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

How much do you play video games?


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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.

sky-1871753_960_720.png

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.
 

J-H

Adventurer
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

Legend
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.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
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

Adventurer
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.
 

Nilbog

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
 

univoxs

That's my dog, Walter
Supporter
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.
 

Marc_C

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.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
I wonder about how the lines will blur in the future. With smart phones being ubiquitous, I already see character sheets in apps and dice rollers. What about for games that actually relied on those?

Would you play an RPG that had a complicated resolution mechanic (say, a step or two up from Edge of the Empire with it's four types of custom dice), but had a free app that could do all the randomization resolution for you? (And potentially also was a SRD-type handy reference as well, or character builder, or whatever.)

How about the next step - where phone in proximity actually are interacting with the app on the DM's phone allowing for quick resolution of things that sometimes are more time consuming. Say a complex Initiative system, or more likely something we don't think about because it's not easy to do manually.
 

R_Chance

Adventurer
I am not playing a lot of anything right now. My classes have all gone virtual and teaching takes far more time as a result. Everything in the classes has to be converted / changed/ redone to fit the virtual format. It's Christmas break and I just finished replying to e-mails from three students. I have a grading stack and it just goes on... the only thing missing is the Zoom sessions.

I am not playing computer games, because when I sit in front of the computer work crops up. I'm on EN World between work stuff, on vacation, and I feel like I'm playing hooky. I am spending more time prepping for TTRPGs, but again, that happens on the PC and work sneaks in. And, of course, face to face play is out right now. VTTs just don't seem that attractive. Although that may change...

I suspect it will be summer before I get in any serious amount of game playing time on either computer or face to face fronts. One up side of being old (other than it beating the dirt nap alternative) is retirement is coming and I plan on doing a significant amount of gaming :D
 

schneeland

Adventurer
I basically stopped playing video games a few years back, not because I don't like them, but at least the ones I like require some longer stretches of uninterrupted time, and that's hard to find these days. Once in a while, I will launch up an indie game or maybe buy the newest Uncharted title, but other than that, my GPU mostly sits idle.

I do play TTRPGs regularly, both as a GM in a PbM campaign and as a player in a semi-regular online game (Discord audio + Owlbear Rodeo). However, in a similar way, I have parted with the rules-heavy and even rules-medium games, and now pretty much exclusively play more light-weight stuff (Powered by the Apocalypse, Year Zero, OSR). I will start playing 5e again next spring, but that is mostly because of the people and because I don't have to run the game. If I were to run a D&D game these days, it would most probably be B/X D&D (in the form of Old-School Essentials).
 

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.
Nay-sayers were saying TTRPGs were doomed in the 1990's. They were not only wrong, but dead wrong; the hobby is larger than ever. (More copies of D&D 5E cores than any prior edition, and supposedly, all prior editions combined. If that wasn't a WotC exaggeration, then it means at least 2 million units sold. 5E PHB was on Amazon's top-100 books selling list (not games, but of all books) for multiple years.

People have been saying computer aided gaming is going to displace analogue-only. So far, that's in error too.

If you think computer moderated games (games where the computer is the GM) will takeover before true AI arrives, I think you're wrong. Sure, some pretty sophisticated stuff has been done in interactive fiction, but it's not even close to a suitable GM replacement. Automated tables have been a thing for literally decades, but they aren't nearly as widely used as they could be; many, including the teens and 20-somethings I've been GMing for seem to prefer me not having tech at the table except for maps. And I prefer they don't have their phones out during game, too.

Many of the kids new to it love the LACK of automation; it's a selling point, not a drawback.

To quote my eldest (now adult) child, "Calculators, yes. Computers at the table? F*** No!"
 

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
So this is the year where I decided I hated Virtual Tabletops. I like seeing the people I play with and having a conversation about what's happening in the game. I can stomach battle maps in person, but in online play it's too much for me.

- Millennial Software Engineer
 

We have to remember one thing about online videogames. You can't use pause to stop the game because the doorbell or the phone rings.

