Monday, 1 November 2010

Inhabiting the corpse of the RPG industry

Another random blurg, after the food blurg, a game blurg.

So, everyone's talking about the death of the rpg industry*. Or at least it's dwindling to stump.

Some random thoughts:

1. Thirty years ago, when I first threw polyhedral dice in anger, if I wanted to play a game about, say defeating a dragon, what were my options? Blocky ploygons on the atari 2600. Read a fantasy novel. Play a miniatures wargame, or a board game which would come in two flavours: moronically simple roll and moves or Avalon Hill titles with rules more complex than the average house purchase document. Even text adventures on home computers were a couple of years away, and then were essentially fantasy novels revealed through through working out puzzles.

D&D and it's clones were state of the art.

Now... well, World of Warcraft and Dragon Age are just the beginnings. Consoles and PC's offer immersive experiences with as much an illusion of freedom as you get in most table top games, without having to arrange time with half a dozen folks for a whole evening.

As goes return on time invested, RPG's are looking lousy. But so is writing, and acting, and crafting, and other hobbies that require more effort than finding a charged controller and the right disk. And they're still going strong. At least partly because people recognise that part of the reward comes from knowing you've made the effort to do something that takes effort.

These are activities that value the product of effort, rather than the experience of entertainment. Can RPG's do the same? Should they?

It's been over ten years since people first started talking about this, about gaming on purpose, on taking the activity seriously, as much as a garage band or amateur drama club would, to work on producing a worthwhile experience for the participants. Otherwise, why not just plug in the Xbox?

2. Paper fetishism.

What is a table top RPG? In a product sense, it's mostly books, a few dice. Even when sold as electronic media, RPG's are usually electronic stand ins for paper books. Often some of the best looking books you will see, and more often than not, these days, with indices and hyperlinks inside the text.

I want an electronic toolbox for playing a game. I want to be able to fire up a character creator from the get go, I want tools to manage the job ready to roll.

I want to be able to run a whole game from an iPad. Possibly a networked set of iPads No, I don't have an iPad, but keep the design philosophy in mind when thinking about...

An app for Universalis that takes free text input from multiple chat clients, allows tagging of text and busting it out to objects created on the fly while tracking tokens and dice pools.

An app for Inspectres that tracks the dice pools and rolls between all players, who's had a confessional, etc...

An app for Dogs in the Vineyard that contains the town builder, character builder and conflict trackers...

So far, I've mostly seen dice rollers, online mappers with some game functions embedded for D20 derivations, and character builders, mostly fan built, mostly... not great. And especially not great for games from the Forge diaspora.

But developing takes time. And costs money. And no-one yet knows if anyone will pay for for table top rpg's in this form. So it's not going to get done.

And those who are still publishing will be publishing like it's 1989.

3. And does it matter?

You can buy a new buggy whip, if you want to. Which means someone is still making money out of the proverbial thing that you can't make money out of any more.

The shops may be going, but the online outlets will stay. The conventions will shrink, but they'll keep going until the rising cost of travel will kill all such shindigs.

And, you know, rising fuel/electricity costs could get people to look again at local, social, low-electricity forms of recreation.

My boy wants to play table top RPG's. He wants to get his friends involved.

The industry is shrinking, if it was ever an industry at all. The hobby? It's barely out of the cradle.

*Mostly triggered by , who commonly suffers, along with many other intelligent commentators on RPG's, with people arguing with what the voices in their head tell them is being said rather than the actual words.


  1. My boys would like to do pen and paper RPGs, but I'm not so sure it's worth encouraging, because, like you say, the returns for time invested can be quite low.

    We managed to satisfy our Warhammer 40k needs by playing Rome Total War which is cheaper by far.

    We still see RPG books in the bookshops (which themselves are getting thinner on the ground) and maybe they would be more tempting if they came with 'code included'.

  2. Here's a recommend: : Ghostbusters meets the apprentice, no prep time required...