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Worlds of Design: What the Future Holds for RPGS - Part 2

What is the average length of your RPG sessions?


  • Total voters
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Even self-proclaimed “Futurists” and science fiction authors have weak track records in forecasting the future, and I’m neither! In this concluding part, I discuss trends in actual play, and in the economics of RPG publishing.

helmet-5724641_1280.jpg

Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

“We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.” - Alan Turing

Actual Play?​

What about trends in actual play? Surely, aspects of computer role-playing games (CRPGs) will continue to influence tabletop play as their popularity and reach are massive. Many of these arise from the zeitgeist, ranging from fast level rise, to ever-present “loot drops.” In my experience of two large university game clubs and the sixth largest community college in the country, those who come to such tabletop game clubs spend more time altogether playing video games than tabletop games. (Yes, I formally polled the university groups.)

Something I can’t judge is the length of RPG sessions. I’d have said average length was 4-6 hours, but I see so many playing just 2-4 hours that I wonder if the games are affected by a perceived need to do so many other leisure activities, that is, “lack of time”. I also wonder what the proportion of one-session-and-done adventures is, compared to the proportion that continue to the next session. I’d expect more of the former if I didn’t also think the sessions are getting shorter.

Are tabletop games getting shorter? As CRPGs and other media compete for their time, there's less time for everything else. In this hectic world, we could make a case that modern “short-termism” has affected tabletop RPGs; if so, that effect will only become more pronounced. Is there a movement in RPG fandom to make the games simpler and less time-consuming? And how much are CRPGs less time-consuming, in the sense that you can play for 15 minutes, an hour, whatever time you have, then leave it til later to continue? CRPGs are in one sense simpler, too, because you don’t have to keep records, keep track of things.

The Economics​

Unfortunately, RPGs tend to be "prisoners of capitalism,” so we more or less inevitably get more and more rules until a game becomes so complex that it starts to collapse under its own weight, and we move on to a new edition. The publisher of D&D is fighting this trend, but how long will that continue?

Between capitalism, crowdsourcing, and saturation of the market, we're not going to see a return to those halcyon days when a typical print supplement by a third party not specializing in RPGs might sell 11,000 copies. The biggest companies can prosper in the current climate but it's extremely hard for little companies to make a living. Yes, a small company can sell 500 or even 1,000 copies of something, but that's not enough to make a living. People can do these kinds of things as a hobby but having to earn a living another way (games just a hobby) takes an enormous amount of time and energy.

The rare full-time RPG professionals have a hard time making ends meet, and that’s surely going to continue. See Owen K. C. Stephens’ tweets as compiled by Morrus. Freelancing by “creatives” in all disciplines has been hard hit in this century, in part because there are so many people willing to produce creative material for free (and post it on the Internet), in part because of competition from PDFs sold directly to gamers.

RPG material has become such a commodity that it is now "work for hire", that is, the freelance author receives a lump sum (rather than royalties) whether the product sells poorly or well. This is anathema to many creative people (including me, it’s why I stopped writing for Dragon and White Dwarf magazines long ago). Nor do full-time employees of a publisher receive royalties.

What will the future hold? We can hope that even as the economics have changed, creatives will find a way through other avenues (Kickstarter, Patreon, DriveThruRPG, etc.) to keep the hobby alive. Certainly, with the pandemic and more people staying at home, RPGs have a golden opportunity. But can they take advantage of it? We'll find out in 2021.

Your Turn: What do you think is going to happen to tabletop RPGs in the future?
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Some time I talked about the idea of game-live show podcasts with virtual tabletops, as a youtube streaming of a videogame walkthrough.

My theory is we will see a fusion of videogame and TTRPG. Some videogames will gift the TRPG version as PDF. And DLCs also with their own PDFs for the TTRPG. The videogame industry moves a lot of money, but the tittles are devalued very fastly, and today some games are free gifts. Some free-to-play MMOs will send the mode creative and the mode off-line campaign. These packs will be with "skins" for PC and monsters you will can use in your creative mode. Then if you spend your money for a pack in a new MMO and this is closed a couple of years after, you don't lose that pack, because you can enjoy the off-line mode, and those things are too useful in the creative mode, because this is for all the games by the same company. Some packs could be sold as psychical objects (figures or books) for collectors. How to explain it better? Let's imagine you buy amiboo figures about Zelda, and the gifts isn't only skins, but also PDFs for the TTRPG (the updated version are free too) or new things for the creative mode (furniture, building, clothing..).

