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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

Von Ether

Adventurer
This is the crux of D&D siren song of offering 20 levels and big numbers of XP, "You can spend years here in your setting," and I know some people have pulled it off.* But really I haven't personally seen a game go on for more than 2 years.

* And even then we've discovered that some GMs don't define a campaign as running players through the same game running from levels 1 to 20, but as using the same setting for all of their games. Their campaign aspects also include using previous game runs and their consequences to create a living history.

And while that's a perfectly fine way to manage your gaming, it muddies the water when talking about a long running games that go from 1 to 20.
 

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Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
This is the crux of D&D siren song of offering 20 levels and big numbers of XP, "You can spend years here in your setting," and I know some people have pulled it off.* But really I haven't personally seen a game go on for more than 2 years.

* And even then we've discovered that some GMs don't define a campaign as running players through the same game running from levels 1 to 20, but as using the same setting for all of their games. Their campaign aspects also include using previous game runs and their consequences to create a living history.

And while that's a perfectly fine way to manage your gaming, it muddies the water when talking about a long running games that go from 1 to 20.
Continuing to veer off topic. My current game (that's not based on an Adventure Path) I have plans to get my players to L20. That said, I've got the L17-20 adventure set already in my head; but have no idea how to get them from L5/6 where they are now to L17. Sort of winging it by the seat of my tookus at this point. Which is perfectly normal I suppose...
 

Von Ether

Adventurer
Continuing to veer off topic. My current game (that's not based on an Adventure Path) I have plans to get my players to L20. That said, I've got the L17-20 adventure set already in my head; but have no idea how to get them from L5/6 where they are now to L17. Sort of winging it by the seat of my tookus at this point. Which is perfectly normal I suppose...
Going back on topic a bit. One of my back in the day GMs did it by running long 6 hour sessions that included pot luck, but also by showering us with thousands - and then millions - of XP so that we went from Level 1 to 20 in one year with 1st ed AD&D .

I also played a phanton cleric.

So in my personal experience, shorter campaigns and non-Tolkien PC heritages has always been a thing.
 

Jeff Carlsen

Adventurer
With streaming and podcasts being an ever-growing part of the community, I think we'll see a trend toward games designed to play well to an audience. Streamlined rules, easy adjudication, flavorful key abilities, etc. Basically, rules that only show themselves on stream when they're doing something exciting. These are decent principles anyway, but it'll likely further drive high-crunch systems into obscurity, as they'll be played less on screen and thus have lower exposure.

Kickstarter and the abundance of creative people will mean that RPGs will continue to have more and fancier tactile elements. Coins, status markers, miniatures, initiative trackers, dice vaults, dice towers, dice, etc.

I've seen an explosion of RPG zines lately that are filled with wild creativity or clever design, some of which is likely to rub off on the larger industry.

I imagine that we're reaching saturation on massive adventures like WotC or Paizo have been publishing. I expect to see more demand, not just for smaller adventures, but for tools to help craft adventures. If not WotC, someone is likely to become the standard bearer for this market in the coming years.

But, all of these predictions are based on current trends. Something will probably some along that disrupts them, and I have no idea what that will be.
 

GrahamWills

Adventurer
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?
Not with you on this one. In fact, it's really only D&D v2-3 for which this seems the case. D&D4E was hugely complex, but that wasn't what caused a new edition to come out. 5E doesn't seem -- to me -- to be getting a lot more complexity.

Outside of D&D we see long-running lines like Call of Cthulhu that are essentially unchanged over many decades. It's certainly not getting new versions because the last version was too complex (if anything, the reverse!). Fate is another interesting case, with Fate Core essentially unchanged since release, but new version (Fate Accelerated and Fate Condensed) existing as options; there's no hint of "moving on" to them, and Fate Core has not collapsed under its weight -- there are just multiple options in terms of complexity.

Powered by the Apocalypse systems are an example of what I think the trend is nowadays. This is to have a simple core system with a strong differentiating principle, and then come out with variations on that for specific genres / properties / whatever. The old style (e..g GURPS, D&D) was to add rules to the core system and so allow the core system to grow to accommodate many play styles. The new style is to keep the core system minimal, and create separate projects for each genre you care about.

It's a somewhat subtle difference, but huge in impact. The old style is to assume that players will incorporate new books into their play and puts the burden on people to limit content. The new style is to assume that players will play a specific version of the system, and put the burden on them to merge in other content. As a specific example, when running D&D I have to think about every supplement and decide what to use. When running a Fate system, I can start without needing to know anything but the core book and only need to consider a supplement if there becomes a perceived need:
  • In my recent Deadlands Classic campaign, before starting the game, I had too read through 1 large core book, 1 campaign book and five other books (Texas rangers, locations, hucksters, Native Americans ...) for a pretty normal campaign
  • When running Night's Black Agents I started with exactly two books (the Gumshoe system modified for this genre, and the campaign book) and about 6 months later I added a Gumshoe magic supplement, and then some extra combat rules from Double Tap.
This seems a trend that fits with our hobby becoming less focused on hard-core "I want to spend all Saturday playing my crunchy game and all Sunday working out the optimal way to level to 12" players and more on the new players who don't want that level of commitment. Adding rules to an existing system makes it much harder to play casually. Once the trend to keeping systems fixed, and making money (which we need to do!) by selling additional material that is self-contained and/or does not need to work with any other such additional material.
 

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