video game than TTRPG and board games. I get board of single player games real quick but I get just about as board playing co-op games. When I play video games I want to engage competitively with others.

I have noticed more of a trend in RPG design towards more abstractions for simplification, and systems that take away narrative control from the GM. The market is wider than ever so I am sure simulation games are still being designed somewhere but they aren't the popular ones from what I can tell. I don't have a problem with this shift. People should be able to play whatever they like and there are plenty of older games that I never played that fit in more with what I like.

VTT's are the future, undoubtedly, but they aren't quite "there" yet in my opinion. The 3d ones coming out look cool (TaleSpire) but some require too much work (Table Top Simulator). They need to become more user friendly.

The time I spend prepping for digital play is always more than in person, but that is because the opportunity exists to have great looking maps and tokens with proper line of sight and lighting. I was never bothered by simple lines on the mat but simple lines on a digital grid bores me to tears. I could spend little to know prep time if I wanted to, but because the tools are there to make things look good I feel compelled to use them.

Whatever happened to books designed for PDF use only? new World of Darkness had a couple adventures like that years ago and they were the most usable RPG PDFs ever. Someone needs to get back on that.


Solitary Role Playing
I don't play video games at all despite having a wife who loves her Play Station. I prefer spending my time preparing my rpg sessions, drawing dungeons, wilderness maps, painting miniatures and making terrain. This year I bought a water colour kit and want to learn the technique.

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