I imagine tabletop games where the paper character sheets are replaced with tablets. Theses will be an added tool like the dices. I guess we will see solo miniature boardgames where an app in the tablet will be the AI what controlls the nPCs and the interaction with the enviroiment (for example the hidden doors and traps). But this app only will show, the player will controll all, allowing to use your own house rules. These app also will allow to add "modules", for example for skimishes combats, mass battles, or managing a stonghold, but not being too slow.

The youngest generations are getting used with the tablets, and then the tablet videogames will replace the mobile ones, because these are too small screens.

Other theory is the future ultrathin and flexible A3(double page size) screens will change the literalry market, and the comics. Reading PDFs with these flexible tablets will be more confortable what with those heavy corebooks. Then buying PDFs will be as easy as getting new skins in Fortnite. This will help 3PPs to make money selling their PDFs.

In the past I though the future of videogames would be with the NFC figures, but this ended, and now I can't safe it. One hypotesis is the merchandice would be to buy physical objects, for example figures, and these will gifts PDFs, or skins for videogame characters.
 

practicalm

Explorer
Playing a lot of strategy games like Stellaris, Crusader Kings 3 and CIV (5&6) and a few mobile games.
And a lot of virtual tabletop games (Acquire, Root, Here I Stand, and Pax Pamir and more)

Enjoying my RPG games but I like a nice mix.
 

Hussar

Legend
Given the explosion of games like 7 Days to Die and Minecraft, I'm staggered to think that co-operative gaming is seen as a sideline in computer games. Never minding games like Fortnight and other battle royale games where team play is paramount. What we're seeing in computer games is strong move away from solo play.

Heck, look at our most recent explosion "Among Us". There's a game that's impossible to play without a group of living players.
 

Given the explosion of games like 7 Days to Die and Minecraft, I'm staggered to think that co-operative gaming is seen as a sideline in computer games. Never minding games like Fortnight and other battle royale games where team play is paramount. What we're seeing in computer games is strong move away from solo play.

Heck, look at our most recent explosion "Among Us". There's a game that's impossible to play without a group of living players.
Hyrule Warriors plays much better with 2 than 1, too.
But it's still not RPG-ish.
 

RPGs are the ultimate form of co-op, a game with human-controlled opposition.
Worth noting that this can be done in videogames as well - i.e. co-op and PvP at the same time, and has been done a few times, with variable levels of success. The most successful approach so far is a videogame which I think hits a number of your points - Left 4 Dead.

Left 4 Dead is a first-person zombie-survival game, where four players play survivors, and attempt to get through a zombie-infested level to some kind of escape point. One interesting this is that it uses an "AI Director". This is the equivalent of a DM/GM/Storyteller in RPGs. The AI Director basically moderates what zombies are spawned, how many, and where, intentionally creating lulls and creepy periods and also really wild and overwhelming rushes and so on, and pays attention to the resources the players have and so on. And it's very good at it. It makes the game vastly more exciting and involving than similar games with "standard" or just "randomized" enemies.

That came out in 2008, too, so could no doubt be done better now.

But that's not all, on top of all that you can have some of the zombies played by other players too, who are cooperating with each other to fight the people playing the survivors (I believe the AI director will determine what zombies are available to them to play, and when). So you have a combination of co-op and PvP, with an AI Director (AI DM) up in the mix as well.

Few games have done similar, but the potential remains (indeed, a spiritual sequel is being developed right now), and I'd be very unsurprised to see something like this in the further future.

I'd also note that few computer games displace TT RPGs, because they're such a different experience, but Left 4 Dead, was, for us, one of the the few that, for a while, did, because it fit into such a similar space. In the same time as an RPG session, you could cooperatively play a few levels of L4D, and you got a similar thrill to some RPGs - that of flowing cooperation against a hostile environment (which is very different to MMORPGs, for example). Mass Effect 3's Multiplayer was somewhat similar (though not as clever) and similarly potentially displaced TT RPGs. It's not a full replacement - without NPCs to argue with, without chances to actually roleplay, without problems to solve with your mind that don't involve shooting zombies or the like, y'know, there's a limit. But I could see a much broader, physics-heavy, fantasy-set L4D-type game potentially displacing some TT RPGs for a lot of people. Only some though - the more mechanics/combat-focused ones like D&D would be the most vulnerable, and stuff like PtbA would be far less vulnerable.
 

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