Have I told a fool idea, or a wrong explanation?
 


Jeff Carpenter

Adventurer
In the 5e campaign i run we typicaly play for 3 to 5 hours with the occasional 6 hour game if a combat goes long. The campaign before was 1e and we played 3 hour sessions max because the space closed at 10 pm.

My prediction for 2021: WOTC release 6th edition and then three weks latter 7th edition and I buy them both.
 

Jimmy Dick

Explorer
As a GM, player, and Venture Officer for Pathfinder Society via the Pathfinder 1 and 2 editions, I see a lot of players playing roughly 4 hour sessions with a fairly complex set of rules. I also see a good stream of new players coming to play with us. Most of this is currently online, but we still have a good amount of live games occurring (hopefully social distancing!). There is some truth to the statement about adding rules onto the base set until the system collapses under its own weight. Pathfinder 1st Edition did this spectacularly in my opinion. Yet, here is the problem for publishing companies. How do they continue to make a profit beyond the core set of rules?

For many, it is via a gaming world and adventures set in that world while adding a steady stream of rulebooks. Eventually the system will once again collapse under its own weight. Yet, if that company does not publish additional rulebooks, some players consider the edition to be lacking in content. We have seen this with Pathfinder Second Edition where some were dissatisfied because they felt there were not enough options to choose from for game play. Striking a happy medium is not an easy thing to do.

What is the future? For Paizo and Wizards of the Coast, it seems to be business as usual. For 3PP, the profit margins are going to continue to shrink. There is definitely going to be a shrinkage of 3PP over time. Some of this will be countered by those who write out of a labor of love, but they will not make a living doing it. I do think that really creative authors have a way to survive in the business, but they will need to move beyond writing gaming materials. They need to be writing fiction books set in the worlds they create. From there, they can create a set of rules for that world or use an existing rule set and develop the adventures for it. We certainly have seen enough game sets created from fiction before.

Gaming as a whole is not going to suddenly grind to a halt. More people are playing the games. It is just the profitability of games that is in question. While ditching physical printing would definitely lower costs, I question if enough of the gaming audience will purchase digital only content. I still see digital publishing as the future of gaming, but I do not think we are there yet. I will say based on my own students and their use of digital content including 800 page textbooks, digital publishing has a solid future.
 

Lord Mhoram

Adventurer
Speaking for myself - the shortening of session length is just the fact that I'm an adult. When I was starting in gaming (late 70s) I was in grade school - I thought nothing of 5 or 6 hour sessions, or gaming all weekend. Even into college.

Right now our group are all in early 50s. We have jobs. We have families, we have a lot of non entertainment things we have to get done. We can't just play for that long because of adult responsibilities.
 

I don’t know if the duration of a game session is inherently good or bad, whether short or long. I also don’t know if the primary drain on RPG time is video games.

Shorter sessions maybe are accompanied by an increase in frequency? Is it better to have one 6 hour session or three 2 hour sessions? I’d expect the answer to vary. Plus, with 2020 being what it was, I imagine a lot of gaming was done impromptu. Like, “hey what are you guys doing? Want to jump online for a bit of D&D?”

Video games are one pull on peoples’ time. But given that MMOs and other RPG-similar games have existed for quite some time now, and the RPG market still exists amd is arguably stronger than ever, it’s hard to see them as any more significant competition as any other form of entertainment. If anything, the leaps in tech have actually enabled RPG play through remote play and also popularized watching people play as a form of entertainment. Live streams have been a huge boon for RPGs.

I think that what’s accurate is the impact on freelancing and for game creators and designers. It’s certainly a path that faces a lot of challenges. However, I think that some of the best stuff has been put out by people whose actual job wasn’t RPG design. Or at least it wasn’t at first. People who are designing games as passion projects are doing so not necessarily for a paycheck, but just for the love of their game and creativity. Look at the stuff on itch. It’s incredible how many folks are creating games of all kinds. We as consumers benefit from that.

Ultimately, change is inevitable. I don’t think that these shifting trends are negative.
 

Von Ether

Adventurer
So the future is TV series and online play streams?
For years, I think many gamers (me included) had this idea of doing a Youtube RPG channel and then blew it off before streaming and minecraft set up the pitch for Critical Role to swing for the fences.

And in hindsight, it seems easy to kicking yourself thinking it could have been you earning a full-time GMing/streaming job.

It seems the lesson to learn is that when a new technology come up, join up early, adapt as you can and keep plugging at it for five or ten years and you'll see a pay off. If you are lucky, it might be a sizable one.
 

For years, I think many gamers (me included) had this idea of doing a Youtube RPG channel and then blew it off before streaming and minecraft set up the pitch for Critical Role to swing for the fences.

And in hindsight, it seems easy to kicking yourself thinking it could have been you earning a full-time GMing/streaming job.

It seems the lesson to learn is that when a new technology come up, join up early, adapt as you can and keep plugging at it for five or ten years and you'll see a pay off. If you are lucky, it might be a sizable one.
Hindsight is 2020. ;-)
 

John Dallman

Explorer
Covid has led to me playing more, but shorter, sessions. Playing online needs more concentration to keep track of what's going on, and that's tiring. CRPGs have never interested me, nor most of the people I play with.
 

schneeland

Explorer
Two things:
1) Both for myself and people I play with, the session length preferences vary between online and offline play. At the table, I prefer longer sessions (4-5 hours) - to a certain extent because of the necessary driving, but mostly because I do not get exhausted so quickly. For online sessions, I am quite happy if we close after 2 - 2.5 hours. So a shift to shorter play time might also be the result of an increased number of online games (even pre-COVID).*
2) Selling rule extensions is one way to keep cash flowing, but IMO not the only one. One alternative is selling a lot of setting material (this has apprently gone out of fashion for D&D, but is still very much alive for e.g. The Dark Eye). The other one you mentioned: selling adventure path content like WotC currently does - even though I'm not the biggest fan, the model seems to work out quite well for them.

*I also think RPG streams/videos are much easier to consume if they are shorter, but it seems there are enough people who are happy to sink 4 to 5 hours per week into watching shows like CR, so I will admit that this might just be me being old :)
 


Unfortunately, RPGs tend to be "prisoners of capitalism,” so we more or less inevitably get more and more rules until a game becomes so complex that it starts to collapse under its own weight, and we move on to a new edition.
I'd like to contest the idea that somehow we all just move over to a new edition.

When 2nd edition came out, a LOT of D&D players stuck with 1st edition. I knew people playing 1e well into the 2000's

When 4th edition came out, many or most D&D players stuck with 3rd edition or 3e derived games like Pathfinder. There are plenty of people still playing 3.x games to this day.

When 6th edition comes out, I have no doubt that people will keep playing it. I'm sure getting players used to using official online web portals for character sheets and such is part of a long-term strategy to push players to 6e by discontinuing online support for it, but I think the people that would affect would also be the ones most likely to switch over just because it's what's new and "supported".

However, it's hard to tell and see these folks who stick with older editions or older games. They get pushed aside by companies because they aren't spending money anymore, and they often feel unwelcome online in fan communities that are always obsessing over the newest, most marketed thing.
 

Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
During pandemic, have played many more sessions, with avg time being ~3 hours per session. Could be because it's a lot easier to jump online to play; combined with the lower exhaustion threshold when playing via zoom or google meet.

Post pandemic, expecting my game times to go back up to 4+ hours on avg; as we'll want to maximize time together once we make the effort to get together - but that same thing will also perforce reduce qty of sessions.
 

pemerton

Legend
@Aldarc had a good thread recently on "next-gen" RPG: here's the link.

I don't know if there was full consensus, but I think there was at least a widely-shared view that PbtA and FitD-influenced games will continue to be one site of cutting edge design.

I'm hoping to run a play test session of Orbital soon - a GMless sci-fi game in a PbtA style designed for single-session play.
 

EPW

Villager
Even self-proclaimed “Futurists” and science fiction authors have weak track records in forecasting the future, and I’m neither! In this concluding part, I discuss trends in actual play, and in the economics of RPG publishing.



Actual Play?​

What about trends in actual play? Surely, aspects of computer role-playing games (CRPGs) will continue to influence tabletop play as their popularity and reach are massive. Many of these arise from the zeitgeist, ranging from fast level rise, to ever-present “loot drops.” In my experience of two large university game clubs and the sixth largest community college in the country, those who come to such tabletop game clubs spend more time altogether playing video games than tabletop games. (Yes, I formally polled the university groups.)

Something I can’t judge is the length of RPG sessions. I’d have said average length was 4-6 hours, but I see so many playing just 2-4 hours that I wonder if the games are affected by a perceived need to do so many other leisure activities, that is, “lack of time”. I also wonder what the proportion of one-session-and-done adventures is, compared to the proportion that continue to the next session. I’d expect more of the former if I didn’t also think the sessions are getting shorter.

Are tabletop games getting shorter? As CRPGs and other media compete for their time, there's less time for everything else. In this hectic world, we could make a case that modern “short-termism” has affected tabletop RPGs; if so, that effect will only become more pronounced. Is there a movement in RPG fandom to make the games simpler and less time-consuming? And how much are CRPGs less time-consuming, in the sense that you can play for 15 minutes, an hour, whatever time you have, then leave it til later to continue? CRPGs are in one sense simpler, too, because you don’t have to keep records, keep track of things.

The Economics​

Unfortunately, RPGs tend to be "prisoners of capitalism,” so we more or less inevitably get more and more rules until a game becomes so complex that it starts to collapse under its own weight, and we move on to a new edition. The publisher of D&D is fighting this trend, but how long will that continue?

Between capitalism, crowdsourcing, and saturation of the market, we're not going to see a return to those halcyon days when a typical print supplement by a third party not specializing in RPGs might sell 11,000 copies. The biggest companies can prosper in the current climate but it's extremely hard for little companies to make a living. Yes, a small company can sell 500 or even 1,000 copies of something, but that's not enough to make a living. People can do these kinds of things as a hobby but having to earn a living another way (games just a hobby) takes an enormous amount of time and energy.

The rare full-time RPG professionals have a hard time making ends meet, and that’s surely going to continue. See Owen K. C. Stephens’ tweets as compiled by Morrus. Freelancing by “creatives” in all disciplines has been hard hit in this century, in part because there are so many people willing to produce creative material for free (and post it on the Internet), in part because of competition from PDFs sold directly to gamers.

RPG material has become such a commodity that it is now "work for hire", that is, the freelance author receives a lump sum (rather than royalties) whether the product sells poorly or well. This is anathema to many creative people (including me, it’s why I stopped writing for Dragon and White Dwarf magazines long ago). Nor do full-time employees of a publisher receive royalties.

What will the future hold? We can hope that even as the economics have changed, creatives will find a way through other avenues (Kickstarter, Patreon, DriveThruRPG, etc.) to keep the hobby alive. Certainly, with the pandemic and more people staying at home, RPGs have a golden opportunity. But can they take advantage of it? We'll find out in 2021.

Your Turn: What do you think is going to happen to tabletop RPGs in the future?
As for length of play sessions, for my group it's really about all of us having day jobs and families. So we have a weekly online game which during the workweek limited to about 3 hours and very rare (4~6 times a year) in-person games on a weekend which can run to 10 hours. Back in high school/college we would game more like 8 hours every weekend, plus a 3-hour session during the week.
 


Retreater

Legend
I think the pandemic has shown me that it's better to have regularly scheduled games in shorter sessions. At this point, I'm gaming so much online that I don't expect to return to in person games. This can be good because I can curate my game with players I want to play with instead of whoever is local.
I expect this is a similar experience for others. So I think the future of the hobby is VTT.
 

Aldarc

Legend
@Aldarc had a good thread recently on "next-gen" RPG: here's the link.

I don't know if there was full consensus, but I think there was at least a widely-shared view that PbtA and FitD-influenced games will continue to be one site of cutting edge design.

I'm hoping to run a play test session of Orbital soon - a GMless sci-fi game in a PbtA style designed for single-session play.
Thanks for the plug. My thread, however, does deal more with the game design future and speculating based off recent trendsetters.

I do think, however, that the first bit of this article regarding shorter play sessions or campaign lengths is something that a number of recent games have considered, as quite a fair amount seem built for one-shots or ≤10 sessions of total play. The Cypher System has 6 character tiers. Shadow of the Demon Lord is designed for 10 adventures/sessions corresponding to 10 character levels. In a number of other level-based games, 10 levels seems to be the new norm rather than D&D's 20. A number of other games in that Next Gen thread don't exactly seem oriented towards long campaigns either. So I think that the market is cognizant of this trend.
 

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